Trying to Fly to Europe: Unsuccessful Attempts to Fly From the Hamptons to Europe

If you go into the Shagwong Restaurant in Montauk, past the PIANO PLAYER WANTED, MUST BE GOOD AT SHUCKING CLAMS sign in the window, past the bar and the TV and into the busy dining room, you will come upon a remarkable group of framed photographs on the walls from a time in that town nearly 100 years ago. They are very hard to believe. They are photographs taken almost exactly where that restaurant is today. But there is no restaurant, no restaurant building and not even a downtown. Instead, in these photographs, there are just open fields and, in the foreground, two giant dirigibles the size of football fields, one slightly larger than the other, sitting in open aircraft hangars. Outside the hangar are groups of men in coats and black hats. Apparently something is about to happen.
You can’t see the grass runway there, although it was there, right next to where the Montauk Highway is now, and you can’t see any biplanes parked alongside. You see just these two dirigibles.
The year is 1919, the First World War is over, and at this small Navy Air Station where pilots had been trained and surveillance from the air conducted, there were these two blimps and a bunch of biplanes.
As a matter of fact, the situation was very similar at other Air Stations on Long Island. There were air stations at Mineola, at Roosevelt Field and at Far Rockaway. At the Far Rockaway Station, during late April and early May, plans were afoot to try to fly a biplane fitted with pontoons across the Atlantic Ocean, something that had never been done before. It wouldn’t be non-stop. It would be a series of short hops, from Far Rockaway to Bridgeport to Nova Scotia to the Azores and so forth and so on, and it could take days.
On May 9, four identical NC-4 Biplanes did take off for that effort. A few days later, in Bridgeport, two developed engine trouble, and the engine from one was used for parts for the other. Three continued on.
It was during this highly publicized effort that three adventurous lieutenants based at Montauk came up with the idea to fly the larger of the two dirigibles following a roughly similar route. The three officers, Lt. J. Campbell, Lt. J. B. Lawrence and Lt. E.W. Coil got permission from their superiors and, on May 14, 1919, attended by assistants and some workmen, got their 102-foot long C-5 Dirigible filled with hydrogen and floated up off the ground a few feet, and then moved with ropes out of the hangar and into a nearby field. It is in these series of pictures, with the military men, workmen, dignitaries and photographers, that the dirigible is made ready for the attempt to fly it over. Some of these photographs appeared on the front page of section five of The New York Sunday Times two days later.
The enclosed gondola beneath the huge steel oval of hydrogen was packed with supplies. And early that morning the three flyers climbed up into the gondola. The dozens of strong men holding heavy ropes now walked this massive aircraft 10 feet up into a clearing. There was a light wind blowing from the ocean north to Fort Pond and the dirigible leaned toward it. And then, at a signal, the men let go of the ropes and the dirigible headed up and off, its ropes dangling until the pilots could haul them up. And soon thereafter, with its twin 110-horsepower propeller engines fired up into life, the Dirigible C-5 got smaller and smaller and disappeared off into the sky to the northeast. [expand]
She flew, in one stretch, 1,050 miles to Halifax, Nova Scotia, arriving the next day. This in itself established a new record for a distance a non-rigid airship had ever covered without a stop. As it happened, on the same day, the three remaining biplanes landed in a cricket field in Newfoundland, where they would remain on the ground for three days before continuing on.
Dirigible C-5 lowered itself down until the waiting men there could grab the ropes. It came safely to the ground and the three officers climbed down. They would need more gasoline for their engines, more supplies and a little rest and relaxation. They had been in the air for 12 hours in this cramped space.
While they were there, just those few hours after dark, a squall came up. There was no firm mast for the dirigible to be attached to there, it was just some wooden scaffolding. The strong young men came back out. The storm worsened, there was rain and thunder and lightning. The men wrestled with the ropes for as long as they could, until finally C-5 broke free, wobbled off into the storm and the mist and was never seen again.
In Newfoundland, 200 miles farther north, the 20 flyers and navigators in the three remaining biplanes waited out the storm. They then took off, bound for the Azores, a string of little islands in the mid-Atlantic. Incredibly these three biplanes were guided along their way by a series of American Navy vessels that assembled in a straight line from Newfoundland to the Azores and shone searchlights high into the sky. Two of the biplanes landed on their floatation sponsons in the sea where they were soon rescued. The third made it all the way to the Azores, arriving on May 17.
