Flight of the NC-4
Alcock and Brown
losses across the Atlantic
Charles Lindbergh
Wrong Way Corrigan


the Atlantic Strikes Back

During the five years of Raymond Orteig’s challenge, there were no serious contenders for the prize, so he renewed the challenge for another five years. The first serious entrants into the contest (fliers wishing to be considered had to first register with the Aero Club of America) were, as Orteig had hoped, French. Two veterans of the war wounded in action, French ace Paul Tarascon and François Coli, outfitted a Poletz biplane for the flight during the summer of 1925.

The ill-fated Sikorsky S-35 at Curtiss Field, 1926

They planned to drop the wheeled undercarriage after taking off and land on skids on a golf course in Rye, just north of New York City. Racing against them was another French team flying a Farman Goliath bomber that had set an endurance record of forty hours in the air. The Poletz,  trying to duplicate the endurance record of the Goliath, crashed and exploded; the crew just barely escaped with their lives. In the United States, a captain of the Air Service Reserve, Homer M. Berry, decided he would take a crack at the prize, and he organized a company for that purpose, Argonauts, Inc., with the help of New Hampshire paper magnate Robert Jackson. Berry and Jackson then contracted with the recent émigré Igor Sikorsky to build a plane that could make the trans-Atlantic flight.

 Fonck was frequently photographed in the cockpit  of the S-35 wearing anything but flying togs.

Sikorsky had just fled the Russian Revolution and, with the help of some illustrious refugees (like Sergei Rachmaninoff), was establishing an aircraft manufacturing business on American soil. By the end of 1925, Sikorsky had constructed for the Argonauts the S-35, a huge biplane with a 101-foot (31m) wingspan and weighing nine tons (8t) when fully fuelled (but without crew and cargo); it was at first powered by two Liberty engines, then by three Gnome-Rhone Jupiter 450-hp engines.

Sikorsky built and serviced the plane—now named New York-Paris—at Roosevelt Field on Long Island, New York, and all of New York (it seemed), including the flamboyant mayor, Jimmy Walker came out to watch the plane put through its paces. Berry no doubt thought that he would pilot the plane, but late in 1925 the legendary French ace René Fonck visited the hangar where the S-35 was being built.

The favourites to win the Orteig Prize in 1926 were Igor Sikorsky (far left) and Captain René Fonck (far right), who are seen here being visited by the assistant secretaries of war, Trubie Danison and (to his left) William McCracke

He made it clear to the Argonauts that he would welcome an invitation to fly the plane, and the Argonauts happily obliged, making Berry the co-pilot. Fonck made all sorts of demands on the design of the plane itself, including insisting that the fifteen-foot (4.5m) cabin be decorated in red satin, gold fittings, and mahogany and leather panelling. All this irked Sikorsky, who was depending on the S-35 to make his reputation, but Fonck, aside from being a hero of the war, had been instrumental in procuring the Jupiter engines. The crew had grown to five, and at the last minute Berry was forced out in favour of a navigator supplied by the U.S. Navy. Finally, after anticipation had risen to a fever pitch, the date for the take-off was set for September 21, 1926, if weather permitted.

Thousands of New Yorkers lined the field to witness this historic moment. Fonck led the grand procession to the plane, and all the crew had baggage and gifts loaded onto the plane. Fonck was given a basket of croissants by Orteig, which he cheerfully tossed into the cabin. Sikorsky watched nervously and estimated that the gross weight of the plane was well over fourteen tons (12.5t)—more than ten thousand pounds (4,540kg) over specifications.

The S-35 was among the most advanced aircraft of its day, and in the opinion of most experts would be able to make the trans-Atlantic flight to Paris with little difficulty. And yet....

Later there would be some question whether Sikorsky said anything to Fonck, but at the time it probably would not have mattered. Fonck and the others were completely caught up in the moment. During take-off, a wheel on the undercarriage came loose when the plane passed over a rough service road that crossed the runway. Jacob Islamov, a friend of Sikorsky and the plane’s mechanic, was in charge of releasing part of the landing gear once the plane was airborne (to reduce the load). Thinking the entire plane would roll over, Islamov released the landing gear, sending the plane hurtling over the hill at the end of the runway. The crowd watched in horror as  the plane disappeared silently over the hill; then a great explosion erupted and shook the ground and lit up the sky.

Sikorsky ran the length of the field and found Fonck and another crewman crawling away from the burning wreckage; Islamov and the radio man were trapped inside. Fonck stood dazed, watching the fire and the frantic, but futile, efforts of rescuers. “It is the fortunes of the air,” he pronounced, and Sikorsky eyed him poisonously. At the inquest, Fonck was accused by many (including, naturally, Berry) of not being competent to fly so large a plane and of not aborting the take-off when the wheel fell off.

Sikorsky was mildly reprimanded for not carrying out the complete regimen of flight tests with full loads (though the problem, it was determined, had not been with the plane, but with the runway and undercarriage), and the navy man, a former aide to Admiral Moffett, vouched for Fonck’s abilities. The coroner, possibly bowing to political pressure, exonerated Fonck and ruled the crash “an unfortunate accident.” Most amazing of all,  perhaps, is that after the inquest Sikorsky and Fonck announced that they would build a new plane and try again the next year.

The S-35 was only the first casualty to be claimed by the Atlantic; before Lindbergh’s flight, there would be others. Following his successful flight over the North Pole, Richard Byrd persuaded a young Norwegian flier, Bernt Balchen, to join him, Floyd Bennett, and George Noville, as a ground-crew member in an attempt to cross the Atlantic.

