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NC-4 NC-4 in Flight. Photo US Navy

The First Transatlantic Plane

There are plenty of firsts in Transatlantic travel, but the first plane to cross the ocean was the Curtiss NC-4 in 1919

Published on May 28, 2020

The history of Transatlantic flight is, perhaps inevitably, one that is measured by firsts. In June 1919, Alcock and Brown flew the first non-stop Atlantic flight, from Newfoundland, Canada, to County Galway, Ireland. In July 1919, the Airship R34 made the first East to West Transatlantic flight, setting off from Scotland on July 2, 1919, and arriving in Long Island 4 days later on July 6. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh made his now famous non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St Louis, before a year later, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. In 1936, American Dick Merrill became the first to fly a Transatlantic commercial round trip by plane. But what is the authentic first Transatlantic flight?

It'd be naive to say there is an authentic first - afterall, Transatlantic flight has been a mixture of adventure and necessity. Were the real first Transatlantic flights related to individual heroics, like those of Lindburgh and Earhart, or were the real firsts undertaken by those who opened Transatlantic flight to international mail, cargo and eventually passengers? However, the story of one of - if not the - earliest recorded aircraft to cross the Atlantic is worthy of telling, if only because its story is itself fascinating.

On May 8, 1919, a Curtiss NC flying boat, named NC-4, set off with several similar craft from Rockaway Naval Air Station, a US Naval Air Station on the Rockaway Peninsula, New York. The Curtiss NC was a joint venture between the aeroplane manufacturer Curtiss and the US Navy. Originally designed for use in wartime, the flying boats came just too late for involvement in World War One, but nevertheless made their ultimate mark on history when plans came together to highlight their capabilities with a Transatlantic expedition.

The flight wouldn't be non-stop; stops in Massachusetts, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland precluded the cross Atlantic journey. On May 16, the NC-4, along with two other Curtiss NCs, set off from New Foundland for the Azores islands, which are located in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. Their journey was aided by numerous US battleships, which were stationed at intervals along the route, to help guide the plane, particularly during nighttime. Despite the assistance, two of the NCs had to land on the Atlantic, reportedly due to low visibility, but the NC-4 and its crew eventually reached the Azores on May 17, landing on the island of Faial. Of the two other crafts in the expedition, the NC-1, despite being found and towed by Greek ship SS Iona, was sank and was lost, whilst the NC-3 was towed by a US Navy vessel to the Azores.

On May 20, the NC-4 set off on its next leg, but mechanical problems forced it back to the Azores. Taking off after repairs on May 27, it arrived in Lisbon, Portugal on May 30. The next leg of the NC-4's journey saw it fly from Portugal to Spain, and on to Plymouth, England, landing on May 31. Highlighting the symbolism of the landing, the book The Flight Across the Atlantic, recorded that "on May 31st, a pilot of Massachusetts birth was to set foot on the shores of the harbor from which the Pilgrim fathers took ship for a new world three hundred years before". The book goes on to explain that "after a flight of 3,936 nautical or 4,526 statute miles, made in a flying time of 52 hours and 31 hours, Commander Read was to receive the congratulations of British and American officials, to clasp with the daring Hawker, and to receive the RAF Cross. He had thoroughly demonstrated the efficiency of the NC boats, the ability of American Naval officers, and the quality of Naval organization."

In the same book, Commander Albert C. Read wrote that "The Trepassey-Plymouth voyage has been compared with the great voyage of 1492. Few realize how much harder the first trip from Europe to America by water was than the first trip from America to Europe by air. Columbus was proving to the world something which he believed. We were proving to the world something the world believed itself. Columbus was almost alone in his theories. We had the supprt of almost every living flyer, land or marine."

Whether we look back in history and remember the NC-4 and its crew, Alcock and Brown, Lindburgh, Earhart or Merrill, this was undoubtedly a time of huge excitement for Transatlantic travel. 1919 alone saw the Transatantic crossing of the NC-4, Alcock and Brown and the R34 Aircraft. It was a time when legends were made on a flight route which has proved so essential over the years, establishing the UK and the US in the world, and developing the important Special Relationship which emerged during the course of the 20th century.

After their arrival in Plymouth, the crew of the NC-4 were whisked to London for a heroes welcome, before a further trip to Paris, France. The plane was dismantled at Plymouth and returned to the US via the USS Aroostook. The flight crew received Congressional Medals, and a military medal declared the "NC-4 Medal" was created. After being exhibited by the Smithsonian, the NC-4 is now on display at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Florida.

For more information on the NC-4 Transatlantic flight, check out the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum


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