An Unlikely Naval Aviation Pioneer

By Rear Admiral Ernest E. Christensen Jr., U.S. Navy (Retired)

By the time he found himself in Pensacola after several years as a machinist on ships, naval aviation had arrived at Pensacola. Foreseeing the promise of the air age, many young naval officers already had learned to fly. Among them were several who went on the 1919 transatlantic flight: John Towers, naval aviator #3, and Patrick N. L. Bellinger, naval aviator #8, who were taught to fly by aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss himself; Holden C. Richardson, naval aviator #13, who was 38 when he got his wings; A. C. Read, #24; Marc Mitscher, #33; and Louis T. Barin, #56. Grandfather ended up in the same aircraft, the NC-1, with Bellinger, Mitscher, and Barin on the transatlantic flight.

Pensacola was a small station at the time, everyone knew everyone else, and skilled machinists were scarce. Rasmus had neither the pedigree nor rank that would have granted him entrée, but naval aviation was a meritocracy. In August 1915, he joined the first aviation mechanics class and started up the ladder. By December the following year, he was awarded airman mechanic certificate #5 and airman aviation certificate #112 as seaplane pilot. The year after that, he was designated chief machinist's mate (aviation) and awarded aeronautic mechanic #133. In January 1918, he was advanced to warrant machinist (temporary) and student naval aviator. And that December 1918, he was designated naval aviator #1885. In three short years he had gone from a shipboard chief machinist's mate to become one of the early naval aviators.

First Transatlantic Flight

One year later he took part in one of the greatest aviation feats of that generation—the first transatlantic flight. Various syndicates were known to be preparing to attempt such a feat, but Commander John Towers was determined that the U.S. Navy be first. Tests in the fall of 1918 had convinced him that the new NC-1, designed for transatlantic operations from the start, had the capability to pull it off. The crossing, much like the race to the moon in the 1960s, pulled technology along with it. Glenn Curtiss had developed the NC aircraft for World War I duty. Although the aircraft were not ready until after the armistice was signed, Curtiss' design genius was evident as the aircraft turned out to be best long-range aircraft built up to that time. The Curtiss-designed hull became the prototype for the great Catalina PBY hulls of World War II.

The original aircraft were configured with three engines but turned out to be underpowered. A fourth engine installed as a pusher on the NC-1's centerline added enough power for the aircraft to carry 51 men aloft on one flight—a world record for passengers—and gave the aircraft a takeoff weight in excess of 28,000 pounds. (All the aircraft that went transatlantic were fitted with four engines.) More efficient propellers, better maintenance standards, and improved materials were all products of the flight. Commander Richard Byrd, although failing to gain a position on the flight crews, designed some of the navigation equipment that he ultimately used on the first successful flight to the North Pole.

On 31 October 1918, Towers formally proposed to Chief of Naval Operations Admiral William S. Benson that the Navy attempt the flight the following spring. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy—who later flew in a modified NC just three weeks before the transatlantic flight—enthusiastically supported the proposal. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels approved the request on 4 February and put Towers in command.

Just a month earlier, Towers had requested that my grandfather report for duty with NC Seaplane Division One, which consisted of the NC-1 and sisters NC-2, NC-3, and NC-4 (the flying boats were habitually referred to as "the Nancys"). Mitscher and Bellinger became the primary pilots of the NC-1; Louis Barin and Harry Sadenwater performed navigation and radio duties; and my grandfather became reserve pilot and chief engineer. C. I. Kesler rounded out the crew as engineer.

Like most great adventures, success rides on the fine edge of fate. A union strike of wireless (radio) operators who would monitor and report airborne radio signals had almost forced a flight delay. Prior to the attempt, the NC-2 was badly damaged and scrapped from the flight. In the early morning hours of 5 May, a gasoline fire destroyed the NC-1's starboard wings, so the NC-2's wings were pressed into service. On 7 May, Chief Machinist's Mate Edward Howard, engineer on NC-4, lost his hand in a spinning propeller and was removed from the flight, leaving Lieutenant James Breese as the only engineer on the NC-4. By 8 May, they were ready.

