Through either foresight or accident, the Navy treated the May 1919 transatlantic flight of Seaplane Division One as more of a nautical than aeronautical expedition. Assigning Commander Jack Towers, a superb navigator, as plane commander of the NC-3 proved to be a master stroke when his record-breaking flight became a voyage, some 200 miles shy of its destination.
Early U. S. naval aviators had to struggle to gain acceptance within the surface line, proving their worth first as naval officers, and second as fliers. Since the handful of these pioneers had little opportunity to navigate or conn ships after earning their wings before or during World War I, the non-flying Navy had no reason to alter its skepticism over the airmen's seagoing skills when the war ended. No reason, that is, until the spectacular voyage of the NC-3.
The NC (Navy-Curtiss) flying boats were designed and constructed during 1917-19 to bridge the Atlantic, originally to conduct antisubmarine operations, but after the Armistice to restore U. S. prestige in aviation. Although the idea was to fly nonstop between anchorages, their 44-foot, 9-inch-long compartmentalized hulls were designed by Commander Holden C. "Dick" Richardson of the Construction Corps to withstand landings in the swells of the open ocean—and to take off again. If they could not take off, the boats could at least make headway afloat with their engines.
The Navy treated the May 1919 expedition of the NCs as a naval rather than a purely aeronautical enterprise. Seaplane Division One was formally commissioned on 3 May at Naval Air Station (NAS) Rockaway on New York's Long Island-the first time that airplanes had ever been so "commissioned" as ship-like entities. Commander John H. "Jack" Towers, Naval Aviator Number Three, commanded the three-boat division and also doubled as plane commander and navigator of the flagship, the NC-3. Jack Towers, 34, had been a superb navigator in the Naval Academy (Class of 1906) and later on board two battleships. The skipper-navigators of the NC-1 and NC-4, respectively, were Lieutenant Commanders P. N. L. "Pat" Bellinger and A. C. "Putty" Read.
The immense flying boats, each powered by one pusher and three tractor 400-horsepower high-compression Liberty engines, took off from Rockaway on 8 May. By steady flying, and after a couple of touchdowns at sea for repairs and refueling layovers at Halifax, Nova Scotia, all three reached Trepassey Harbor, Newfoundland, by sundown of 15 May. From there, the boats prepared to take off for the Azores, some 1,320 miles to the southeast. This leg, the longest of the journey, would be followed by shorter legs to Lisbon, Portugal, and Plymouth, England.
In addition to navigator-plane commander Towers, the flagship NC-3 carried five stalwarts of the naval aviation community. Commander Towers selected Commander Richardson, Naval Aviator Number 13, as senior pilot because of his intimate knowledge of the hull. Richardson, who at 41 was the eldest crew member, had been taught to fly by Towers. His co-pilot, Lieutenant David H. McCulloch, 29, had been flying seaplanes long before he had joined the wartime Naval Reserve Flying Corps. Both men had worked with the NCs since the inception of the prototype.
The other three crewmen were each specialists. The officer responsible for the expedition's radio gear, including the flagship's wireless, was the erudite, stocky Lieutenant Commander Robert A. Lavender, 29. The engineer, 26-year-old Chief Boatswain Lloyd Ray "Dinty" Moore, was a qualified naval aviator and had joined the crew highly recommended as the best aviation mechanic available. Towers had chosen Lieutenant Junior grade) Braxton L. Rhodes, 26, to be reserve engineer because of his knowledge of the Liberty engines. The crews of the NC-1 and NC-4 were equally competent.
Weather conditions over the North Atlantic had been Commander Towers' greatest concern, so he was gladdened when his weather experts advised immediate departure for the Azores on the afternoon of 16 May. Destroyers were stationed every 50 miles along the course to aid in navigation and to render assistance should any of the planes need to set down for repairs or rescue.
The meteorologists' forecast called for partial low clouds and possible occasional showers to begin at the position of the eighth destroyer, the Walker (DD-163), and for light winds after station number 12, the Meredith (DD- 165). Towers was advised to fly above the clouds. The first transatlantic flight promised to be relatively easy.
