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This Day in History: The First Transatlantic Crossing

On this day in 1919, a U.S. Navy seaplane lands in Lisbon, Portugal, completing the very first transatlantic flight. Charles Lindbergh’s record-breaking flight was still nearly a decade in the future.

You’ve doubtless heard of Lindbergh’s feat, but you most likely haven’t heard of this Navy flight. Lindbergh’s trip might have been solo and nonstop, but it wasn’t the first trip across the Atlantic.

That first flight was completed by a crew of six Navy and Coast Guard pilots. They made the trip in a huge “flying boat”: the NC-4. That plane would look odd to modern eyes. Its appearance has been described as a “mash-up of the Wright brothers’ Kitty Hawk [plane] and a ship.”

NC-4 was one of four NC (Navy-Curtiss) flying-boats that had been built for a trip such as this one. Originally, all four planes were supposed to go together across the ocean, but NC-2 was ultimately used for parts and left behind. Together, the other three NCs would make the attempt.

Interestingly, London’s Daily Mail was then offering a cash prize to the first private flier to make the transatlantic crossing. As members of the military, the Navy and Coast Guard pilots aboard the NC flying boats were not eligible for that prize.

The three flying boats departed from the Rockaway Naval Air Station in Queens on May 8, 1919. NC-1 and NC-3 arrived at the first stop in Nova Scotia without incident, but the NC-4 pilots ran into trouble. Two of the plane’s four engines developed problems. The seaplane was forced into the water. It taxied until it reached the port at Chatham, Massachusetts.

Mechanics in Massachusetts soon got the engines working again, but NC-4 was delayed for several days. Fortunately, it caught up with the other two planes at Trepassey Harbor, Newfoundland, where NC-1 and NC-3 had been delayed by bad weather. Thus, the three planes would undertake the next leg of the trip together: They were to travel nearly 1,400 miles to the Azores Islands in the Atlantic.

All three planes departed late on May 16, but NC-3 immediately ran into trouble. It was too heavy and couldn’t take off. Much to his chagrin, one crew member was left behind. With its load lightened, NC-3’s second attempt to take off worked.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of NC-3’s troubles. As the planes approached the Azores, both NC-3 and NC-1 got lost in dense fog. Attempts to contact Navy destroyers stationed below failed, so the flying boats landed in rough seas instead. The crews were safe, but the planes were too damaged to continue.

NC-4 was the only plane left. The crew landed the plane successfully at Horta, in the middle of the Azores. They hadn’t quite made it to Ponta Delgada, the planned landing spot, but they’d gotten pretty close.

Weather caused an additional delay before the quick flight to Ponta Delgada was finally accomplished three days later. The rest of the trip was uneventful, and NC-4 landed in Lisbon on May 27.

Two private aviators would win the Daily Mail’s cash prize a few weeks later, but our Navy and Coast Guard pilots accomplished the feat first. Today, those pilots have been largely forgotten, but the feat stunned the world in 1919.

Imagine being the very first to fly across the Atlantic Ocean—and doing it in something that looked like a bulky boat with wings attached.

“I had a better chance of reaching Europe in the Spirit of St. Louis than the NC boats had of reaching the Azores,” Lindberg later marveled. “I had a more reliable type of engine, improved instruments and a continent instead of an island for a target. It was skill, determination and a hard-working crew that carried the NC-4 to the completion of the first transatlantic flight.”

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