2004-05-07 / Columnists

It Happened In Rockaway

By Stephen S. Yaeger

It Happened In Rockaway

By Stephen S. Yaeger

As the sun rose on the morning of Thursday, 8 May 1919 a slight haze curtained the mud flats and grasslands of what is now Kennedy International Airport. Across Jamaica Bay, on the barrier beach known as Rockaway, LI, personnel of the US Naval Air Station, located on a site now known as Riis Park, were already up and active. Among the personnel eighteen officers and men of the US Navy were carefully checking their aircraft: three flying boats designated as NC-1, NC-3 and NC-4 (called ‘Nancys’). As the sun climbed higher into the sky the brightly painted yellow wings contrasted with the gray-painted hulls of the aircraft as they reflected the sun’s rays. At the same time the blimp C-4 was rolled out of its hangar and shortly lifted off for a flight to New Haven to drop leaflets notifying the public of the sale of Liberty Bonds for the then current "Victory Loan" campaign.

After carefully checking out the three flying boats, they were maneuvered onto their respective marine railways and positioned at the water’s edge. Their engines were started and allowed to warm up prior to the arrival of their crews who were preparing for flight. Watching this activity were some 500 spectators including high-ranking Naval and civilian personnel. At 0950 hours the crews boarded their aircraft and the NC flying boats slid off their marine railways into the calm waters of Jamaica Bay. The Nancys lined up in v-formation and slowly taxied away from shore with the NC-3 in the lead. Upon reaching middle water the flying boats’ engines were revved up and they raced across the water immersed in great clouds of spray while the crowd cheered them on.

At 1000 hours the NC-2 lifted off followed by the NC-4 two minutes later, and the NC-1 at 1009 hours. At 2000 feet they again assumed a v-formation pointing eastward toward Montauk Point, LI. After two years of discussion, proposals, design revisions, accidents, and international competition, aviation history was about to be made. The crews, naval personnel and civilians involved in the flight of the three NCs were to experience suspense, mystery, and adventure making the more famous 1927 Lindbergh flight look boring.

This first transatlantic flight involved many dedicated men who had to overcome the laws of physics, aerodynamics, and radio transmission among other challenges. From the moment the idea was proposed by Navy Lt. John H. Towers to cross the Atlantic to the final landing of the NC-4 in Lisbon, Portugal, a number of men, to be remembered for their historical importance in the then future, played major roles in the NC-4 saga: Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Rockaway and was treated to a flight in the NC-2. Lifting off from Jamaica Bay’s waters the NC-2 flew out to the Narrows, then up NY Harbor, turning over Brooklyn and back to Rockaway. It was a 15-minute flight. Franklin D. Roosevelt served as president from 1932 until his death in 1945; Lt. Richard E. Byrd, out of the Naval Academy for some seven years and a fledgling aviator himself, was asked to look into aerial navigation, an unknown field at the time. Byrd went on to fame with the aerial exploration of the Arctic and Antarctic; Cmdr. William F. Halsey, Jr. commanded the "Yarnell," one of eighteen destroyers stationed along the Atlantic as navigation beacons for the NCs. He went on to fame as Admiral "Bull" Halsey in the Pacific Theatre of War during WWII; and, of course, without the genius of Glenn Curtiss, who became a renowned builder of airplanes, the NCs would never have been developed.

Actually, Rockaway is noted for two historical ‘firsts.’ The NC-4 of course made world history and allowed for transatlantic flight for everyone. But the NC-1 also made history. In November 1918 a converted Handley Page V/1500 bomber left the ground at Cricklewood, England with forty-one persons aboard setting a world record for an aircraft carrying passengers. The men at the US Naval Air Station, Rockaway immediately took up this incident as a challenge and on 26 November forty-six men were carefully crammed into the hull of the NC-1, but the aircraft could not handle the gross weight of 23,578 pounds. The next day the NC-1’s fuel was reduced to ninety-one gallons and forty-eight men, being carefully weighed one at a time, then took their place in the hull. The plane lifted off Jamaica Bay’s water and flew for some 1,000 yards at an altitude of fifty feet claiming the word’s record. But there was a bonus—a stow-away was discovered making a total of forty-nine passengers and counting the two pilots the plane actually carried fifty-one persons!

And, it all happened in Rockaway!

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