The three flying boats taxied out into Trepassey Harbor, but Richardson could not lift the NC-3 off the water. The 28,300-pound load was just too heavy, meaning that something would have to go. Towers ordered Richardson to taxi back to the tender Aroostook (CM-3) and informed reserve engineer Rhodes—all 185 pounds—that he would have to leave, much to Rhodes' disappointment. This also meant that the entire engineering load shifted to the shoulders of Chief Moore. Floorboards, a mail bag, extra tools, and extra drinking water also went—and, over the fervent protests of radio officer Lavender, so did a 26-pound emergency radio transmitter.
These tradeoffs that Towers believed essential worked, and the NC-3 lifted off the water at 2206 Greenwich mean time, followed immediately by the NC-4 and the NC-1. Next stop—the harbor of Ponta Oelgada, San Miguel Island, in the Azores. Their expected flying time, "with present wind conditions during night," according to Navy weather forecasts, was 19 hours.
Flying into the night, Seaplane Division One climbed to 1,000 feet and followed the line of destroyers and their bright, skyrocketing star shells without difficulty. The appearance of thin clouds at destroyer station number three, the Buchanan (DD-131), surprised Towers, but he took the flagship above them to 4,000 feet, where he profited by the bright three-quarter moon and the stars, which assisted his navigation.
As the flying boats approached the Meredith, however, the clouds began to thicken. It was 0545 on 17 May and the three planes were eight hours from Trepassey. Towers could still see the NC-1, while Lavender intercepted messages from the NC-4 indicating she was "on course and well ahead." But the NC-1 soon disappeared from view as very heavy clouds enveloped her.
At 0623, soon after Towers sighted destroyer number 13, the Bush (DD-166), day began to break, revealing a thick cloud mass below. Towers had Lavender signal the Bush and called ahead for a weather report from number 16, the USS Hopewell (DD-181), one of five destroyers with a weather officer on board. He requested that star shells continue to be fired and radio compass bearing signals be transmitted to assist his navigation. Towers did not see any further star shells, however, and the heavy cloud cover soon obscured destroyer number 14, the Cowell (00-167). The NC-3 began making slight course changes, while the NC-4 and the NC-1 maneuvered independently.
Towers decided to descend to try and spot destroyer number 15, the Maddox (DD-168). At 0707, he called his pilots on the intercom and had them plunge 2,000 feet through a small hole in the clouds. Towers recounted later:
"We found the weather slightly hazy and threatening, and very shortly encountered heavy rain squalls…I knew that according to atmospheric laws, the winds up high were more from the north, and had been making allowance for this, but of course there was no way of telling how much allowance to make."
With the NC-3 at 1,500 feet and Towers looking to the north for the Maddox, his pilots checked in with him. One had spotted the shape of a vessel to the southwest. Towers later said, "[I] could not believe we had been set to the northward, but a look through the glasses showed that the ship was war-colored, and I decided it was No. 15." The rain had prevented him a clear view. Assuming the Maddox was in proper position, he said, "I changed course 20° to Southerly to pass within sight of No. 16 and pass over No. 17," the Hopewell and Stockton (00-73), respectively. Towers and the latter's captain later decided that the vessel sighted had been the gunboat Marietta (PG-15), heading home from European duty and some 15 miles south-southwest of the Maddox. Thus, the NC-3 was actually heading off to the southeast, well away from the destroyer station line.
Towers had Lavender transmit position reports every half-hour, but unknown to the crew, the radio's ground wire broke just after the plane passed beyond the Stockton. Though they could receive, their own transmissions were no longer being heard.
The weather thickened with fog, occasional high winds, and steady rain squalls, at times "so bad that we had to turn and run before them," Towers said. "We made frequent attempts to get above them, but they seemed to extend all the way up to the heavens." Visibility occasionally dropped to less than 100 yards, until even the wing tips were hardly visible, making navigation and flying extremely difficult. Towers did not know whether the NC-3 "was north or south of No. 17, so [we] changed course 10° to northward to run parallel to the proper course, hoping that the weather would clear and No. 18 [the destroyer Craven (00-70)] would be sighted." The plane "side-slipped" once, but stability was easily restored. It also had to detour around impenetrable rain squalls, flying at about 1, 000 feet.
