' Nancies' and the 'Lame Duck'
At the age of 32, Lieutenant Elmer F. "Archie" Stone had already had an unusual career for a Coast Guard officer. Having completed flight training on 10 April 1917, he had the distinction of being Coast Guard Aviator Number 1 (and Naval Aviator Number 38) and had served in the armored cruiser USS Huntington during World War I when the Coast Guard had been subsumed by the Navy. So it was not surprising that in May 1919, Archie Stone was about to try something even more extraordinary.
Stone was one of two pilots (in a crew of six that included an aircraft commander, two flight engineers, and a radio operator) flying a strange-looking aircraft called simply NC-4. It was one of four "flying boats" built during the recent war as a joint venture between the Navy and the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company (hence the NC designation). Known unofficially as Nancies, these hybrids of land and sea were at the time the largest biplanes in the world, with a wing-span of 126 feet (larger than today's Boeing 727). They were powered by four 400-hp engines, three mounted between the wings and the fourth on the stern as a pusher. Designed to patrol shipping lanes in search of German U-boats, they had arrived too late to participate in the war. But pioneering aviators, led by Naval Aviator Number 3 John Tower, realized that their long-range potential made them excellent candidates for an attempt at an Atlantic crossing by air, a feat that no one had yet accomplished. At the time, this venture was akin to America's later quest for a manned moon landing, and the attention of the world was soon focused on the event.
NC-2 had been cannibalized for parts, so the three others (NC-1, NC-3, and NC-4) began the historic flight on 8 May. Flying the first leg of the journey from New York to Newfoundland, Stone's NC-4 was forced down by engine trouble. He ended up having to taxi across the water for five hours to Chatham, Massachusetts, for repairs. This earned NC-4 the sobriquet "Lame Duck" in the newspapers. Earlier hopes at making history were in serious jeopardy.
But after making repairs, NC-4 caught up with the other two, delayed at Newfoundland because of bad weather. All three took to the skies again on 16 May and ventured into the vast reaches of the Atlantic. During the night they passed over the first of 21 destroyers that had been strung out across the ocean as navigation waypoints. But troubles began at dawn, when Tower, in NC-3, mistook a cruiser returning from Europe for one of the waypoint destroyers.
This error took him off the intended track and eventually forced him to put down short of his goal. NC-3 finished the voyage as a boat rather than an aircraft. NC-1 fared even worse, also getting lost and eventually succumbing to heavy seas. Fortunately all aboard were rescued by a Greek freighter before the aircraft sank.
Ironically, it was the Lame Duck, a Navy aircraft piloted by a Coast Guard officer, that triumphantly arrived on the far side of the Atlantic. The Duck landed first at the Azores, then at Lisbon, and finally at Plymouth, England, on 16 May, after a 3,925-mile flight. Archie Stone and the other courageous crewmembers in NC-4 had accomplished an early milestone in aviation history that would set the standard for many more pioneers to follow.