History: 100 years of Naval Aviation

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Written by William H. Thiesen, Ph.D., U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian

2011 is the Centennial of Naval Aviation and will honor aviation pioneers in the Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps. The year-long celebration will include air shows, art exhibits, flyovers and tactical demonstrations nationwide. It is only fitting to start this celebration of naval flight with Lt. Elmer F. Stone, Coast Guard Aviator #1 and the first man in history to successfully pilot an aircraft across the Atlantic Ocean. Please continue to visit Compass throughout the year as we feature pioneering aviators and those who dared to take to the skies.

NC-4 Crew
The crew of the NC-4 after the successful transatlantic crossing. Elmer Stone stands second from the left and NC-4 is faintly visible behind the crew. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

Coast Guard aviators have been at the forefront of technological change sometimes placing themselves in harm’s way to complete the mission. Coast Guardsmen have risked their lives to pioneer the development of the helicopter while others have served as astronauts in the Space Shuttle Program. Service personnel have flown rescue missions in all sorts of weather conditions from the jungles of Vietnam, to the treacherous Bering Sea, to the frigid ice cap of Greenland. So it should come as no surprise that a Coast Guard pilot flew the first aircraft to successfully cross the Atlantic.

NC-4 In Flight
A rare photograph of NC-4 during flight operations. NC-4 had three forward facing tractor engines and one center-mounted pusher engine. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

In the spring of 1919, with the World War I war effort winding down, Coast Guard Aviator #1, Lt. Elmer F. Stone, found himself serving at Naval Air Station Rockaway, N.Y., as a pilot in Navy-Curtiss Seaplane Squadron #1. His mission was to pilot the seaplane NC-4 in the first attempt to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. The aircraft stationed at Rockaway were very large flying boats with a biplane design that included three forward facing tractor engines and a fourth center-mounted pusher engine facing to the rear. Each NC flying boat typically had a crew of six naval personnel, including the pilot, co-pilot, radio operator, engineering officer, assistant engineer and navigator.

On May 8, 1919, NC-4 took flight along with squadron aircraft NC-1 and NC-3. A fourth seaplane, NC-2, proved unfit to fly and was cannibalized for spare parts. Loaded with 1,800 gallons of fuel for the Atlantic crossing, the aircraft weighed about 28,000 pounds, 4,000 more than under normal conditions. These overloaded aircraft had to fly nearly two miles at full speed just to get airborne.

The first leg of the flight took the seaplanes from Rockaway, east to Halifax, Nova Scotia; and on to Trespassey Bay, Nova Scotia, their departure point for Europe via the Azores. The NC flying boat’s complex design proved problematic for such an endurance run. With Stone at the controls, NC-4 suffered a broken connecting rod after only four hours in the air, forcing it down for repairs near Chatham Naval Air Station, Mass. After making it to Halifax, it was found that NC-4’s steel propellers had cracked and they to be replaced with wooden ones.

NC-4 Lisbon, Portugal
NC-4 landing in the Tagus River, Lisbon, Portugal. The worst of the Atlantic Crossing was over, but NC-4 even suffered a mechanical breakdown on its final leg from Lisbon to Plymouth, England. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

Along the leg over the Atlantic, the Navy stationed warships at fifty-mile intervals to serve as beacons and guard ships incase either aircraft required assistance. Due to poor weather conditions, the crews of NC-1 and NC-3 became disoriented and landed their seaplanes to obtain a celestial navigation position before attempting to reach the Azores.

Both were damaged while landing in heavy seas, rendering them incapable of further flight. Maintaining the only accurate navigation plot, NC-4 avoided disorientation and arrived at its destination in the Azores. From there, NC-4 continued on to land in the Tagus River in Lisbon, Portugal, before concluding the record-setting flight in England.

In the early afternoon of May 1, 1919, after fifty-four hours in the air, Stone landed NC-4 in Plymouth Harbor, becoming the first man to successfully fly an aircraft across the Atlantic. Stone and the navy crew of NC-4 proved the feasibility of transoceanic flight and their achievement attracted world-wide attention. It would not be until eight more years that Charles Lindbergh completed his famous solo crossing in the Spirit of St. Louis.

For their pioneering flight, Stone and the NC-4 crew were recognized with the Order of the Tower and Sword, Portugal’s highest award; a special French silver medal commemorating NC-4’s historic flight; and Great Britain’s Royal Air Force Cross. Upon the crew’s return home, Stone received the Navy Cross and temporary promotion to captain, and Congress struck a special NC-4 Gold Medal specifically for crewmembers of the record setting aircraft.

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