The Trans-Atlantic Flight of the 'America'
29th - July 1st, 1927
After his 1926 flight over the North Pole, then-Commander Richard E. Byrd,
USN, was not happy with simply being the leader of the first flight over the
North Pole. Byrd had planned the first trans-Atlantic flight completed by
the U.S. Navy in 1919. So, in February of 1927, Floyd Bennett, long-time
partner of Byrd and co-pilot of his famed North Pole flight, announced the
intention to attempt to win the 'Orteig Prize', the $25,000 reward offered in
1919 by Raymond Orteig, owner of the Hotel Lafayette in New York City, for the
first successful non-stop flight from New York City to Paris. Byrd was
interested in the flight, albeit for simply scientific purposes.
The Mighty Atlantic
In March of 1927, Byrd announced he had the backing of the 'American
Trans-Oceanic Company, Inc.', which was established in 1914 by Rodman Wanamaker
with the purpose of building the aircraft to complete the harrowing journey. Having gained the financial
backing of Wanamaker's department store (where the airplane for Byrd's first
historic flight was displayed), Byrd seemed, for a time, to be a serious
contender, and heavy favorite, for winning the Orteig Prize, despite competitors
from several other nations, including France, England, and Italy.
a right aircraft seemed to be a simple task for Byrd for he picked a craft he
was familiar with. The Fokker C-2 monoplane was chosen as it was a very similar
airframe and design to the Fokker F.VII which he had used for his Arctic
flight a few years earlier seem a logical choice. The C-2 had three reliable 220hp
Wright J-5 engines,
the necessary range and plenty of room for his scientific instruments critical
to the flight. It was given, by the U.S. government, the tail registration
number of NX-206.
However, during a test flight of Byrd's airplane on April 16th, 1927, Byrd
observed the tail of the aircraft as it sped down the runway.
The plane went over its nose and crashed at Hasborough, New Jersey, injuring
three of the four aboard, and slightly damaging the plane. Byrd fractured
his wrist, but Bennett, who was pinned against an engine, suffered a broken leg
and collarbone, dislocated shoulder, and serious head injuries, while George O. Noville, the plane's flight and fuel engineer, endured an operation to
Bennett, left, shakes hands and wishes luck to Byrd, right
Anthony Fokker, the airplane's designer, did not even suffer a
scratch. With Bennett hospitalized for several weeks to come, Byrd was
forced to find a replacement for him, delaying the anticipated flight.
Byrd needed a solid navigator and instrument pilot as the replacement.
At the suggestion of Fokker, Byrd selected Bernt Balchen as Bennett's
replacement on the crew. Balchen, a Norwegian test pilot for Fokker, and
former member of Roald Amundsen's airship expedition to the North Pole in 1926,
was personally given $500 by Fokker for accepting the assignment, and also was
outfitted for the journey by Wanamaker's department store in Paris.
Nevertheless, a French attempt at the prize was flown by Captains Charles
Nungesser and Francois Coli, leaving May 8th from Le Bourget airfield in France,
headed for New York. The plane, a Levasseur PL-8 biplane, painted with his
World War I insignia of a black heart, two burning candles, a coffin, and skull
and cross bones, and named l'Oiseau Blanc (French for 'white bird"),
set out over the Atlantic Ocean, never to be seen again.
On May 11th, the financial backers of Byrd's attempt, including Rodman
Wanamaker of the same-named department store, announced that Byrd's airplane would not be allowed to head to Paris until Nungesser and
Coli's fate had been determined one way or the other. At that same time, a
young and relatively unknown American airmail pilot named Charles Lindbergh
arrived in New York City from a transcontinental flight in his plane, a Ryan B-1
Brougham named "The Spirit of St. Louis". On the morning
of May 20, 1927, Lindbergh flew from New York and, thirty-three and a half hours
later on May 22nd, landed safely near Paris, alone and non-stop, claiming the
Rodman Wanamaker, the store's president and Byrd's chief backer, however
insisted the plane be named, "America", after a Curtiss boat
plane he financed for
trans-Atlantic journey years earlier. The "America" was
christened in a public ceremony on May 21, 1927,
(almost at the same moment that, in France, Lindbergh successfully landed)
sponsored by Mrs. Hector Munn and Mrs. Gurnee Munn, the daughters of Rodman
Wanamaker. The two women broke over the bow of the plane bottles of water
brought from the Delaware River at the point where General Washington crossed
with his troops. Also present at the ceremony were Pierre Mory,
the French Vice Consul in New York City; Grover M. Whalen, Vice President of the
American Trans-Oceanic Company; Harry F. Byrd, Governor of Virginia, and brother
of Commander Byrd; as well as Commander Byrd's mother and wife.
