2005-09-23 / Columnists

Drawing On Science

by Stephen Yaeger

This past July I attended the Americover 2005 Annual Convention and Exhibition in Vienna, Virginia. This is a gathering of cachet makers and dealers in First Day Covers. For the uninformed, a First Day Cover is an envelope bearing a newly issued stamp (First Day Issue), which usually bears a cachet or image printed or drawn on the envelope. I was quite surprised when one of the cachet makers complimented me on my own cachets.

The U.S. Postal Service was represented and was hand-canceling the First Day of Issue (July 29, 2005) stamps celebrating American Advances in Aviation. I thought maybe one of the stamps represented the NC-4, so I walked over to where the cancellations were taking place. There were ten stamps, each one representing a specific airplane: The Grumman F6F Hellcat, P-80 Shooting Star, B-24 Liberator, and the PBY Catalina among others. No NC-4 stamp! No surprise! Then I remembered hearing of an NC-4 cover being issued in the past and I thought that this convention of cachet makers and dealers would be a great place to inquire about my stamp(s) or FDC’s commemorating the first Transatlantic Flight out of Rockaway. I knew that the cover would have to commemorate the 50th, 60th, or 75th anniversary of the flight. I searched through thousands of covers finding many, many stamps having images of many, many planes, but, again, no NC-4. Only two or three of the dealers heard of the NC-4, but knew of no stamp or cachet being issued, nor did any of the cachet makers create any image for an NC-4 cover.

When I returned home I contacted the Curator of Philately of the Smithsonian Institute’s National Postal Museum asking about a stamp of NC-4 FDC/cachet. He wrote back saying, “I am not aware of a stamp commemorating the NC-4 flight, nor could I find a reference in the catalogue.” He sent me a copy of an envelope, which contains a letter from Navy Machinist Pat Carroll to his brother Charles, who was a corporal with the American Expeditionary Forces in France. He gave the letter to Navy Chief Machinist’s Mate Eugene S. Rhoads, a crewmember of the NC-4, which was in Halifax, Canada at the time. Carroll asked Rhoads to mail it when the NC-4 reached Lisbon. This letter was the first piece of mail to cross the Atlantic by plane. It was, then, the first Air Mail letter! The signature of Walter Hinton appears on the left side of the envelope with the inscription, “Pilot of N.C. 4, First Transatlantic flight.”

About a week later my seller sent me an e-mail saying that she had obtained the NC-4 item I wanted-it was not an FDC, but an Event Cover issued right here in Rockaway on May 8, 1979. It was an Event Cover because the cancellation celebrates the 60th Anniversary of the NC-4 flight out of Rockaway, New York. The stamp did not portray the NC-4-it was of the aviation pioneer, Octave Chanute. As a collectible it is a great cover to have, but in the purist sense the image of the NC-4 has no relation to the stamp other than a first in aviation accomplishments.

So where does Rockaway, New York stand regarding the NC-4 saga? It was right here in Rockaway where the U.S. Naval Air Station was located on land, now occupied by Riis Park, where the first Transatlantic Flight began on May 9, 1919. It was here where the first Navy-Curtis Flying Boats NC-1, NC-2, NC-3 and NC-4 were housed prior to an historic flight (which, by the way, would make a powerful story to put on film…are you out there Steven Spielberg). It was right here in Rockaway that the then 37-year old Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt made a flight in the NC-2T lifting off from the waters of Jamaica Bay and the NC-1 lifted off from the same waters carrying 51 passengers, a record-breaker for the time.

There’s a plaque commemorating the NC-4’s flight in Trespassy, Newfoundland; there’s a stamp and many cachets honoring the Wright Bros. First flight; there’s a memorial painting of the NC-4 crew at the Wright Bros. Museum in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina; in Plymouth, England there’s a plaque commemorating the NC-4’s arrival; in Lisbon, Portugal there’s a plaque commemorating the arrival of the NC-4; Lindbergh’s flight has a commemorative stamp, First Day Cover, many cachets and a plaque; and finally, but not least, there’s a stamp as well as a memorial honoring Brown and Alcock’s first non-stop transatlantic flight in their Vickers Vimy plane at Heathrow Airport, London.

The original, reconstructed NC-4 now stands proudly at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida. But what do we have here in Rockaway regarding the NC-4? Nothing! Not one, zero, indication that an historic event first took place here. Well, actually there is a plaque commemorating the NC-4’s First Transatlantic Flight, but if one wants to see it, one would have to visit the storage area of the Rockaway Museum in The Wave building. It’s there because no one, not one member of the Rockaway community, not one politician, not one government official, knows it exists or, if they did, they couldn’t care less. We have, rightly so, memorials to war, the FDNY, and NYPD heroes and a soon-to-be memorial to the victims of a tragic plane crash. These are dedicated to, unfortunately, sad events. Why not a tribute to an historic, uplifting event?

Isn’t it about time that the plaque lying in storage be placed at the waters’ edge to honor an historic accomplishment?

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