This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.
Written by William H. Thiesen, Ph.D.
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian
Coast Guard aviators have always been at the forefront of technological change and put themselves in harm’s way to complete the mission. Some have risked their lives to pioneer the development of the helicopter, and the rescue swimmer program; others have served as astronauts in the Space Shuttle Program. Coast Guard aviation crews have flown rescue missions in all sorts of weather from the jungles of Vietnam to the treacherous Bering Sea to the frigid ice cap of Greenland. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that 100 years ago a Coast Guard aviator was the first to pilot an aircraft across the Atlantic.
Elmer Fowler Stone topped the list of applicants for the Revenue Cutter Service School of Instruction class of 1913, a small group that would feature several distinguished graduates in the history of Coast Guard aviation. In three years, Stone graduated from this predecessor of the Coast Guard Academy and received a commission as a third lieutenant. He was first assigned to the cutter Onondaga patrolling the Mid-Atlantic Coast out of Hampton Roads.
Despite his skill as a line officer, Stone’s interest and true aptitude lay with engineering and technology. The Curtiss Aeroplane & Motor Company established one of the nation’s first flying schools in Newport News, Virginia, next to Onondaga’s dock. In early 1915, after witnessing Curtiss’s flight operations, Stone experienced his own first flight in a Curtiss F “flying boat.” The flight convinced Stone that aviation could revolutionize the Coast Guard’s traditional missions of search and rescue and law enforcement.
Stone became a driving force behind early Coast Guard aviation, but he had to convince other service members to join the cause. The movement gained momentum as, one-by-one, other officers backed his effort to establish a Coast Guard aviation branch. By early 1916, Coast Guard Commandant Ellsworth Bertholf became a believer and sent Stone to the U.S. Navy’s new flight school in Pensacola, Florida. By the end of 1916, it seemed that aviation was well on its way to becoming an accepted part of Coast Guard operations.
With World War I heating up in Europe, the early movement for Coast Guard aviation slowed to a standstill. When the United States entered the war, the Coast Guard was transferred to the Navy Department by executive order. In September 1918, Stone received a promotion to first lieutenant and by early spring of the next year, the Navy transferred him to Naval Air Station Rockaway, in New York, to serve as a pilot in NC Seaplane Squadron One. His mission was to pilot a seaplane in the first attempt to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.
The aircraft stationed at Rockaway were large “NC” (Navy-Curtiss) flying boats. The NC’s had a biplane design with three forward facing tractor engines and a fourth center-mounted pusher engine facing to the rear. Each NC flying boat had a crew of six, including the pilot, co-pilot, radio operator, engineering officer, assistant engineer, and commanding officer/navigator. Fully loaded with 1,800 gallons of fuel, the NC’s attempting the transatlantic crossing 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 off the water.
On Thursday, May 8, 1919, Stone’s NC-4 took flight along with other squadron aircraft NC-1 and NC-3 in an attempt to cross the Atlantic. The seaplanes’ first leg would take them from Rockaway, east to Halifax, Nova Scotia. The NC flying boat’s complex design proved problematic for a transatlantic endurance run. After only four hours in the air, NC-4 suffered a broken connecting rod forcing it down for repairs at Chatham (Massachusetts) Naval Air Station. After making it to Halifax, the crew found that NC-4’s steel propellers had cracked and replaced them with wooden ones. From Halifax, Stone piloted NC-4 east to Trespassy Bay, Nova Scotia, the seaplanes’ North American jumping-off point for Europe via the Azores.
Along the Atlantic crossing route, the Navy stationed destroyers at 50-mile intervals to serve as beacons and guard ships in case the aircraft required assistance. After several hours over the Atlantic, the crews of NC-1 and NC-3 became disoriented by poor weather and tried to land their seaplanes to obtain a celestial navigation position. Landing in heavy seas damaged both aircraft, 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, Stone’s flying boat continued on to land in the Tagus River in Lisbon, Portugal, before completing its crossing in Plymouth, England. In the early afternoon of Saturday, May 31, 1919, after 54 hours in the air, Stone landed NC-4 in Plymouth harbor, becoming the first man to pilot an aircraft across the Atlantic. Stone completed his transatlantic flight eight years before Charles Lindbergh’s famous solo crossing in the Spirit of St. Louis.
Stone and the crew of NC-4 had proven the feasibility of transoceanic flight and their achievement attracted worldwide attention. The men were recognized with the Order of the Tower and Sword, Portugal’s highest award; a French silver medal commemorating NC-4’s historic flight; and Great Britain’s Royal Air Force Cross. Upon their return home, Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels awarded the NC-4 crew the Navy Cross Medal and later Congress struck a unique NC-4 Medal specifically for the crew of the record-setting aircraft.
In 1919, with the war over, the Navy returned the Coast Guard to the Treasury Department and Stone received an assignment as executive officer on the cutter Ossipee. In 1920, the Coast Guard resurrected its fledgling aviation program and established its first air station at Morehead City, North Carolina. The service designated Stone as Coast Guard Aviator #1 and assigned him to refurbish and prepare four flying boats to operate out of the Morehead City Air Station. Stone continued to pioneer the role of Coast Guard aviation until his early death in 1936 while commanding the Coast Guard Air Patrol Detachment at San Diego.
During his Coast Guard career, Elmer Fowler Stone accomplished a great deal. He served his country selflessly for over 25 years and championed the cause of early Coast Guard aviation. His medals and awards included the Navy Cross, Congressional NC-4 Medal, and various foreign awards and honors. He was a member of the long blue line and the first man in history to pilot an aircraft across the Atlantic Ocean.