Years before Lindbergh, NC-4 'Lame Duck' made transatlantic history
By DOUG FRASER | Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass. | Published: May 13, 2019
CHATHAM, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — One hundred years ago, in the early morning hours of May 9, 1919, a watchstander at the Orleans Lifesaving Station saw something he'd never seen before.
Perched high on a hill on Little Pochet Island, he had a commanding view of the Atlantic Ocean beyond the barrier beach. Approaching land from where it had ditched in the ocean 80 miles offshore, was a strange craft. Looking more like a wooden shoe carrying a recumbent oil derrick, a huge seaplane, a relatively new development in aviation, passed by, two of its four engines roaring as the seaplane taxied into the U.S. Naval Air Station in Chatham.
What the watchstander was witnessing was the equivalent of the first moon landing — as if the Saturn V rocket that hurled the Apollo 11 spacecraft into history had hiccupped, and was forced to return to earth for a second try. At the time, the press dubbed the seaplane — known as an NC-4 — the "Lame Duck," but the plane was repaired in Chatham and went on to make the first trans-Atlantic flight, eight years before Lindbergh's famous crossing, the first flight across any of the world's oceans.
On Tuesday, at 8:45 a.m., in a ceremony at the site of the former Naval Air Station Chatham at the end of Strong Island, members of the U.S. Coast Guard and their guests will mark the historic departure of the NC-4 on May 14, 1919 from Chatham with Lt. Elmer Stone, a Coast Guard pilot, flying what was actually a Navy plane.
"The Navy put a lot of money into it," said retired Coast Guard Capt. Greg Ketchen, the president of the Coast Guard Heritage Museum in Barnstable. While three other British teams were competing for a $50,000 prize offered by the London Daily Mail for the first nonstop crossing, the Navy was more interested in being able to fly combat aircraft to Europe, instead of the painstaking process of disassembling them and transporting them by ship. Unlike the British specialty aircraft, the NC-4 and its sister seaplanes were built to be submarine chasers with machine gun mounts fore and aft.
Even so, the drive to be first was still a motivator. The challenges of navigating across the featureless Atlantic were formidable, and distance tested the fuel limitations of the planes of the time.
He may be lost in the brambles of history, but Coast Guard Lt. Stone was also a pioneer. Described in his biography at the Coast Guard Historian's Office as "pop-eyed, bushy-haired, stub-nosed, careless of dress but alert as a terrier; a man who cared little for form, but much for the matter," Stone was in on the start of the Coast Guard, working his way up the ladder from engineer officer on Revenue Cutter Service vessels to one of two selected for Navy aviation training in 1916, a year after the Revenue Service was combined with the Life Saving Service to become the Coast Guard.
Stone went on to invent a gunpowder-charged catapult to launch planes from aircraft carriers and was one of the founders of Coast Guard aviation.
But in 1919, he only had a couple of years of flying under his belt when he was tapped to pilot the NC-4 because of his experience landing seaplanes. On May 8, the NC-4 left from Naval Air Station Rockaway in Queens, New York, with two identical sister seaplanes, the NC-3 and NC-1. Delayed for nearly a week in Chatham for repairs and bad weather, it caught up with the other two planes in Newfoundland on May 15. They left together in the late afternoon of May 16 for the big leg, 1,200 miles to the Azores, and then the completion of the historic flight with a landing in Portugal.
One of the largest aircraft of its day, the NC seaplanes — N stood for Navy and C for Curtiss, as in Glenn Curtiss, an early pioneer of seaplane technology — had a wingspan of 126 feet, surpassing that of a Boeing 737, and had just set a record by carrying 51 people on one flight.
It wasn't pretty, but was considered a technological marvel of its day and its construction led to many breakthrough technologies and techniques in airplane manufacture, according to a paper by Eric Silberg and David Haas of the Naval Surface Warfare Center.
The hull had to be able to withstand landing and taking off in rough seas, yet be as light as possible for flight. Made from cedar, ash, and spruce, it weighed just 2,800 pounds with six watertight compartments, carrying a crew of six and nine 200-gallon fuel tanks.
The hull was so strong and seaworthy that it not only survived a landing in 15-foot seas that damaged the wings of the NC-3, but was able to taxi for days hundreds of miles to the Azores despite gale force winds and 30-foot seas.
