Flight of the NC-4: Triumph over the Atlantic

By Jardeen, Jack | Sea Classics, August 2011 | Go to article overview
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Flight of the NC-4: Triumph over the Atlantic


Jardeen, Jack, Sea Classics


The hard-luck crew of the NC-4 flying boat bettered storms, howling winds, an angry sea, and cantankerous engines to be the first airplane to cross the Atlantic

From the dawn of powered flight in 1903, the development of heavier-than-air flying machines infused men's souls with the possibility of exploring distant vistas which would link the world in a vast airborne transportation network. While aviation got off to a crude beginning with slow, difficult-to-fly aircraft that were little more than powered kites, it nevertheless enjoyed significant strides of aeronautical development in the first decade thanks to the dedication of the early pioneers. Foremost in this endeavor was the perfection of new, more-powerful and reliable engines as well as stronger airframes and more dependable control systems. By 1913, an impressive succession of record breaking flights had substantially increased the speeds, distances, and altitudes that aircraft could attain. Each new record brought airmen one step closer to the fulfillment of their impossible dream - to be able to span oceans and cross continents in hours rather than days.

From the earliest flights, a crossing of the North Atlantic by air had been the most cherished ambition, and only the outbreak of war in 1914 prevented competition during that year for the London Daily Mail prize of £10,000 offered in 1913 U) the first aviators to accomplish a nonstop crossing. Ultimately, the prize was won in June by John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown for their historic flight in a modified Vickers Vimy exbomber. Alcock and Brown crash-landed in a Newfoundland bog but in the month preceding this, another Atlantic crossing, with several stops en route, had been made by an American flying-boat, the US Navy's NC-4. That this aircraft was of Curtiss manufacture was particularly appropriate, for Glenn Curtiss had pioneered seaplane design and his company's flying-boat America was originally designed as a 1914 contestant in the transatlantic competition.

The US Navy had made remarkable strides during the 1914-1918 war years, having grown from pitifully small cadre of dedicated enthusiasts who received scant government funding in 1911 to a force of several thousand trained airmen manning thousands of technically superior aircraft, most of which were seaplanes. In addition, a vast network of Naval flying stations now ringed the Atlantic.

In the rush with which Naval aviation developed as the European War drew ever closer to America's shores, it was obvious Germany's fleet of deadly undersea marauders dictated that the design and construction of flying boats able to hunt and sink U-boats would take precedent over all other types of aircraft procurement in the United States. With Glenn Curtiss the world leader in flying boat design, it was no accident that Curtiss-built flying boats soon equipped most of the Allied anti-U-boat patrol squadrons on both sides of the Atlantic. While the US Navy was credited with sinking only one U-boat by aerial attack, no one could dispute the fact that Naval flying boats flying untold hours of dreary patrol over Allied convoys did more than their share of dissuading U-boats from making any attacks. The proof of this assertion lies in the fact that not one American Doughboy was lost to a German submarine during WWI.

Early in September 1917, Glenn Curtiss was summoned to Washington, DC, for a top-secret high-level meeting with the Navy's Chief of its Design and Construction Bureau, R/Adm. David C. Taylor and his top staff, Commanders Jim C. Westervelt and Jerome Hunsaker. What Taylor proposed was a joint venture to design and build a multiengine patrol bomber with sufficient range to span the Atlantic non-stop so that the sorely needed flying boats could be placed in service as soon as they arrived in European waters. With his customary zeal, Curtiss nodded "can do" and promised to be back in three days with drawings and a design proposal.

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