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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
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.
The NC-3’ s soaked and tired men were not the only transatlantic fliers in the sea on Sunday the eighteenth. The news of the NC-4’ s arrival in the Azores on Saturday, radioed to Newfoundland, stirred the British to action. They still believed they were in a race, and if they got into the air at once they might make it to Ireland before the Americans finished their two-stage flights. In mid-afternoon, Hawker and Mackenzie-Grieve bumped over their uneven runway and took wing. They flew through the night and covered more than half the distance to Europe, but a faulty radiator allowed their engine to overheat badly. Finally it failed over the eastern Atlantic. Hawker, long forewarned, was able to ditch the plane in a main shipping lane and clamber with his navigator into a small boat attached to the fuselage. After a short time a Danish freighter rescued them, but as it had no radio they were presumed lost until they reached a British port a week later.
Two hours after Hawker’s take-off, Raynham and Morgan tried to lift their fuel-heavy plane from the ground. There is a point in such a flight when engine and overburdened wings strain to the limit, and the plane is neither securely footed on land nor yet a bird, but a gawky, hopping, vulnerable creature rejected by land and air alike. At that critical moment a gust slammed the Raymor brutally to the ground, shattering its undercarriage and instrument panel. Raynham was shaken up, and Morgan’s eye severely injured by glass fragments. So in less than thirty-six hours, between Friday evening and Sunday morning, five planes had attempted the Atlantic passage: one had crashed on take-off, and three, so far as the world knew, had disappeared into the sea.
But by Sunday evening the news was out that the NC-1 crew had been saved. And on Monday, while the world still mourned Hawker and Mackenzie-Grieve, the sea gave up more of its supposed victims. Just outside the harbor of Ponta Delgada, the U.S.S. Harding came upon a bedraggled, broken-backed, droop-winged caricature of a one-time flying boat making for port on two slowly ticking engines. Proudly, Towers and his men answered the destroyer’s hail and disdained an offer to be taken aboard. They had drifted and taxied 205 miles in some fifty-two hours, and they meant to finish in proper naval style, under their own power. Launches were lowered and took positions, at Towers’ shouted orders, under the wings. Then, teetering first one way and then another, like a groggy drunkard being held up by small boys, the NC-3 finished its crossing.
The next day, the ATC-4 flew in from Fayal. By naval protocol, a fleet commander who loses his ship transfers his flag to another, and Read fully expected to hand over his plane to Towers. But on orders from Washington, naval tradition yielded to public relations. An elated America was making Read a hero, and the Navy would blacken its own eye if, on a technicality, it deprived a hero of the chance to score the winning touchdown, inherit the fortune, and marry the beautiful girl. Towers was to go home by ship; Read, would fly the rest of the way. Towers, who deserved better, swallowed the bitter dose, and Read, who fully understood, suffered in mute embarrassment during a period of nearly a week when bad weather kept the two men in each other’s company in Ponta Delgada.
At last, on the morning of May 27, the NC-4 flew eastward once more—almost one hundred years to the day, as the New York Times noted, after the American ship Savannah had begun the first steam-powered Atlantic passage. The Savannah waddled across in twenty-nine days, using paddle wheels to help her sails on only a few of them. The NC-4 had flown some fifteen hours to reach the Azores, and took a mere nine and a half more to finish the journey that had been two years in preparation.