10 Milestone Flights

You wouldn’t have wanted to be along on most of them.

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On a June 27 flight over Rockwell Field, one de Havilland DH-4B, flown by Lieutenants Virgil Hines and Frank Seifert, dropped a 50-foot rubber hose down to a recipient DH-4, flown by Army Air Service Lieutenant Lowell H. Smith. In the rear seat of the second craft, crew member John Richter grabbed the hose with his hands, connected it to the fuel tank in his DH-4, and opened a valve in the hose. Air-toair refueling was born. The technique enabled the receiving craft to keep flying over Rockwell for six and a half hours (and, incidentally, to set a distance record—3,293 miles).

5. First transatlantic air crossing

Having made the first solo, nonstop transatlantic flight, Charles Lindbergh became the romantic favorite for the loneliness-of-the-long-distance-flier archetype. But aircraft had first crossed the Atlantic years earlier, and in a decidedly less lyrical team effort. During World War I, the U.S. Navy had commissioned Glenn Curtiss to build flying boats with enough range to guard U.S. ships in the Atlantic against German submarines. Curtiss built four, NC-1 through NC-4 (“NC” stood for “Navy-Curtiss”), but the war ended before the craft could enter service.

Eventually, the Navy decided to enter the NCs in a competition sponsored by newspaper publisher Alfred Harmsworth, a.k.a. Lord Northcliffe. The award: £10,000 for the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

On May 8, 1919, NC-1, NC-3, and NC-4, each with six crew members, took off from Rockaway Naval Air Station on Long Island, bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia. (NC-2 had been damaged and was grounded; it served as a source for spare parts for the other “Nancies,” as the Navy called the NCs.) On May 16, the three craft left Canada for the long, gray haul over the Atlantic. To help the effort, the Navy stationed ships across the ocean to serve as navigation aids.

As the NCs approached the Azores, islands located 600 miles from Portugal, the weather turned miserable—rainy and foggy. The crews of the NC-1 and NC-3 landed their craft on the sea to await clearer weather, but they sustained damage and were unable to take off. The NC-1 crew was picked up by a Greek steamer. NC-3 drifted over 200 miles before it got to the Azores.

NC-4 had better luck. On May 27, it finally landed in the Tagus River of Lisbon, Portugal. “We are safely on the other side of the pond,” Lieutenant Commander Albert Read radioed, a tad prosaically. “The job is finished.”

6. First flight on instruments

On the morning of September 24, 1929, at Mitchel Field in Long Island, New York, Army Air Corps Lieutenant James H. Doolittle set about the task of blinding himself. He sat under a canvas canopy that had been installed in the rear cockpit of a Consolidated NY2 Husky. His only source of illumination: an instrument on the control panel that gave off green light. Doolittle was preparing to make the world’s first flight without any recourse to the view through his windscreen. He would depend entirely on instruments—the turn-and-bank indicator, airspeed indicator, artificial horizon, directional gyro, barometric altimeter, and short-range landing beam system, plus a stopwatch.

Doolittle had wanted to make the blind flight alone, but the organization sponsoring the project, the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics, insisted that a second pilot, Lieutenant Ben Kelsey, be in the open front cockpit, which had a duplicate set of controls, in case it was necessary to avert a mid-air collision, a theoretical danger on an instrument-only flight.

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