Byrd placed his plane, the Josephine Ford, on display in department stores owned by Rodman Wanamaker, which led to Wanamaker’s enthusiastic backing of the trans-Atlantic flight. Byrd ordered a new Fokker Trimotor, and Wanamaker sentimentally named it the America (after the Curtiss boat plane he financed before the war for a trans-Atlantic flight). During a test flight in Teterboro, New Jersey, with Fokker himself at the controls and the three crew members aboard, the plane flipped over  during landing. Byrd had a broken arm, Bennett a fractured leg, and Noville was most seriously hurt with internal injuries; only Anthony Fokker walked away from the crash unhurt.

Seen here in 1926 is Floyd Bennett, pilot of Commander Richard E. Byrd’s Josephine Ford, a Fokker triplane, which flew over the North Pole.

The flight of  the America would be delayed until craft and crew mended. Another entrant was Noel Davis, commander of the Naval Reserve Station in Boston, who had tried to get support since 1925 for a try at the Orteig prize. In January 1927, he filed that he would be flying a tri- motor manufactured by the Keystone Aircraft Corporation. Keystone called the model the Pathfinder (only one was built), but he called the plane the American Legion because most of the funding was coming from the Legion, which hoped that a successful flight would publicize the convention it was having in Paris that summer. During trials out of Langley Field, Virginia, in April 1927, the plane lost power and dove into a marsh, killing Davis and Stanton Wooster, his co-pilot.

Meanwhile, the French made another attempt at the prize. Charles Nungesser, France’s second highest ranked war ace (second only to Fonck, and considered a better flier), teamed up with Francois Coli and the two prevailed upon the airplane builder Pierre Levasseur (of Antoinette fame) to equip a plane he was building for the French Navy for a trans-Atlantic flight.

Levasseur PL 8

The plane, the PL-8, was an open-cockpit biplane with a detachable undercarriage and a watertight fuselage that could float on water. It was Nungesser’s plan to eject the undercarriage after takeoff and land in New York Harbour on the  fuselage. Nungesser painted the plane white and called it L’Oiseau Blanc (The White Bird), putting his trademark skull-and-crossbones-in-a-black-heart emblem on the side of the plane.

Charles Nungesser, heroic aviator of World War I, was known as the “Prince of Pilots.” His disappearance over the Atlantic was a tragedy that was deeply felt by the entire aviation community.

Nungesser and Coli took off from Le Bourget Field (they claimed they were flying the more difficult east-west direction out of patriotism, but the simple fact was that they had no money to transport the plane to New York) on May 8, 1927, Joan of Arc Day and the anniversary of the beginning of the flight of the NC boats. Candles were lit all over France and prayers were uttered in churches as the entire nation turned out to watch the plane fly over the coast of Normandy toward America.

The weather reports were discouraging—at Roosevelt Field, Clarence Chamberlin, engineer of the Wright engines, heard reports of Nungesser’s takeoff and of the weather over the Atlantic, and muttered, “I don’t see how Nungesser can make it.” A report was sent to Paris, resulting in a detailed front-page story, that Nungesser and Coli had landed safely near the Statue of Liberty. France erupted in joyous celebration, but the report proved false, which made the later disappointment even greater. The White Bird was never seen again, and it was all the U.S. State Department could do to dispel rumours that American weatherman had withheld weather information that would have delayed the flight. No part of the wreckage of the White Bird has ever been found.

The deaths did not end even after Lindbergh’s flight in May 1927. Before the end of the year, three other planes set out to cross the Atlantic and did not make it. The first, an east-west flight in a single engine Fokker called the St. Raphael, took off from England on August 31, bound for Ottawa. The plane was piloted by two experienced RAF pilots, Leslie Hamilton and Fred Minchin, and had an illustrious passenger: Princess Anne Lowenstein-Wertheim. Wertheim was well known as an intrepid aviator with several records to her credit. She kept her involvement in the flight secret (mainly because of her aristocratic family’s objections to her flying career) until just before boarding. The plane was spotted en route by an oil tanker, and then disappeared into the Newfoundland fog. For years, searchers combed the Canadian wilderness for wreckage, but found nothing.

The Fokker F.VIIA "Old Glory" that James DeWitt Hill and Lloyd Bertaud used for their attempted transatlantic flight

On September 6, a Fokker single-engine called Old Glory took off from Old Orchard Beach, Maine, for Rome, attempting the first nonstop U.S.—Rome flight. The plane was sponsored by William Randolph Hearst, who, ever sensitive to publicity, had Philip Payne, editor of the New York Daily Mirror, one of his newspapers, go along on the flight to drop a wreath over the Atlantic that read, “Nungesser and Coli: You showed the way. We followed. (Lloyd) Bertaud and Payne and (James D.) Hill.” The next day, an SOS was received and rescue ships raced to the spot 600 miles (960km) off the Newfoundland coast. They found the plane bobbing in the water, but there were no bodies and no indication of what had happened. Even before the wreckage of the Old Glory was found, another plane took off to cross the Atlantic, the Sir John Caning, with a British crew of two.

It disappeared without a trace over the Atlantic, without so much as an SOS. On September 9, 1927, the U.S. Department of State and the Navy, in response to public revulsion at all the lost fliers, called a halt to further transoceanic attempts.