In 1919, a Curtiss NC seaplane was the first aircraft to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, but somehow its achievement is almost never discussed. The ability of the Curtiss NC seaplane to cross the Atlantic is due to advances in aviation before World War I. In January 1912, American aviation pioneer Glen Curtiss flew his first hulled “hydro-plane”, catching the attention of John Cyril Porte, a retired British naval officer.
Porte was looking for a partner to help them win a £10,000 prize donated by the Daily Mail to the first team to fly a plane from North America to the British Isles. In 1914, Curtiss and Porte built a large seaplane powered by two engines and two pusher propellers. Their dream was to use the plane to cross the Atlantic and claim the Daily Mail prize. Unfortunately, their ambitions were derailed on August 4, 1914, when Britain declared war on Germany for violating Belgian neutrality.
Porte modified Curtiss aircraft
Now back in the British Navy, Porte helped convince the Royal Naval Air Service to commission the Curtiss Company to build seaplanes that they could use for anti-submarine patrols. When planes arrived, Porte developed them, adding more powerful engines and better hulls. Now calling the seaplanes Felixstowe, he shared design improvements with Curtiss to build them under license for the United States Navy.
This collaboration resulted in four identical aircraft, the NC-1, NC-2, NC-3 and NC-4, built by the Curtiss Airplane and Motor Company for the United States Navy. The NC designation is derived from the collaborative efforts of the Navy (N) and Curtiss (C). The last aircraft to be built, the NC-4, made its first test flight on April 30, 1919. Wanting to show off the aircraft’s capabilities, seaplane officers persuaded the Navy to allow them to fly planes across the Atlantic.
Supported by ships along the route, the Navy’s first transatlantic flight took off from New York’s Naval Air Station Rockaway on May 8, 1919. To ensure that NC-4 would complete the trip, it was accompanied by NC-1 and NC-3. The NC-2 had been dismantled to provide spare parts for the NC-4 if needed. The plane’s first stop was Chatham Naval Air Station, Massachusetts, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, before flying to Trepassey, Newfoundland. In the event of an emergency or the need for rescue, the navy stationed eight warships along the route. The former minelayer USS Aroostook was waiting with food and fuel for Airmen and their crews in Newfoundland.
Newfoundland to the Azores was the longest leg
On May 16, the three aircraft took off from Trepassey heading for the Azores with 22 other Navy ships spaced along the flight path. Brilliantly illuminated at night, the ships hoped to help guide planes. Despite the Navy’s best efforts, heavy fog descended over the ocean, forcing the NC-1s and NC-3s to land in open water. The crew of NC-1 were rescued by a Greek freighter while NC-3 taxied the aircraft until it reached one of the Navy ships sent to assist.
After flying all night and most of the following day, the NC-4 arrived in the town of Horta on the island of Faial. While in Horta, the crew spent three days resting before taking off for Lisbon. Unfortunately, after only flying a short distance, the plane suffered mechanical problems and had to land in Ponta Delgada. Needing spare parts and time to work on the aircraft, the NC-4 took off again on 27 May.
Like the other legs of the voyage, US Navy ships spaced out along the route. The NC-4 encountered no further problems landing in the port of Lisbon nine hours and 43 minutes after leaving the Azores. After becoming the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic, the NC-4 stayed in Lisbon, then departed for Plymouth, England, arriving in Plymouth on May 31, 1919.
Two weeks later, the record flight of the NC-4 was forgotten
Despite this feat, the NC-4’s feat was eclipsed two weeks later when British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown flew non-stop from Newfoundland to Ireland. Alcock and Brown consequently won the £10,000 prize as the rules stated that the trip had to be completed within 72 hours. Being United States Navy aircraft, the NCs never entered the competition as it was not expected to complete the crossing in 72 hours.
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