The Journey Begins

Only the NC-1 and NC-3 completed the first leg of the flight from Rockaway Beach, Long Island, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Trepassey, Newfoundland. The NC-4 turned back with engine problems and after being repaired barely made it back to Trepassey in time for the leg across the Atlantic to the Azores.

The crews who flew from Rockaway Beach to the Azores and on to Plymouth, England, did so in dangerous and daunting conditions. In open cockpits, at altitudes from 100 to 3,000 feet, they fought fog, minimum visibility, and icing conditions both day and night, without any of the all-weather instruments that we now consider vital for safe flight.

The longest leg of the flight, a planned 1,110 nautical miles from Trepassey to Ponta Delgada, on the island of São Miguel in the Azores, became the stuff of legend. On 16 May the three Nancys took off, counting on 22 U.S. Navy destroyers strung out 50 miles apart along the rhumb line as aids to navigation. After 15 hours in the air flying at 80-90 knots and proceeding through the night of the 16th and morning of the 17th, the NC-1 and NC-3 were forced to land at sea near the Azores after running into fog and failing to sight any of the high peaks of the islands.

The NC-1 touched down in 12-foot seas. Unable to get airborne again, the crew found that just staying upright while afloat was extraordinarily difficult in the prevailing sea state; crew members walked the wings to balance the ship the entire time it was afloat. The NC-1 nearly broached on several occasions. It was battered and damaged, all the while pumping sea water and dragging anchors from the time it touched down at 1300 until rescued by the Greek freighter Ionia that night at 2200. Taken under tow after the rescue, the NC-1 sank. The NC-3, also damaged from the landing, sailed into Ponta Delgada on São Miguel after water-taxiing 205 miles in 53 hours from the time it touched down at sea.

'Exploration at its Best'

The NC-4 made it all the way and landed at Horta, on the Azores island of Fayal, on 17 May—the only aircraft still flyable. With all of the crews once again assembled and watching, the NC-4 lifted off ten days later from Horta for its successful flight to Lisbon, Portugal. On the 31st, the aircraft landed at Plymouth. What the transatlantic flyers had done was exploration at its best.

In the months following the flight, the crews were feted by the great and the wealthy, the titled of England, the Lord Mayor of London, and the Governor of New York. They received personal telegrams from Secretary of War Newton D. Baker and General John J. Pershing, who had commanded the American Expeditionary Force in the World War. They were awarded medals, were knighted by the King of Portugal, recognized with individual awards by the American Aero club, and mingled with the greats of the U.S. government and military.

In the 1920s, my grandfather became co-pilot for Lieutenant Commander Theodore Ellyson, naval aviator #1, while attached for two years to the Brazil Mission in Rio de Janeiro. In 1921, he elected to revert from warrant machinist to chief aviation machinist's mate. As a result, in 1923 he was redesignated as naval aviation pilot (enlisted) #123. He left active duty and transferred to the Fleet Reserve in 1925 after more than 20 years of active service and was honorably retired in 1934.

Post-Navy Life

After leaving the Navy my grandfather entered the Civil Service, was a production inspector, and founded the Aviation Test Laboratory at the National Bureau of Standards. Family legend has it that he scored the highest in the nation the year he took the Civil Service entrance test. He developed the hydraulic brake (designed to keep a car in place when idling on a hill with your foot off the gas pedal). It was submitted for patent approval coincident with another similar patent application. Regrettably, the other design (virtually identical, the difference being in only one minor part) won the patent. Regrettably, because otherwise we all might be living in easier circumstances.

Grandfather continued to work past the day when he watched his own son graduate from the Naval Academy in 1934 and become a naval aviator. He sold the farm he owned in Landover, Maryland, in the late 1940s; now it is part of or adjacent to FedEx Field, home of the Washington Redskins. In 1945, he retired quietly to Siesta Key.

