First To Fly The Atlantic


At Lisbon, twilight was deepening when the NC-4 came down through a purple sky to land on a harbor streaked with the silver reflections of ships’ lights. Almost before the hull swished into the water, a launch from the cruiser Rochester was on the way to pick up the six grinning crewmen. They came up the gangplank as the ship’s band played “The StarSpangled Banner,” and the Tagus River resounded with the boom of saluting guns and the ringing of Lisbon’s steeple bells. Thomas H. Birch, American minister to Portugal, stepped forward from a lineup of uniformed and dress-coated Portuguese officials to shake the fliers’ hands. Portugal’s minister of marine pinned on each flying suit the Grand Cross of the Order of the Tower and Sword. There was cheering and champagne; essentially, the flight was over and the Atlantic conquered, though on the thirtieth the plane left for Plymouth, England, so it could end its trip at the site of the Pilgrims’ departure from England in 1620. Perversely, the NC-4 developed its first mechanical flaw—radiator trouble—since Cape Cod, and had to lie overnight at Ferrol, Spain. But on the first day of June, it was all done.

The accomplishment was superb. Though two planes were downed no lives went with them, and the fault was partly in the judgment of their captains, who had landed in bad weather to take old-fashioned sea-level bearings. Read and his crew, on the other hand, had simply fulfilled their contract with engineering. They had faithfully used the equipment as planned, and it had functioned admirably. Reporters noted a certain calmness, almost indifference, among the NC-4 ‘ s crew. “We hardly realized that we were doing anything extraordinary,” said radio officer Rodd, while Read himself declared the trip “uneventful.” Except for the fog, “everything went off as we planned.” The stance was not merely the expected modesty for the newspapers; it was realistic. The fliers had simply recognized the proper relationship between man, equipment, and technique. They had been so unspectacular, in fact, that their achievement fell into near obscurity. Fifty years later many Americans are still under the impression that Charles A. Lindbergh’s New York-to-Paris hop was the first transatlantic flight. But that honor belongs to the United States Navy and the NC-4 .