Looking upon the trans-oceanic flight now as valuable training and scientific
experience, and not as a prize-winning venture, Byrd continued his preparations
for the flight. Meanwhile, another Orteig contender, the Bellanca
monoplane named 'Colombia', piloted by Clarence D. Chamberlin and backed by
Charles A. Levine, who was also a passenger on the flight, flew the second
non-stop flight across the Atlantic, landing in Berlin, Germany, on June 6th,
1927, after over 42 hours of flight, and having traveled a distance of 3,905
Early in the morning of June 29th,
"America" rolled down the specially-built ramp designed to maximize
its use of runway space, and took off from Roosevelt Field in New York City, bound for
Paris, France, with a crew of 4 under the command of then-Commander Richard E.
Byrd. Also aboard were Bert Acosta
and Bernt Balchen as relief pilots and Lieutenant George O. Noville as flight
engineer & wireless radio operator.
The flight crew of "America" from left to
right - Lieutenant George O. Noville, Lieutenant Commander Richard E.
Byrd, Bertrand Acosta, and Bernt Balchen. This photo was taken
shortly after they landed in France.
Byrd had been delaying the flight, waiting ideal weather, but was marred by some of the worst weather
imaginable for flying. After flying out of New England and over
Newfoundland, Acosta accidentally lost control of the aircraft, sending her
towards the sea. A last-moment correction from Balchen saved the ship and
crew from the cold waters. At one point in the flight, radio troubles
developed when Noville's feet became tangled in the wiring of the radio set.
clouds, fog, heavy winds, and rain, the "America" flew out onward to
the east, with Byrd scribbling repeatedly in his diary, "Impossible to
navigate". At regular intervals, the plane's position was tracked, but as
the plane approached the coast of France, the compass begun to malfunction.
After a flight of over forty hours, the airplane managed to arrive over
Paris, but was unable to land due to heavy fog, even after 6 hours (and, at
observers reported, nearly hitting the Eiffel Tower).
"I'll never forget those last few moments," said Byrd, nearly
twenty years after the event. "It was the most dramatic thing that ever
happened to me and that includes the flight over the North Pole and the later
trips over the South Pole."
Balchen took the
controls of the aircraft, flying the plane 150 miles back to the west and, low
on fuel, forced a water landing 300 yards off the shore near Ver-sur-Mer, in
Normandy. The tail of the plane became bent, a two-foot wide slash opened in the
side of the fuselage, the landing gear became erased from the plane, and the
three propellers all broke.
The monoplane finally sunk and settled in the water up to its wing-level, but
Balchen saved the lives of the crew, who had to row via a rubber raft stowed
aboard to the shore. However, in the process of ditching, Acosta snapped his
"On land," Byrd recalled, "we started knocking on doors in the
tiny village in the middle of the night. We looked like bums. Our high school
French was lousy. The residents wouldn't believe we had just dropped in from
America. They closed doors in our faces. Finally, we convinced the
lighthouse keeper that we had just come from New York. He convinced the mayor,
and at long last we were welcomed to France."
In fact, for the special trip, Commander Byrd, a retired naval officer, was
sworn in as a U.S. Air Mail Pilot before he left on the journey to make all the
mail carried aboard the flight official. As a result of the water landing,
some of the 150 pounds of airmail letters (some accounts, however, state only
300 letters) were water-soaked in their mail pouches, robbing
them of their stamps.
Later, autographs of the four crew members would substitute as provenance for savvy
collectors of the flown nature of their covers and envelopes whose stamps when
lost in the ditching.