One major innovation was shopping various components out to subcontractors, much like NASA did for its rockets and space capsules, for manufacture and testing before assembling. The famed Rhode Island yacht builder L. Francis Herreshoff built the NC-4 fuselage; a Boston racing yacht company made the gridwork and wires that supported the tail; a New Jersey jeweler fashioned the metal fittings; and an automobile coach builder constructed the huge wood and fabric wings.
It had an innovative fuel delivery system: the airflow from two propellers powered pumps that drew fuel from the 200-gallon tanks in the fuselage up into a 90-gallon tank in the upper wing that gravity then fed to the four engines.
But engines of this time period were finicky and all too often quit in mid-flight. The NC seaplanes' engineers were wing walkers who wore a safety harness, and trod an open-air walkway on top of the fuselage to service the engines while flying thousands of feet above the water.
On that New York to Halifax leg in 1919, the NC-4's two engines that helped pump the fuel died. Landing at sea in the afternoon of May 8, the plane taxied the next morning to the newly constructed naval air station in Chatham with the crew hand pumping the fuel to the remaining two engines.
In 1969, speaking at a 50-year anniversary ceremony at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, Navy Adm. Thomas Connolly, himself a distinguished aviator, marveled at the daring of these early aviators piloting a plane that was "so large, yet so primitive, so uncomfortable and so lacking in instruments and equipment."
The seaplanes were equipped with all the latest navigational tools, altimeters, airspeed gauges, bank and slip indicators that showed the planes orientation to line of direction. But for location, they had to rely on that most ancient of seafaring tools, the sextant. With a range of less than 1,500 miles, there wasn't much of a margin of error when crossing the trackless and featureless Atlantic, and a sextant was useless in fog, at night, or in bad weather.
So, the Navy strung a line of 22 destroyers, spaced about 50 miles apart, along the route to the Azores. As the planes progressed they were in radio contact, using both short range and long range, up to 300 miles, radio technology. During the day the vessels sent up smoke and at night or in low visibility they fired off starburst shells and used searchlights to help guide the planes on their way.
These were open air cockpits and Navy Lt. Cmdr. Albert Read stood in the nose of the NC-4 fuselage for the 15-hour flight, taking readings with his sextant when he could, returning to a small desk below to make calculations. But all three planes would eventually get lost in a thick fog. NC-1 and NC-3 landed in heavy seas to try and get an idea of where they were. The crew of NC-1 could not take off again but had to be rescued by a passing freighter. The wings of the NC-3 were damaged during the landing but it was able to motor to the islands.
After 15 hours in the air, the crew of the NC-4 spotted the green of the western Azorean island Flores, and landed soon after at Faial Island. Bad weather kept them there for three days before the crew flew the seaplane to Lisbon, Portugal, guided by another string of destroyers. On May 27, 1919, they completed the first trans-Atlantic flight, 19 days after they'd started. They were received by crowds of thousands in Lisbon and when they subsequently flew to Plymouth, England.
"A barrier was shattered forever. Imagination and determination had triumphed over the trackless ocean," John H. Chafee, Secretary of the Navy, said in 1969 speaking at the Smithsonian's 50th anniversary celebration.
But the fame was short-lived. On June 15, 1919, two British aviators crash-landed in Galway, Ireland, completing the first nonstop Atlantic crossing, 1,890 miles from Newfoundland.
Built in 1916-17, little now remains of the naval air station on Strong Island, the Cape's connection to aviation history. Within three years it had closed, and by 1930 was erased from charts. There is a plaque set into a stone. A large waterfront home occupies the site where large hangars once stood, housing the seaplanes and blimps that patrolled the American coastline looking for German subs.
History has likewise closed doors on the flight of the NC-4.
"It was a big event at the time," said Ketchen. While it was celebrated in the papers, the aviators received medals and promotions and crowds of thousands celebrated their feat, it was overshadowed in history by the end of World War I, the subsequent British flight, and ultimately Lindbergh's historic crossing.
"This would have been done one way or another but fortunately for us, from a history perspective, it was the Americans that were the first to fly across," said Ketchen.
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