As the years went by, and the excitement of the flight faded into the background, my grandfather was proudest of having flown with the pioneers of aviation. In the early 1950s, during the inevitable afternoon thunderstorms of a Florida summer, I would explore the drawers and nooks of his beach cottage. The shelves were filled with books on the Navy and aviation. The drawers contained memorabilia and trinkets from his days in the Navy, including a large bronze medallion, a necklace, and a Navy medal.

I asked once what the trinkets were, and during that summer Rasmus told me that the bronze medallion was for balancing on his bald spot when he was in the sun to prevent sunburn and that the medal was for having learned all the math tables (the multiplication tables—on which he quizzed me every summer, all the way up to the 15s). At the time, I took these comments and others to be completely true. But if you knew my grandfather, you would understand his profound sense of humility and you would realize that it was textured with a great, prankish sense of humor.

Grandfather's Personality

I can remember a Danish "folk song" he taught my sister and me during one of those early summers in Siesta Key. In 1953, while we were living in England, we visited the family farm outside Copenhagen, and there, with urging from our parents, we performed the song for our cousins to what I can only describe as stunned silence. It was apparent that Rasmus had gotten us again.??

And the truth about the "bald spot" medallion? It turned out to be one of 16 commemorative medals struck in bronze and awarded personally by Glenn Curtiss to each member of the transatlantic flight (one medal out of the 16 was struck in gold and presented to Lieutenant Commander Read). And the "Navy math medal?" It turned out to be the Navy Cross; the necklace was the Order of the Sword and Tower, the symbol of Portuguese knighthood—Don Rasmus Christensen!

The books on the Navy and aviation I read on Siesta Key contained the names of many with whom he flew. Transatlantic crewmen became successful businessmen, industrialists, and well known and respected flag officers. Many of their names were given to Naval Air Station airfields. Franklin D. Roosevelt, of course, who had shepherded the transatlantic flight through the Navy Department, moved all the way to the top in his next government job. Marc Mitscher became one of the greatest of the World War II carrier admirals.

My grandfather and a number of his friends from the flight lived long and rewarding lives. While the Lindbergh flight of 1927, the first non-stop solo across the Atlantic, eclipsed the flight of the NCs and their place in history, each man who participated in that crossing carried with him a special place in aviation history.

In May and June of 1960, I spent one last vacation with Rasmus before entering the Naval Academy with the class of 1964 on 5 July 1960. Three weeks after I left him for plebe summer at the Naval Academy, and while my father was at sea in command of the USS Hornet (CV-12), my grandfather died. I was given special permission to leave the Academy for a day to represent the Christensen family at a service in Washington. That late July afternoon, I stood in my new service dress khaki uniform with the plebe shoulder boards neatly brushed, saluting my grandfather's flag-draped coffin at Arlington Cemetery.

I was saluting a master machinist, a naval aviation pilot, a naval aviator. I was saluting a man who dared to do great things, and flew with the first naval aviation greats. In Arlington that day, I also saluted that young Danish boy who grew up to become a Portuguese knight and a U.S. citizen, who had earned the right to be buried in Arlington Cemetery with full military honors. What a country.

Author's Note : For fact-checking, I relied heavily on Richard K. Smith's, First Across: The U.S. Navy's Transatlantic Flight of 1919 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1973) and also consulted Hy Steirman and Glenn D. Kittler's, Triumph: The Incredible Saga of the First Transatlantic Flight (New York: Harper & Row, 1961).

Rear Admiral Christensen, a naval aviator, flew four combat deployments from the deck of the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) during the Vietnam War. He had seven aviation, ship, and naval commands, flew with the Blue Angels flight demonstration team, and retired in 1997. His son, Lieutenant Commander Cory Christensen, also a naval aviator, has carried on Rasmus Christensen's legacy into the fourth generation—easily one of the longest family heritages in naval aviation.





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