After being plummeted by the rough waves of the sea, the French Navy secured
the airframe with several boats, and hauled the "America" closer to
shore where it immediately fell victim to souvenir hunters who quickly reduced
portions of the fuselage down to its steel frame, but the three engines were
quickly recovered to prevent further damage from saltwater, with the rest of the
airplane was towed to Cherbourg, where French naval mechanics attempted to
salvage the craft. The crew remained in the village of
Ver-sur-Mer for one night and left for Paris the next day.
crew were also greeted in Paris by Gurnee Munn, the 9-year-old grandson of Rodman
Wanamaker, and the four were welcomed in matter causing Byrd to state,
"France gave us her very best."
Byrd met with and presented
the French president, Gaston Doumergue, with a piece of Betsy Ross' original
American flag that had been flown special on the flight. In recognition of
his leadership of the
extraordinary flight, Byrd was named a commandant in the Legion d'Honneur
of France. The crew also laid a bronze wreath in tribute at the tomb of
France's unknown warrior of World War I
Page 14 of
the Passenger List of the Steamship S.S. Leviathan.
image to see the names of Byrd, Acosta, and Noville (all
The four men left France aboard the steamship 'Leviathan',
the flag ship for United States Lines, along with Clarence Chamberlin, who was
returning from his flight from New York to Berlin a month earlier. Back in
America, both Byrd and Noville were also awarded the Distinguished
Flying Cross, the highest award in the U.S. military for aviation achievements.
E. Byrd returned to America a national hero, and a grand ticker-tape parade akin to
the one he received just two years prior for his arctic exploits. In 1928,
he took two ships and three airplane on his first expedition to
Antarctica. On November 29, 1930, he flew, along with three others, the
first flight over the South Pole. In total, he mounted four expeditions to
the Antarctic, the last being in 1947. He was also responsible for
establishing three permanent research station in Antarctica during 'Operation
Deep Freeze'., He was ultimately promoted to Rear Admiral in the U. S. Navy, and
awarded the Medal of Honor for his service in exploration.
He died in Boston on March 11,1957, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery (Section
2, Site 4969-1)
Balchen continued to fly with Byrd, and 1929, came the first pilot to fly over
the South Pole. During World War II, Balchen was responsible for setting
up a training camp for Norwegian expiates near Toronto named "Little
Norway", and later in the war, oversaw the construction of the U.S. air
base in Thule, Greenland. Promoted to Colonel in the U.S. Air Force, he
commanded the 10th Rescue Squadron in Alaska. He
retired in 1956, and passed away on October 17, 1973. He is one of the few
Norwegian-born people buried at Arlington National Cemetery (Section 2,
Site 4969-2) .
Acosta continued to work as a test pilot when, in November of 1936, he flew to
Valencia in Spain to head the "Yankee Squadron", aiding the loyalists
against Generalissimo Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Returning
to America in 1937, he continued to fly until 1946, when his health declined.
1951 he collapsed and was hospitalized with tuberculosis. He died in a sanatorium
in Spivak, Colorado, on September 1,1954 and was buried at Valhalla Memorial Park in North
Hollywood, California, under the Portal of the Folded Wings.
Noville continued to serve with Byrd, and journeyed with him as his executive
officer on the Second Byrd Antarctic Expedition. He retired from the Navy
with the rank of Commander, and he later started an
aeronautical engineering consulting firm in Los Angeles. He passed away in
January of 1963.
Bennett recovered from his injuries and continued to fly until April of 1928,
when developed pneumonia during a rescue flight with Balchen to Greenly Island,
north of Newfoundland, to save the crew of the German airplane "Bremen"
which had crash-landed after flying the Atlantic. He died April 25, 1928 in
Quebec, Canada, much to the shock of the entire nation. He was buried at
Arlington National Cemetery (Section 3, Site1852-B-E). New York City's first municipal
airport was named 'Floyd Bennett Field' in his honor.
beach where the "America" put down in France later became associated
with another America triumph. During the second World War, the beach was
given the codename, "Omaha" and was the site where the 29th Infantry
Division landed on June 6th, 1944, during D-Day and the Allied invasion of
here to own a piece of the 'America'