First Across the Sea: H. C. Richardson and the Historic Transatlantic Flight of 1919

In Search of Old Shamokin, June 2020 edition

Just over 100 years ago, a Shamokin native played a vital role in a remarkable yet often overlooked achievement in the history of aviation—the first successful transatlantic flight. In an arduous three-week journey in May 1919, Holden Chester Richardson was one of a crew of naval aviators who pioneered the way across the Atlantic Ocean aboard three U.S. Navy seaplanes from New York to Great Britain.

Holden Chester Richardson, c. 1915-1920
Library of Congress

There is perhaps no chapter of aviation history more misunderstood than that of the first transatlantic flight. Traditionally, the distinction is attributed to Lindbergh, who completed the first nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. It could just as easily be accorded to the two British aviators Alcock and Brown for having made a similar nonstop journey from June 14-15, 1919. But both were preceded in crossing the Atlantic by the trio of seaplanes known as the NC, or Navy-Curtiss, flying boats. Because the flight was neither continuous nor solo, it was quickly overshadowed by the later record breakers, leaving the story of the NCs to an undeserved obscurity.

The Navy’s transatlantic mission was not originally intended to make history. Its more practical origin traces back to World War I, when the U.S. Navy collaborated with Glenn H. Curtiss to design a series of seaplanes, or flying boats, capable of unassisted transoceanic flight for use in reconnaissance. This collaboration led to the designation NC, for Navy-Curtiss. The first of the line, NC-1, successfully completed her crucial test flight on October 4, 1918, piloted by then-Commander Holden C. Richardson. World War I ended before the planes could be put to use, but the project continued. During the Navy-Curtiss project, Richardson worked closely with Glenn H. Curtiss and contributed substantially to the hull design of the NC flying boats.

Then about forty years old, Richardson was already considered one of the foremost naval aviators in the country. Born in Shamokin in 1878 to William A. Richardson and Elmira Jane Douty, he was a member of one of the most notable local families of the time, being the grandson of Richard B. Douty, first chief burgess of Shamokin.

Speaking in 1928, Dr. Charles E. Beury recalled Richardson’s childhood years in Shamokin:

“As a boy, he had a penchant for things that fly. He had his kites and flew them scientifically from the Cameron culm bank. On one occasion he personally tested the lifting qualities of a kite by jumping from a low roof of his home…[T]he inquiring spirit of an inventive genius was always his.”

Graduating from Shamokin High School in 1896, young Richardson went on to enter the Naval Academy the following year and graduated in 1901. He displayed an aptitude for construction and was designated an assistant naval constructor in 1904. Focusing on aviation, Richardson’s designs included the first turntable catapult for launching aircraft from the deck of a ship. He also designed a large twin-motored seaplane that was constructed at the Washington Navy Yard in 1915 and was among the first multi-engine planes designed or built.

Richardson was the pilot aboard the NC-3 when the planes embarked on the first leg of their voyage on May 8, 1919. The hazardous and complex path across the Atlantic would take the aviators from the Naval Air Station at Rockaway Beach in New York, on to Halifax, Nova Scotia; Trepassey Bay, Newfoundland; the Azores; Lisbon, Portugal; and finally Plymouth, England. Given the primitive radio and navigational technology available to aviators of the time, officials took every possible measure to ensure the flight’s success, including stationing 53 U.S. destroyers along the route as guides to keep the NCs on course. Even so, the planes were at the mercy of poor visibility and rapidly changing weather conditions. The NC-1 went down near the Azores, her crew narrowly rescued by a passing ship. Out of the three seaplanes, only one, the NC-4, ultimately made it to Plymouth and successfully completed the first “hop” across the Atlantic.

While the NC-3 was unable to complete the flight, Richardson and the crew survived what was perhaps the most harrowing experience of the mission. Short of the Azores, the NC-3 encountered heavy fog and was forced to make a sea landing to determine position. The landing was a rough one, causing damage to the hull and the engine struts. Capable of receiving radio transmissions but out of range of sending them, the crew was powerless to call for help as station ships searched for the downed aircraft in her last known location—300 miles in the wrong direction. At home, the NC-3 was feared lost.

Meanwhile, Richardson and the crew struggled to keep the craft from capsizing as it began to break up. Already near the point of exhaustion after almost 24 hours of flying, the crew worked in shifts to stay alert—though sleep was nearly impossible in the midst of high winds and waves—and subsisted on waterlogged rations and rusty water from the engine radiators.

After more than two days, the NC-3 was finally able to taxi into the Azores port of Ponta Delgada on May 19, 1919, where she was spotted by warships. While drifting at sea, the NC-3 had been flying the stars and stripes upside down as a distress signal; now, the crew raised the flag upright and sailed the crippled flying boat into the harbor under her own power amid great fanfare from Americans and Portuguese alike.

“It was a wonderful sight,” Richardson wrote in a report to the press. “The sun was still high, the ships were dressed with flags and the colors stood out brilliantly as the flags whipped in the breeze. The scene was one never to be forgotten and with our relief from the long tension, our feelings cannot be described.”

In the years following, Richardson served a long and distinguished career in the Navy. For his role in the successful flight of the NCs, he was awarded the Navy Cross in 1920. He also served as the first secretary of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the agency which paved the way for NASA. In 1928, Richardson Field—now known as Northumberland County Airport—was named in his honor.

“[Richardson] was a vital part of naval aviation in its embryonic age,” the Naval Aviation News wrote in 1977. “He left it in the forefront of research and development. He witnessed startling technological advances and initiated many of his own. He was a man for his time.”

For more on the flight of the NCs, see this 1970 U.S. Navy film, The Great Flight. Includes footage of the NC-3 as well as Richardson and crew in Ponta Delgada.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s