2007-05-11 / Columnists

It's My Turn

Rockaway's Forgotten Historic Event: The Flight Of The NC-4
Commentary By Stephen Yaeger

Commentary By Stephen Yaeger

May 8, 2007 will mark the 88th anniversary of the three Navy Flying Boats that left the US Naval Air Station in Rockaway destined for Lisbon, Portugal to attempt the first transatlantic crossing by airplane. The planes were designated NC-1, NC-3 and NC-4.

Very few people who are familiar with the flight know that from the very first day of planning there were hardships, dangers and tragedies to overcome.

There were many men who took part directly or indirectly in the flight including NC crew members, crew members of the supporting vessels, and men involved in the design and building of the planes. Among them were those who made history years later on their own: a genius in aircraft design, an explorer, an already famous inventor, an inspiring leader of his nation, and heroic military men who helped win a world war.

If you read a book about aviation history today you may read about the earliest attempts to fly. You will certainly read about the Wright Brother's 1903 flight and then the Lindbergh 1927 Atlantic crossing. But, invariably, the NC-4 adventure may not be mentioned.

So why was the first successful transatlantic flight lost in history? Some historians have written that this may be due to the fact that the NC-4's success (the only one of the three planes that completed the flight) took place between World War I and the depression, followed by World War II. But Lindbergh's flight (though a dangerous undertaking, but quite boring compared to the NC flight) falls within the same time span as the NC-4's epoch-making adventure, and that flight has not been forgotten neither in books, articles, nor Hollywood.

After the NC-4's successful crossing of the Atlantic it was returned to the US where the plane was used for Navy recruiting purposes.

It went on tour visiting Central Park in New York City, Philadelphia, PA and Washington, DC. Prior to World War II it was taken apart and stored in a Navy facility in Norfolk, VA, which was, coincidently, commanded by Rear Admiral Patrick N.L. Bellinger, pilot of the NC-1. Rear Admiral Albert C. Read, commander/navigator of the NC-4, was in charge of air activities at the base.

A pioneer glider pilot, Paul Garber, had a major interest in preserving the flying boat and had the disassembled plane transferred to Cheatham, VA. At the end of World War II it was moved to the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum's preservation and restoration branch in Silver Hill, Maryland. Because of its size only the hull was displayed in the museum. In

1964 it was decided to restore the flying boat completely, but priorities delayed restoration until 1967 when it was completed in time for the 50th anniversary of the flight.

The beautifully restored NC-4 was displayed on the Washington DC Mall where a ceremony was held. The U.S. Navy Band played Anchors Away and Vice Admiral T.F. Conolly spoke of the NC-4's success. He said that it was "not the sleekest of aircraft," but those who have seen the interior of the NC-4 have seen "the most beautiful craftsmanship in featherweight woods" and "pieces as light as a violinist's bow." Secretary of the Navy, John H. Chafee, then spoke of the plane's accomplishments. He said that with skill and some luck the NC-4 made it through foul weather and fog to the Azores.

At the closing of the ceremonies S. Dillon Ripley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, announced that the Navy Band would play Frederick Bigelow's The NC-4 March , which was written in the summer of 1919 honoring the NC-4's success. The NC-4 March was composed in the summer of 1919 and it is a lively, foot-tapping composition still being played today by a few high school and college bands; but it's doubtful whether listeners or players know its significance.

There are three plaques commemorating the NC-4 conquest of the Atlantic; one in Trepassey, Newfoundland; one in Lisbon, Portugal; and one in Plymouth, England. In 1969, the 50th Anniversary of the flight, a historical marker was placed in Rockaway, but has not been seen since.

Over the years the U.S. Postal Service has issued First Day Covers and stamps commemorating historic flights and history-making planes and spacecraft. But the NC-4's flight isn't one of them; there's not one stamp commemorating the historic first transatlantic flight of the NC-4!

To honor the 60th Anniversary of the flight, the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum issued Cachet Number 73 under their "Milestones of Flight Commemorative Series" depicting the NC-4. Below the cachet it reads: "60th Anniversary First Transatlantic flight Curtiss NC-4 May 8, 1919 Rockaway Beach, New York."

The stamp was cancelled at the Far Rockaway Post Office Station dated May 8, 1979. The stamp, however, does not honor the NC-4 flight. It honors Octave Chanute who, among other accomplishments, designed the world's most successful heavier-than-air machines before the Wright Brothers' powered glider lifted off on its historic flight.

On July 30, 2003 a mural entitled "Celebrating One Hundred Years of Powered Flight, 1903-2003," commissioned by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, was unveiled at the Experimental Aircraft Association's AirVenture, which was held at Oshkosh, WI. It is now on permanent display in NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards AFB, CA. A photograph of the mural is also displayed in the main hall of the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport, VA.

Dryden Center's director Kevin Petersen, said at the time of its unveiling, that the painting celebrates "the values that have characterized 100 years of aviation history: ingenuity, inventiveness, persistence, creativity and - perhaps most of all courage." However, there's a major problem with this painting:

There are 31 aircraft and spacecraft depicted in this mural, but the NC-4, despite its historic flight of ingenuity, inventiveness, persistence, creativity and, most of all, courage, isn't included among the historic crafts making aviation history!

On May 6, 1986 a ceremony was held on the field of Beach Channel High School in Rockaway. A plaque showing the NC-4 in relief was rededicated to "The First Transatlantic Flight by the NC-4." Although it could easily be placed on the site of the former Naval Air Station, now occupied by Riis Park, Gateway National Recreation Area, there has been no attempt to do so; neither on the part of the Rockaway community; state, city or local politicians; the City of New York; the Federal Government; nor (remarkably) the United States Navy. The plaque is in the possession of The Rockaway Museum and rests against a wall in a storage area situated in the building of this ( The Wave ) paper. It serves as a dust collector.

All of the cheering, whistles, horns, canon fire, music etc. that echoed throughout the world for this first successful transatlantic flight was, unfortunately, not enough to keep it from being forgotten.

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