After a night of steady flying, the three flying boats were faced with more horrendous weather. From the radio traffic Lavender reported that Read and Bellinger were having equal difficulties. Towers had his pilots try different altitudes, but as soon as they escaped the fog, they struck clouds and then bursts of rain. The NC-3's pilots, Richardson and McCulloch, already tired, now worked together. Richardson kept an eye on the wing tips while working the ailerons to keep the plane in trim, and McCulloch stayed on course by manipulating the rudder and elevator. McCulloch later reported:
“At times I sat close to the windshield and did not mind the rain so much, but the Commanding Officer and other pilot suffered from rain striking them in the face. We all expected the heavy raindrops to break our propellers, but fortunately they withstood the severe punishment.”
Eventually, the constant pelting of rain on the pilots' faces made them drowsy. "The medical officer at Rockaway had both forewarned and forearmed me for such an emergency," Towers said,and he administered two small doses of strychnine every hour to Richardson, who was in poorer shape than McCulloch. Richardson was finally compelled to take a rest, though he later recovered and returned to the controls. By this time, the forward visibility had deteriorated to less than 100 yards.
Throughout the morning, Towers strained his eyes looking for the three highest mountain peaks of the Azores—Corvo, Flores, and Pico. The furthest island beyond them in the 2S0-mile chain of islands was San Miguel and its port of Ponta Delgada—the NCs' destination—where the tender Melville (AO-2) waited.
At 1305, or an hour before noon local time, a sudden lull in the storm enabled Towers to catch sight of the sun through the haze. He took a quick sighting on it with his sextant, although the air was very rough, and the bubble marking the artificial horizon rocked with the plane. When he worked out the sighting, however, he got a line of position passing through Pico, near the small island of Fayal, which offered the harbor of Horta as an emergency landing place. There also lay the old cruiser Columbia (CA-16), moored as an emergency tender.
Discounting his hasty sighting of the sun, Towers figured the NC-3 was 50 miles southwest of Pico. “I decided to head up this line, 60° to the northward, for a while and hope for a break in the weather," he said.
All hands kept a sharp lookout as the haze closed in again, the noonday sun only barely visible. Dinty Moore came forward from his station aft to say that they had only two hours of fuel remaining. Towers pondered his options, among them the advisability of landing, stopping their engines, getting a radio bearing, and proceeding again. The more he thought about it, the more this seemed to be the most sensible course of action.
Towers left his perch in the bow and crawled back to the cockpit, where he wrote his idea on a pad, holding it up for McCulloch to read. Detailed discussion was impossible over the roar of the engines. Both pilots decided it was a wise plan, according to McCulloch, with Richardson assuring Towers that the two men had easily landed the plane in the waters off Delaware. Looking down from 500 feet, they believed that the surface of the sea, though only faintly visible, appeared sufficiently solid for a landing and takeoff.
Towers decided to land. After more than five hours battling the storms, the crew would welcome any respite. Having consumed most of the fuel, the plane would be light enough to take off again. Lavender began transmitting SOS signals and their position, but with the radio ground disconnected, none of his appeals were heard.
Richardson recalled: “We…swung round in a spiral to a landing and approached the surface cautiously, then picking a suitable opportunity, throttled [down] the wing engines close to the surface and then the center engines.” But then, in Towers’ words,
“[We] realized just as we were about to touch that there was a big sea running. It was too late to pull up. We touched the top of a big roller and jumped from that wave to another, then slid down the face of the second one with high velocity, and took the approaching wave with a very heavy blow.”
The crunch they felt on impact left no doubt as to the seriousness of the damage. Towers even “expected the hull to collapse,” but Richardson’s design was up to the test of its sturdiness.
