FDR Played Large Part In NC-4 Story
Most people remember Franklin D. Roosevelt, fondly called "FDR" by most Americans, as the president who safely brought us through the Great Depression and World War II. He is considered by many historians to be one of our greatest presidents.
Few know, however, that FDR played a large part in Rockaway's history through the Navy's NC project and even visited Rockaway for a short hop when he was the Under Secretary of the Navy, long before he became our president.
The NC program developed a number of long-range flying boats for the Navy to use during Atlantic Ocean patrols during World War I.
The N in the NC designation stood for Navy and the C for Curtiss Aircraft, the aircraft's builder. They came to be known, however, as "Nancy Boats."
The Rockaway back story starts with Commander John Towers, USN, one of the Navy's first pilots. Tower was convinced that the huge seaplanes could easily make the first transatlantic flights and win the standing prize for the first plane to make the crossing. The craft were built for anti-submarine patrol off the U.S. coast during World War I. 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 the Under Secretary of the Navy. Tower pointed out to Roosevelt that the NC-1, the first of the series to be built, was already sitting at Naval Air Station, Rockaway, just waiting for something to do now that the war, and its patrol mission, had ended.
Roosevelt liked Tower 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 NCs that were already built but not yet assembled.
He recommended two routes. One would take the NCs from Rockaway to South America and then to Africa before flying on to Europe. The other route would take the NCs from Rockaway to Newfoundland, then to the Azores and to Portugal before the final 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 Reade. He talked Reade into "taking an NC to Europe."
Reade 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, there was a more important visitor.
A future president had come to Rockaway to see for himself what all the NC excitement was about. FDR's visit to Rockaway and his flight from Jamaica Bay in a Nancy Boat 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.
"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. At 1 p.m. on May 8, the National Park Service will commemorate the 90th anniversary of the NC- 4's flight at the Riis Park Bathhouse.