2004-05-07 / Community

FDR Played Large Part In NC-4 Story, Visited Rockaway

By Howard Schwach

FDR Played Large Part In NC-4 Story, Visited Rockaway


Franklin D. Roosevelt, fourth from right, came to Rockaway to look at the NC planes and wound up taking a fifteen minute ride, probably the first man who was to become president to fly in a plane.Franklin D. Roosevelt, fourth from right, came to Rockaway to look at the NC planes and wound up taking a fifteen minute ride, probably the first man who was to become president to fly in a plane.

By Howard Schwach

Most people remember Franklin D. Roosevelt as the president who brought us through the Great Depression and World War II. He is considered by many to be one of our greatest presidents.

Few know, however, that FDR played a large part in Rockaway’s history through the NC-4 project and even visited Rockaway for a short hop when he was the Undersecretary of the Navy.

The story starts with Commander John Towers, USN, one of the Navy’s first pilots. Towers was convinced that the NC planes, so designated because they were Navy planes built by Curtiss Aviation, could easily make the first transatlantic flights.

Built for anti-submarine patrol off the U.S. coast during World War I, Towers was convinced that the huge seaplanes could do the job.

Towers was in Washington, D.C. after the war had ended visiting old friends. He walked into Roosevelt’s office.

At the time, Roosevelt was an Undersecretary of the Navy. Towers pointed out that the NC-1, the first of the series to be built, was already sitting at Naval Air Station, Rockaway, waiting for something to do.

Roosevelt liked Towers and liked the idea. For the next month, he pushed Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels to give the project a go-ahead and to push for the completion of the three other NC’s that were already built but not yet assembled.

Daniels handed over the plan to an aviation expert for study. That expert decided that the planes, at 28,000 pounds fully loaded, could not be expected to make a non-stop flight. He recommended two routes. One would take the NC’s from Rockaway to South America and then to Africa before touching on Europe.

The other route would take the NC’s from Rockaway to Newfoundland to the Azores and then to Portugal before a hop to England. That route was finally chosen for the flight.

Towers believed that the best navigator in the Navy was a man named Putty Read. He talked Read into "taking an NC to Europe."

Read arrived at Rockaway on Friday, April 25, to take command of NC-4, a plane that had come off the assembly line only a week before.

On April 14, however, a week prior to Read’s arrival, there was a more important visitor.

FDR’s visit to Rockaway is chronicled in "The First Transatlantic Flight, 1919," by Hy Steirman and Glenn D, Kittler (Drum Books, 1986).

"Secretary Daniels was in Europe with President Woodrow Wilson, which was all to the good. Among the top Navy officials, it was Roosevelt who did most to bring the NC’s close to their moment of departure. During the last months of preparation, Roosevelt had discovered that Jim Breese, his boyhood friend, was going on the trip, and he offered" ‘Jim, if there is anything I can do to hurry things up, let me know’

"At Rockaway, Roosevelt was as excited as a schoolboy. ‘I want to go for a ride,’ he told Daniels.

"Towers looked at the sky. ‘It looks pretty rough up there.’ ‘I wouldn’t mind’ [Roosevelt answered], I want to go up.’

"He went up in the NC-3, piloted by Richardson and McCulloch, sitting in a special chair installed for him directly behind the flyers. The flight lasted just fifteen minutes, and it was a rough and bumpy trip. Towers worried about Roosevelt, but when Roosevelt came ashore again he was only slightly pale and all smiles.

"She’s wonderful, Jack, You’ll have a wonderful trip and I wish I could go with you."

After takeoff, on the first leg of the flight, the NC’s received a message.

"Delighted with successful start," the message said. "Good luck all the way." It was signed simply "Roosevelt."

While many history books say that Roosevelt was the first president to fly, they also say that the flight was on a commercial airliner, not mentioning the NC-4. There is plenty of documentation, however, that the first flight ever made by a person who would become president started and ended in Rockaway.


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