Eight years before Lindbergh’s solo flight, three Navy seaplanes left from Jamaica Bay in Rockaway to cross the ocean by air. And 100 years later, from the same spot where history was made, that achievement was celebrated.
On May 8, the Rockaway Coast Guard Station was filled with military members and the National Park Service, family members, and schoolchildren to commemorate the Navy and Coast Guard men who crossed skies above the Atlantic Ocean before anybody else.
“We know about the space race, but this particular event is just as important, if not more important,” said 32nd District Councilman Eric Ulrich, who hosted Wednesday’s event. “Because Americans are always looking to test the limits and to break the barriers and to show the rest of the world that it can be done.”
On May 8, 1919, the Navy seaplanes NC-1, NC-3, and NC-4, each with a crew of six, departed from Jamaica Bay on a five-leg flight. From Rockaway’s Naval Air Station, the planes flew to Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Portugal’s Azores Islands, Lisbon, and Plymouth, England.
The longest and most audacious leg of the flight was across the ocean from Newfoundland to the Azores Islands, covering over 1,200 nautical miles.
Of the three planes, only the NC-4 successfully completed this leg, flying at a maximum speed of 90 mph and taking roughly 17 hours. The journey as a whole took three weeks.
To help attendees envision the challenges faced by the crewmen, John Bayer, who served in the U.S. Navy Reserve, said that on the day the flight took off, “the NC-4 is only a week old.
“It only has five hours of flying time,” he continued. “Let that sink in for a second: departing for the very first flight across an entire ocean, the airplane has been tested for five hours. So these crews were quite intrepid.”
During the ceremony, the speakers not only insisted that it was important for the children in attendance to understand the significance of the flight, but to embrace the same innovative drive that led the NC-4 to cross the Atlantic.
“While the tools of the craft may have changed since these brave souls took flight, it’s safe to say that that pioneering spirit and an obsessive focus on war-fighting innovation and readiness remains a universal constant in your Navy today,” added John Mustin, whose great grandfather was naval aviator Henry C. Mustin, a colleague of the men who made the flight.
To ensure the story of the flight remains told, Ulrich presented Proclamations from the City Council to the US Navy and Coast Guard celebrating the 100th anniversary of the takeoff from Rockaway.
“It was a really big deal, but unfortunately it’s kind of been forgotten by history,” said Robby Schwach, Ulrich’s deputy chief of staff, who was instrumental in organizing the event. “Most people are familiar with the flight of Charles Lindbergh eight years later. He did it all by himself, but he wasn’t the first.”
The celebration was complete with a military flyover, FDNY fire boat, and music from marching bands from Scholars’ Academy and the Channel View School for Research.
Following the ceremony by the water, attendees crossed the road to the corner of Beach 169th Street, which is now officially co-named “US Navy Seaplane Division One Way.”
The original flight would not have been possible without naval aviator John Henry Towers, who conceived and led the flight. Members from his family were in attendance and spoke of the centennial’s importance.
“It means a ton to my family that there’s people here who’ve put this together to celebrate and keep the dream alive,” said Will McNamara, a JetBlue pilot and great-grandson to Towers. “There’s also a lot of students here from local schools, and I hope it inspired them to be the next leaders when it comes to aviation.
Also in attendance was 93-year-old John “Bud” Daly, son of John “Barney” Daly, who was the rigger for the cables that held the wings together.
“He’d be happy to see that it had a ceremony, and that they didn’t forget about it,” he said. “It’s a good celebration of what happened.”
A special exhibition, “100th Anniversary of the First Transatlantic Flight,” will be on display in Fort Tilden’s T7 Gallery. The exhibition is free and open Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays until June 2.
“This is a very important way for us to keep the memories alive of those who served and to honor their legacies and to honor our great country,” Ulrich said.