Coming to a stop at 1330, the NC-3 had logged 15 hours 24 minutes in the air from Trepassey. The five men scrambled over their flying boat to discover the forward center tractor engine support struts badly bent—“like a bull-dog’s legs,” Richardson said—some main struts broken, and the hull seriously damaged above the water line, with a slight leak under the cockpit. The NC-3 would not take off again. The crew took a few minutes to rest.
Towers shot the sun again, and Lavender got a radio bearing on the Columbia, fixing their position 34.5 miles southwest of Horta. Lavender also now discovered and reconnected the parted radio ground wire. The crew moved their wind-driven wireless generator to a position behind the port engine, which gave it wind power to continue sending SOS signals and their position 100 miles out, but no transmissions were acknowledged.
Lavender learned from the busy air waves that the NC-4 had landed safely in the Azores, but that the NC-1 was also down north of the course and that a search for her was under way. The crew also heard inquiries about their own whereabouts. But to their chagrin, the destroyer searches were being undertaken between station numbers 16 and 18—400 miles too far to the west. Towers reckoned instead that the NC-3 was opposite destroyer station number 23. But no one seemed to be listening on the NC-3’s frequency.
All hands on board assumed they would eventually be picked up. Unfortunately, though, running the port engine in the 10- to 12-foot wind-whipped waves caused the plane to plunge forward heavily into the approaching seas until Towers finally had to shut it down. Without the engine, no radio signals could be sent out, only received. Suddenly, unloading the small emergency radio to lighten the ship before takeoff from Trepassey took a heavy toll.
The crew realized that if they were to be saved, they would have to do it. First, they took stock of their supplies: a few water-soaked sandwiches that had fallen into the bilge upon landing, five cakes of chocolate, and six small tins of emergency rations—all nourishing but not palatable. Even less tasty was the fresh water, available only from the four 11-gallon radiators, thick with iron rust and engine oil. Another weight-saving measure, the discarding of extra water, again had come to grief.
Next, they set their course and headed toward the shipping lane between Fayal and San Miguel to the northward in hopes they might be sighted by a passing ship. Failing that, the eastward-blowing winds might push them toward San Miguel—and Ponta Delgada, more than 200 miles away.
At 2000, Towers established two-hour watches for himself and his four crewmen, assigned them duties, and secured the ship, putting the precious Very pistol and flares into his pockets lest they be lost should the plane suddenly sink. The crew tightened wires loosened during the landing and rigged the U.S. flag upside down as a distress signal. Although no one had slept during the previous night’s long flight, all hands turned out in this struggle for survival, snatching only a few minutes of shuteye between watches and emergencies. The wind was then running between 65 and 70 miles per hour, varying from the southwest to northwest. Towers decided to sail the boat stern first, with the hull acting as centerboard.
To keep the NC-3 headed into the approaching seas, Towers played out two canvas buckets from a wire cable. He did not use the plane’s regular heavy sea anchor for fear it would cause too great a strain, snap the wire, and be lost. The drift did not exceed 15 miles per hour, enabling Richardson and McCulloch—trained navigators and seamen—to use the controls to head off the wind as much as four points. Despite the high winds and seas and “the general wrecked condition of the wings,” the crew avoided getting too far off wind, steered the NC-3 into the big rollers, and kept her from being swamped.
Through the night, waves and rain pounded the NC-3. But in spite of the gale force winds, Towers made sightings of the moon and the star Arcturus through holes in the clouds at 0530 on 18 May. These gave him a good fix; from which he could see that the boat was making progress, but toward the east rather than the north.
Dawn brought a heavy storm out of the north-northwest, with 45- to 50-mile-per-hour winds, a driving rain, and steep swells up to 30 feet. The flying boat began to yield to this pounding as first the wooden ribs of the lower left wing broke, then the tail went under, and finally the lower elevator snapped. Water began collecting in the wings’ fabric cavities and dragging them under, so Richardson and Moore crawled out to punch holes in them through which the water could pass. Later the two men inched themselves out again to cut away the broken lower wing and control column, which banged against the hull, threatening to cause a puncture.
