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The first airplane flight across the Atlantic Ocean.

Byline: Albert B. Southwick

COLUMN: ALBERT B. SOUTHWICK

May 22, 1927, is a date I still remember. It was a hot, sunny day and we were planting corn on our farm in Leicester. Suddenly we heard a faint celebration commotion from the direction of Worcester - whistles, bells, etc. My older brother listened for a moment and then exclaimed "Lindbergh!" Lucky Lindy, flying alone, had made it from New York to Paris. And for years I believed that he had been the first man to fly a plane across the Atlantic.

In fact, if you were to ask at your next cocktail party, "Who was the first man to fly across the Atlantic" chances are that eight out of 10 of your guests would give the wrong answer. They would say "Lindbergh."

Some might say "Alcock and Brown." That comes closer, but isn't quite correct. The first to fly the Atlantic, from North America to Europe, was Lt. Cmdr. Albert Read and his crew of five on the Navy seaplane NC-4. They arrived in the Azores on May 27, 1919, after a harrowing flight from Newfoundland during which they encountered violent storms and disorientation and almost crashed several times.

Some definitions are in order:

Charles Lindbergh was the first to make a direct, nonstop flight from New York to Paris, and that was a heroic achievement and a milestone in aviation history.

British pilots John Alcock and Arthur Whitten-Brown made the first nonstop trans-Atlantic flight in 1919, a month after the NC-4 flight. They flew a Vickers-Vimy bomber of World War I vintage from Newfoundland to Ireland, where they crash-landed in a bog.

Albert Read's flight was not nonstop. He landed his seaplane several times on the trip and was guided by U.S. Navy ships stationed at strategic spots along the way. But he definitely was the first to fly across the big pond.

That flight was a major project of the U.S. Navy, which had just been through World War I and had seen the submarine warfare waged by the Germans against surface shipping. Navy officers envisaged the airplane as an effective weapon against subs, and almost as soon as the war had ended, made plans for a fleet of seaplanes that would be able to drop depth charges and bombs hundreds of miles from land. Radio communication had recently become reliable, and great improvements had been made in engines as well as navigation techniques. A demonstration of a flight across the Atlantic seemed like a good way to prove the point and enlist popular support. With the enthusiastic backing of Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, contracts were signed with Glenn Curtiss, an early pilot and flight enthusiast, for four large NC (Navy-Curtiss) seaplanes, the NC-1, the NC-2, the NC-3 and the NC-4. The plan was to fly all four across the ocean, but only the NC-4 made it all the way. (The NC-3 landed in the ocean 200 miles short of the Azores, and then taxied the rest of the way, but that didn't count.)

Those four giant seaplanes were state of the art at that time. They had three 650-horsepower Liberty engines and carried 1,800 gallons of fuel. They were assembled at the naval station at Rockaway, Long Island. Lt. Cmdrs. Mark Mitscher and Richard E. Byrd, both of whom later had distinguished careers, were two of the naval officers assigned to the project. (As I look at the pictures of those early sea biplanes, with their long hulls projecting far in front of the wings, I can see the outlines of what would become the famous PBY patrol plane of World War II. That is interesting to me because, 25 years later, as a naval aviator, I flew the PBY for many hours on anti-submarine patrol out of Jacksonville, Fla. Little did I know how much I owed to those early pioneers of naval flight.)

There were mishaps - fires, accidents, crashes, destructive storms, missed deadlines, etc. But on May 8, 1919, the NC-1, the NC-3 and the NC-4 (the NC-2 had been cannibalized for parts for the other three) lumbered into the sky from the naval air station at Rockaway and headed for St. John's, Newfoundland, on the first leg of their flight across the Atlantic. Despite having to land at sea after an engine threw a connecting rod, the NC-4 finally arrived at Trepassey station, Newfoundland, and had a brand new Liberty engine installed before the three planes took off for the Azores on May 16.

It was a nerve-wracking flight, much of it flown only 100 feet above the ocean and through violent North Atlantic storms. When the carburetors began to ice up, someone had to crawl out on the wings and break the ice off by hand.

"Rising above the fog they would find themselves in clouds so thick they couldn't see their wingtips ... turbulent air would shake the wallowing, plunging plane and, with the primitive instruments of the time, it was difficult to tell which end was up. Rain, driving into the pilots' faces, induced drowsiness," according to later reports. Under those conditions, the NC-1 pilots tried to land in the turbulent ocean, but hit an enormous swell that broke the plane in half. The crew was rescued by a Greek freighter. The NC-3 was also forced to land 200 miles short of the Azores. Spurning a rescue attempt, the pilot elected to taxi the rest of the way.

That left the NC-4, piloted by Lt. Cmdr. Read. On May 27, he peered down through a hole in the clouds and saw land. A few minutes later they were safe in the harbor at Horta in the Azores. They had been in transit for 19 days since they left Rockaway. They were the first to fly the Atlantic, although not nonstop. Alcock and Brown, in their Vimy biplane, were the first to accomplish that a few weeks later.

When Charles Lindbergh landed in Paris eight years later, he said that "Alcock and Brown showed me the way." He also paid tribute to the NC-4 and her crew. So why isn't Albert Read better remembered? One theory is that he was not competing for prize money. Alcock and Brown won the prize of 10,000 pounds put up by the Daily Mail. Charles Lindbergh won the $25,000 Orteig Prize. The U.S. Navy refused to even apply for any prizes.

But, prize or not, Albert Read will always be a hero to me and to the countless others who flew patrol planes in World War II. We know what those intrepid pioneers accomplished.

Albert B. Southwick's column appears regularly in the Sunday Telegram.
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Title Annotation:INSIGHT
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Sep 30, 2007
Words:1116
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