Written by Debra Lawless | Photographs courtesy of Chatham Historical Society
A seaplane attempting to fly across the Atlantic Ocean landed near Chatham on May 8, 1919, because of mechanical problems. The Navy called in local resident George W. Goodspeed to repair the plane’s engines, which allowed the crewmen to complete their journey and make history in the process.
One hundred years ago, the NC-4 seaplane was forced to land in choppy waters about 80 miles east of Cape Cod because of two faulty engines.
The plane’s commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. Albert Cushing Read, knew of a safe place: Naval Air Station Chatham, commissioned in 1918 to protect coastal shipping during World War I. Read, 32, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, was familiar with Chatham because his family had lived there in the 1890s. About 14 hours after landing, the NC-4 arrived at the mouth of Chatham Harbor where a “sea sled” towed the plane from the naval station to Pleasant Bay. The press dubbed the NC-4 a “lame duck.”
The NC-4, carrying a crew of six, had taken off from Long Island with two other seaplanes—the NC-1 and NC-3. The three planes were attempting to make history by flying across the Atlantic for the first time; the initial leg of their journey would take them 712 miles to Halifax.
The NC-4, which had an upper wingspan of 126 feet—just 4 feet short of a Boeing 707—was a clunky flying boat. “It was enormous,” says Don Broderick, a retired career Navy pilot and volunteer at the Chatham Historical Society, who added that it was the biggest plane built in America at the time. The 28,000-pound plane, run by four Liberty V-12 engines, had a combined horsepower of 1,600. The NC-4 could take off and land only on water—it had a hull instead of landing gear.
To repair the plane’s two engines, the Navy called in George W. Goodspeed, a 22-year-old Chatham resident. It took him four days. “He was well known in the area for his ability to fix almost anything,” said his granddaughter Donna Lumpkin of Chatham. In 1986, the Navy honored Goodspeed with a commendation letter. His name also appears on the wall of honor at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Once the repairs were complete, the NC-4 flew to Halifax on May 14 and rejoined the NC-1 and NC-3 in Trepassey, Newfoundland. Two days later, on May 16, the three planes took off for the longest leg of their journey: a 15-hour, 1,380-mile flight over the Atlantic to Horta in the Azores. The pilot and the co-pilot sat on what Broderick calls “little park benches” in an open cockpit. An observer rode in front of the pilots and three more crewmen rode in the back. To communicate with the pilots, “they would write notes and crawl through a tunnel and hand them to the pilot,” says Broderick.
Most of the leg over the Atlantic was flown at night. The primitive instrument panel offered the pilot no way of knowing the plane’s attitude (yes, attitude)—its orientation to earth. At night, you cannot see a plane’s wings in relation to the horizon. “The pilots don’t know if they’re climbing, descending or turning,” says Broderick. “Your brain gets totally confused and it’s deathly.”
Over the Atlantic, Navy ships stationed every 50 miles sent up flares in the dark to help guide the pilots. Despite search lights and radio communications, the planes still got lost several times. Both the NC-1 and NC-3 went down in fog, leaving only the NC-4 as the sole plane to reach the Azores.
From the Azores, the NC-4 flew 800 miles to Portugal, landing at twilight on May 27 in the harbor at Lisbon. “We are safely across the pond. The job is finished,” stated Read’s message as the NC-4 made history. From Portugal, the NC-4 flew to Plymouth, England. It was 24 days since the NC-4 departed Long Island. Total flying time was 53 hours and 58 minutes. Read and his crew received the Distinguished Service Medal for the flight.
Chatham residents never forgot the NC-4. The plane’s propeller hung for many years at Chatham Municipal Airport while a model of the plane dangled from the ceiling of a fruit store on Main Street. In 1979, Chatham erected a bronze plaque at the end of Strong Island Road, close to where the NC-4 was repaired. Goodspeed, who became a licensed pilot in 1932, unveiled the plaque. The flight of the NC-4 was recreated in 1986 and today the restored NC-4 is on display in the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida.