This column first appeared in The Wave on June 27, 2003.
The headline in the New York Times on June 1, 1919 said it all.
"NC-4 Finishes New York-Plymouth Flight; Drives Straight Through Fog To Her Goal; She Made 3,925 Miles in 57 ¼ Flying Hours."
The headline ballyhooed the fact that the crew aboard an American Navy seaplane had become the first men to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.
I know what you are going to say, that Charles Lindbergh was the first to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, and he did it in 1927.
Well, Charles Lindbergh was the first to make the trip solo and non-stop, but Albert Cushing Read and his crew were the first to fly the transatlantic route and they did it by flying from Jamaica Bay off the Rockaway shore.
Even Lindbergh was impressed by the flight of Read and his crew.
In 1927, after landing in Paris, Lindbergh, speaking of the earlier flight, told reporters, "When I stop to think about it logically, I know that I had a better chance of reaching Europe in the Spirit of St. Louis than the NC boats had of reaching the Azores. I had a more reliable type of engine, improved instruments and a continent instead of an island for a target. It was skill, determination and a hard-working, loyal crew that carried Read through to the completion of the first transatlantic flight."
Hy Steirman and Glenn D. Kittler, in their 1986 book, "The First Transatlantic Flight, 1919," wrote of the day that the four NC flying boats took off.
"Shortly after seven o’clock on the Thursday morning of May 8, weather reports began to arrive at the Rockaway Station... the gale which had kept the three huge planes landlocked for almost a week had moved out of the way. By eight o’clock, airmen had rolled two of the big planes out of the hanger to join the third that had spent the night on the beach… Without pausing, the three planes taxied into the deeper water of Jamaica Bay, turned westward into the wind and took off… The crowd on the beach was strangely quiet. There had been no shouts as the planes took off, no cheers as they passed overhead."
The route of the planes took them from Rockaway to Halifax, Nova Scotia and then to St. John’s, Newfoundland. From there, the planes flew across the Atlantic Ocean to The Azores and then to Lisbon, Portugal and, finally, to Portsmouth, England.
Only the NC-4, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Read, who had become an aviator in 1915, finally flew the entire route. Read, a 1906 graduate of the Naval Academy at Annapolis expected that he would spend his years in the Navy on a battlewagon. Instead, he joined the new aviation branch of the service. In fact, Read had the designation as Naval Aviator Number 24.
On the plane with Read were Lieutenant Stone, Lieutenant Hinton, Ensign Rodd, Chief Mechanist Howard and Lieutenant Breese.
Plagued by bad weather and mechanical failures, each of three planes was forced down into stormy seas. At times, major repairs had to be made while the planes were floating on those rough seas.
"Putty" Read and his crew became the first men to fly the Atlantic, however.
One of the interesting stories that tie the NC-4 and Rockaway together historically is the fact that Franklin D. Roosevelt, then the Assistant Secretary of the Navy and later, President of the United States, came to visit Rockaway to inspect the NC aircraft.
Steirman and Kittler write, "… On April 14, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled to Rockaway to inspect the NC’s personally. Secretary Daniels was in Europe with President Wilson, which was all to the good. Among the top Navy civilians, it was Roosevelt who did the most to bring the NC’s close to their moment of departure."
Roosevelt asked if the aviators needed anything, and the answer was money.
"I have the authority to approve purchase orders of up to one thousand dollars," Roosevelt told them. "When you need more than that, just ask me."
Roosevelt told Commander Jack Towers, the leader of the flight, that he wanted to go up for a ride.
"It’s pretty rough up there," Towers said.
""I won’t mind, I want to go up," Roosevelt reportedly answered.
Roosevelt went up in the NC-3, sitting in a special chair installed for him directly behind the pilots.
The flight lasted for fifteen minutes, and it was reportedly a "rough and bumpy trip."
When Roosevelt got out of the plane, he reportedly said, "She’s wonderful, Jack. You’ll have a glorious trip. I wish I was going with you."
Years later, when Roosevelt flew in the first version of "Air Force One," although I was not called that at the time, it was reported that it was Roosevelt’s first flight and that he was the first president to fly.
It obviously was not Roosevelt’s first flight.
On the weekend of May 6-8, 1986, Rockaway held a celebration of the flight of the NC-4, with a memorial ceremony at Beach Channel High School, nearby where the planes took off. As part of the celebration, two WW II era PBY Flying Boats landed and were put on display. On May 8, those two aircraft took off to replicate the flight of the NC-4. Few attended the ceremony and few know that a major international historic event was also part of Rockaway’s history.