Towers and Moore used the plane’s hand pump to clear the water from the leaking hull. At one point, they attached the hose from the pump to the center oil tank and poured oil over the side “to smooth out the seas.” This worked, except that the oil drifted away too fast, so they stopped. Also, Towers wanted to conserve his oil for possible use in the engines to power the radio and perhaps to assist in guiding the plane.
The real calamity occurred at 0900 when a heavy cross sea carried away the NC-3’s port wing pontoon, jeopardizing the plane’s stability should it roll to port. Moore’s lineman’s harness—used when he crawled about the plane in flight—was broken out, and each man took turns wearing it, strapped on to the outer starboard wing to keep that down, and the port wing top clear of the water. Between doing this, standing watch, and continuously pumping out the hull, there was time for little rest. At Towers’ command, each man rotated duties: two hours at the controls, one hour of “sleep,” one hour on the starboard wing, more sleep, and then back to the controls or to send distress signals over the wireless.
With the high seas further breaking the ribs of the lower wing, Towers thought of using such flotsam to determine the flying boat’s speed through the water. At 0930, he began his calculations by dropping a piece of rib or other wreckage over the stern (up front) and marking the time it required for the hull to drift past. Knowing the length of the hull (just shy of 45 feet), he then computed the speed in knots. It wasn’t quite like navigating on board his last ship—the USS Michigan (BB-27)—but it worked.
One half hour later, the violent waves broke off the canvas buckets serving as an anchor. In its place, the crew put out their big sea anchor, but it had been made by “someone who knew little about the force of the sea” and it was torn to pieces at once. Then they cast a piece of torn wing fabric as an anchor, but that too carried away. Next, they tried using a smaller piece and attached a doubled-up trailing antenna wire of the radio as the anchor cable. This held.
At midday, more havoc erupted when the lower elevator disintegrated from the force of a steep wave. Pieces from it threatened the guy wires and hull until it was swept away completely.
At 1330, however, the air cleared sufficiently for Richardson to notice the dim outlines of Pico’s 7,600-foot peak through clouds off to the northwest. Towers got a bearing and sextant altitude of the peak plus a meridian altitude of the sun to compute their position. It jibed with the dead reckoning from his earlier sightings and estimated drift: the NC-3 was 35 miles southeast of Pico. Rigging Lavender’s radio and starting the port engine to give it power, they transmitted their position, but without response. Meanwhile, the surging engine caused the boat to turn around and almost capsize from the cross seas. Some of the men wanted to use the engines to try to buck the sea and head north, but Towers overruled the notion, reasoning that the maneuver would have swamped them.
Then the 60-miles-per-hour wind shifted toward the northwest and began to blow the NC-3 away from land. The crew decided to work toward San Miguel by taking advantage of every lull in the waves to head off a little (to leeward) and make a course slightly across the wind. The more attempts Richardson and McCulloch made at this, the more successful they became. The thought of losing sight of land, Pico, and spending another night of uncertainty at sea was an unsettling prospect.
As the night of 18 May approached, high winds up to 45 knots continued to blow, and the sea swells remained enormous, at times reaching 30 feet. Some waves even curled, causing the flying boat to coast like a surfboard at a 20-knot clip. Towers said, “Although we had not discussed the subject, none of us expected to live through the night.” Towers, like his shipmates, kept himself awake most of the evening hours “by smoking and getting cold water dashed on me by the waves.” The rusty, oily radiator water and the chocolate cakes provided minimal nourishment, and McCulloch got seasick.
After moonrise near midnight, Towers used the sextant to get “a good cross between Arcturus and the moon, and checked it with sights of Vego, Denub, and Polaris,” the north star. Then he took his turn out on the starboard wing, where the wires and bolts had to be continually tightened against the seas’ heavy blows.
Towers’ admiration for his colleagues—none of whom got more than four hours sleep during the entire odyssey—was boundless. “Richardson and McCulloch were both at the controls practically all night,” he said. “Moore was everywhere.” Towers remembered:
[Well after midnight] I called Lavender, who was getting a little sleep aft, and he took my place on the wing. I crawled down under the pilot’s seat [to rest], but sleep was hopeless when you were one minute standing on your head, the next plunging feet down steep sloping waves and expecting to have the whole plane disintegrate. Eventually the water got so deep in the hull that I was flooded out, and Moore, Lavender, and I spent the next six hours pumping. The water was nearly two feet deep in the hull. One man had to lie in the water down under the gasoline tanks to keep debris from stopping up the suction while the others pumped, then we would change so the wet man could get warm.
