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First To Fly The Atlantic
The commander of the NC-4 called the trip “uneventful,” but the men in the other planes of the mission could not quite agree
June 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 4
But morning found them in trouble. Fog closed in; they lost contact and flew on through opaque solitude, each plane trusting to its navigator to keep it on course. The NC-1 and NC-3 soon believed themselves lost. Their radio-compass equipment was not picking up signals, and they rushed on in a wet, milky infinity which yielded no sight of sun or sea. Towers and Bellinger independently reached the same solution to the problem. If they were off their planned track, they could miss the islands altogether. Then they would fly on until their tanks were sucked dry and they had to land, without power, perhaps two or three hundred miles from the chain of ships, helpless to do anything but wait in the face of storms and possible injuries. Better to use their capacity for water landings, and sit down until the weather cleared enough for observations and a position fix.
Sometime Saturday morning, each plane dropped through the murk toward what appeared to be gently heaving ocean. But waves iron out deceptively when viewed from a height, and stiff winds were actually churning the surface into thirty-foot crests. The NC-1 smashed hard into one of them. No one was hurt, but the shock buckled the struts supporting her center engines. From that moment she could no longer fly. The NC-3 touched down safely, but could not take off again in the state of the weather. Great waves began to smash at her wings, snap their ribs, soak and loosen their fabric, and turn them into dead weights on the bobbing hull. Towers and Bellinger had stepped into a trap.
Ironically, neither plane was far off the target. The NC-1 was about an hour’s flight west of the Azores island of Flores, while Towers was somewhat to the south. Both crews huddled in the rocking, groaning boats, listened to radio messages which they could not answer, and fought to keep their derelict craft upright.
Read, meanwhile, was having a flight of almost boring uneventfulness. He, too, was fog-muffled, but he caught sight of Destroyer 17 through a rift, thus confirming his position. Sometime later, however, it became clear that he had missed several other destroyers. Then he saw land—the steep, terraced hills of the island of Fayal. He made a quick decision: he was close to the sheltered and adequate harbor of Fayal, already designated an alternate landing site, with an American ship, the Columbia , waiting. Fully aware of the governing strategy of the flight—“the safest and sanest way“—Read took no chances on pushing on to Ponta Delgada. At about 1:20 G.M.T., some fifteen hours after lift-off, pilots Stone and Hinton set the NC-4 gently down in a bay that they took for the Columbia’s anchorage. They found it empty, realized their mistake, then flew around a headland and saw the harbor and the Columbia . Sirens wailed in rising ecstasy, sailors in dress white lined both sides of the gangway, and salutes boomed as the rumpled aviators were brought alongside in small boats. It was a time for celebration, but the ATC-4 had so far flown only sixty per cent of the way. It was still eight hundred nautical miles to Lisbon. Yet from the time of Columbus the Azores had been regarded as Europe’s front yard. The NC-4 had risen from North American waters and was now safely in a port Portuguese beyond dispute. The headlines that stretched the width of Sunday’s front pages treated the flight as a victory already complete.
It was a costly victory. Two thirds of the expedition was shipwrecked, after all, and while Read’s crew was cleaning up aboard the Columbia , the men of the NC-1 and NC-3 were battling for life. At 6 P.M. that Saturday, the wings of the NC-i were spotted between wave crests by a lookout on a Greek freighter, the Ionis. The fliers were taken aboard; later a destroyer joined the rescue party and a futile effort was made to tow the airplane to Fayal. The remorseless hammering of the ocean continued to break her up, and finally she had to be cut loose and left to sink.
Meanwhile, the five men on the NC-3 were drifting westward and were doing all they could to avoid capsizing. Drenched, chilled, wincing at the drum of spray on hull and wings, the crew munched stale, wet sandwiches and salty chocolate bars, and drank water drained from the radiators while they listened for the snapping and tearing sounds of catastrophe. They drifted through the night, and on Sunday morning saw land to the north, the Azores island of Pico. They could not taxi toward it without the risk of swamping, and Towers elected instead to continue the drift, which he estimated would bring them to Sâo Miguel in another day. But drifting was a risky course also, since every hour increased the sea’s inexorable chewing and crunching of the plane. A float under the right wingtip broke away, forcing the men to take turns crawling out in wind and wave to the opposite tip to swing the damaged one up out of the water, seesaw fashion. Part of the tail came off. The wing surfaces were slowly shredded by the fliers themselves as they cut through the tough cloth to drain heavy pools of water.