Their hands all became badly swollen from this endless task.
Richardson soon learned to steer the plane with less effort by keeping the ailerons in a neutral position. This held the port wing up, gave the craft better stability, and meant that a man did not always have to be kept out on the starboard wing. Richardson reported later:
"This was important, for all hands had had little sleep, and it was dangerous for the man on the wing tip. If he should fall asleep…he could be washed overboard with almost no chance of recovery, as we were averaging 12 knots astern at the time…We found that each wave crest had to be tackled individually and square to the crest."
This task was difficult, since the wind changed continuously, and the waves could not be seen far ahead in the darkness, Even the phosphorescence of the white caps led the men's tired eyes to imagine these as ship searchlights.
In the midst of these labors, the dawn of 19 May broke, a little clearer but with winds and seas only slightly more moderate. Towers realized that the NC-3 was almost in striking distance of San Miguel, and told the pilots to try to steer a course for the island, although a two-hour squall detoured them southward. San Miguel was considerably off the wind, but by careful operation of the controls, the pilots found they could gradually work to northward. At 0930, Towers knew he was on course after obtaining a good longitude line from shooting the sun. He computed their speed at six knots by again throwing wreckage over the stern and marking the time.
About 45 minutes later, Moore sighted land astern that is, ahead, with the NC-3 heading stern first-which Towers calculated was 44 miles away. It had to be San Miguel. Towers recalled:
"The effect on all hands was astonishing. After two days without seeing any sight of a vessel and expecting to go down at any moment, to have land in sight! I saw that if the wind held in direction, and we could continue to head three points off, slightly more to the north, we could make it. It was still rough, and we didn't know if the old wreck would hold together long enough to make shore. But there was hope, spelled with a great big H.
"The first thing I did was to go down in the hull and rescue my uniform hat from the bilge where it had fallen two days before. I had seen no further use for it, so I had just let it stay there and float about. The next was to unload from my pocket the waterproof package of Very's signal cartridges, and the Very's pistol. We continued to pump, but with a different spirit. All hands suddenly realized hunger and thirst. Realization of fatigue was to come later. Unanimous vote decided on bacon and eggs as the best food in the world [of which they had none]. I took some photographs of the personnel and of the NC-3. The idea of refusing assistance if offered then came, and we promptly hoisted our flag right side up…and hoisted our pennant."
In spite of heavy rain squalls which suddenly returned, the crew worked slowly to within seven miles of the coast of San Miguel, whereupon Towers laid course down to Ponta Delgada. This took most of the day. Finally, at 1612, some seven miles from port, Lavender stuck his head out from the hull and announced, "They have seen us!" His radio receiver had erupted with messages" flying about like mad." No one on shore or at the anchorage had imagined the NC-3 to have been so far to the east. Her appearance off the harbor entrance was a dramatic climax to her ordeal.
Moments later, at 1625, the fliers saw" a big smudge of smoke and spray," as the USS Harding (DD-91) came dashing out. Towers grabbed the plane's Aldis lamp and blinked out a signal for her to stay clear, but to be ready to render assistance if called upon. The destroyer answered, "It's a miracle! It's a miracle!" But the ship passed so close to the NC-3 that its wash created waves, forcing McCulloch and Moore to move about atop the wings to keep the plane balanced. Just then a big wave carried away the starboard pontoon, being dragged along by one wire, and the boat nearly went under. The crew finally cut the pontoon free, and Richardson started the center pusher engine. The NC-3 crabbed in under the eastern end of the breakwater and into the harbor.
"That place was perfect bedlam," Towers said. "Whistles were blowing, flags flying everywhere, and boats chasing about like mad. It looked like a comic moving picture, but it certainly looked good to us." Under a 21-gun salute from the Portuguese citadel and rocket and bomb bursts, the NC-3 twice barely escaped capsizing in the harbor. Then Towers accepted help from two clumsy whaleboats from the tender Melville; these helpers, however, became fouled in the surviving jury-rigged sea anchor. The NC-3 reached her moorings at 1830. An admiral's barge whisked the men ashore.
The crew had already learned by radio that the NC-4 had succeeded in reaching the Azores by air, whereupon fog had forced Commander Read to put her down at Horta, 153 nautical miles shy of Ponta Delgada, and 1,206 miles out of Trepassey. But Towers and the NC-3 had achieved 1,240 miles before landing at sea. Read had even landed seven minutes before Towers, and Bellinger and the NC-1 in waters off to the northwest just before that. So the NC-3 had set the record for nonstop distance and endurance—15 hours, 24 minutes in a 1,240-mile flight, plus more than 53 hours afloat over a course of another 205 miles.
Towers and his crew had performed magnificently both as seamen and as aviators-still managing to reach Ponta Delgada first; the NC-4 remained fogbound at Horta. Still, the NC-3 had failed to arrive at the Azores by air and was too wrecked to go on-the same fate suffered by the NC-1, whose crew had been rescued by a passing Greek merchantman. The main reason for the NC-3's defeat had been the inaccurate weather forecast. The initial storm on the morning of 17 May had confused Towers into thinking he was on course, whereas he had actually been far off to the south. Then,the decision to alight had proved unfortunate, as it had for the NC-1's Commander Bellinger, though no one on the NC-3 or the NC-1 had been able to see how high the sea had been running. Even if the NC-3 had managed to stay airborne and on course in the murk, it was likely that it would have plunged into one of the Azores' beclouded mountainsides; Commander Read had nearly done just that in the NC-4 before sighting land.
The epic voyage of the NC-3 was over, though the transatlantic flight of Seaplane Division One was not. The NC-1 sank while under tow, but Commander Read and the NC-4 completed the crossing to Europe, the first aircraft ever to accomplish the feat. As glorious as this achievement was, senior flag officers were equally impressed by the performance of Towers and his NC-3 crew, referred to by Rear Admiral Richard H. Jackson, the U. S. naval commander in the Azores, as the "most remarkable exhibition of pluck and skill and seamanship."
Rear Admiral C. P. Plunkett, commander of the Atlantic Fleet destroyers that had supported the crossing,echoed this sentiment to the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral William S. Benson:
"The wonderful exhibition of grit,skill, seamanship, navigation,and devotion to his mission by Commander Towers in successfully taking NC-3 to Ponta Del Gada [sic]stands out as the greatest accomplishment of the flight, and clearly demonstrates that officer's exceptional ability even under the most trying circumstances.
Indeed, Towers' considerable achievement proved an embarrassment to admirals who remained critical of aviators during the subsequent interwar period. But in 1925, the voyage of the NC-3 was even surpassed when Commander John Rodgers, Naval Aviator Number Two, and his crew of four landed their PN-9 flying boat 1,841 milesout of San Francisco and sailed it some 450 miles to Hawaii in ten days. One year later, Towers proved conclusively that aviators could also command ships of war when he became executive officer and later captain of the USS Langley (CV-1), the Navy's first aircraft carrier. His example set the precedent for all other naval aviators and culminated in his own command of the Pacific Fleet in 1946.
EDITOR 'S NOTE: This account is drawn from Dr. Reynolds' forthcoming biography of Admiral John H. Towers, to be published by the Naval Institute Press. Upon publication of the book, the admiral's extensive papers will be deposited with the Naval Historical Foundation al the Library of Congress.
After receiving his doctorate at Duke University, Dr. Reynolds taught naval history at the U.S. Naval Academy and the University of Maine and headed the Humanities Departl11enl at the U. S. Merchant Marine Academy. He is currently historical consultant of Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum in Charleston harbor, SC, and is author of a number of books on naval history,most recently The Fighting Lady: The New Yorktown in the Pacific War (Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., 1986).