It should be said that the whole country and in fact much of the world was electrified by the news of these activities. Two days later, while the remaining American Navy Biplane waited in the Azores and while the three Lieutenants in Halifax were making their way back to New York by train, the owner of two hotels in New York City, the Hotel Lafayette and the Brevoort Hotel, Raymond Orteig, held a press conference in Madison Square Garden. He offered to pay a $25,000 first prize to the first pilot who could successfully fly an aircraft solo from New York City to Paris non-stop.
As it happened, on May 18, that biplane in the Azores, piloted by Walter Hinton, took off headed for Portugal, but only got 115 miles before having to set down in another island in the Azores with engine trouble. The next day he took off again and this time on May 20, landed in Ponta Delgada off the coast of Portugal. His feat was noted, but ruled ineligible for any prize. It was not non-stop, and it was not New York to Paris. Also, arguably, since it took 11 days to complete, it might not even have been considered a single flight at all.
Montauk and the Hamptons, sticking out as they do in the direction of Europe, became a temptation again in 1970 for an attempt to fly across the ocean to Europe. And again, it would be an attempt at a record. By that time, Lindbergh had long since won the Orteig Prize in 1927, daringly flying alone in a single-engine plane from Roosevelt Field to Paris. There had even been dirigibles flying across (most notably and disastrously the Hindenburg in 1937.) But now, even though commercial aircraft were flying across every day, nobody had done it in a balloon.
Many people today remember the beautiful sunny day that summer when three people, two men and a woman, took off from a field of the Miller Farm on Gardiner’s Bay in the Springs in an attempt to get to Ireland to become the first to do that.
The leader of the expedition was Rodney Anderson, a New York stockbroker, who had recently thrown off his three-piece suit to embrace the hippie life. He hired a professional balloonist from England, Malcolm Brighton, to accompany him, and as he told the assembled crowd on the morning of August 23, 1970, standing in front of the balloon gondola in a headband, beads and bellbottoms, he had named his colorful balloon THE FREE LIFE, in honor of his decision to become part of the wild and crazy world of the new generation.
His wife, Pamela Brown, age 22, was there with that crowd to see him and his pilot off. The daughter of a wealthy Kentucky millionaire, she was not dressed in hippie garb but in regular street clothes. Pamela had financed this trip because of the love she felt for her husband who was determined to do this.
At the agreed upon time, the two men climbed into the gondola beneath the great gas balloon and shortly thereafter, by dropping sandbags onto the ground, lifted off a couple of feet and began to move sideways through that pasture toward Gardiner’s Bay. Those of us in that crowd walked along with it, shouting our good byes and good luck wishes when, out of the crowd, sobbing, came Pamela, running behind it, catching up to it and leaping into it.
The last we all recall of that launch was Pamela and her husband, embracing, looking back at us and smiling and waving, and again, slowly getting smaller and smaller as they floated off, just clearing a group of frolicking horses near a weeping willow tree at the far end of the field before rising off into the sky.
They were never seen again, although they were heard from. Off Nova Scotia, they radioed to the Coast Guard that they had been caught in a storm and were going down. Please send help.
Help soon arrived but the three of them were never found, victims of the sea.
These were, to the best of my knowledge, the only two serious attempts to make record-breaking flights across the Atlantic from the Hamptons since the invention of heavier-than-air flight.
There was, however, one other attempt, and where these two had been serious, this third one was lighthearted.
The year was 1991. Over the years, out at the Montauk Lighthouse, I had always heard it said, with a guide showing the place off to tourists, that just over the horizon—he’d point—was Europe. “Next stop, Portugal,” he would say. And it was true. The closest land in the old country was indeed Lisbon and Sintra and Cascais and the other resorts of that country.
One day, I wrote a story in the paper, something completely made up, about the young local men of this community who every year in August hold the “Flight to Portugal” event at the Montauk Lighthouse.
“The men drive out there in their old cars,” I wrote, “and they bring out this big wooden ramp and assemble it, and then one at a time, accelerate up the ramp as fast as they can so they can fly out over the cliff and splash out into the sea. The one who can get out the farthest— the closest to Portugal—wins. The prize is a six-pack of beer and he gets to be hauled up on the shoulders of the others, and with a laurel leaf crown, carried around the Lighthouse.
“Nobody has ever been hurt doing this. Everyone is fished out of the sea,” I concluded.
On August 10, 1991, we held this event. A huge crowd came. We had a band, a “pit” area for the contestants and their entries, a barbecue area, an area for the press, and even Paul Sidney of WLNG in his remote radiomobile. We also had coverage from Channel 4 in New York and Channel 12 on Long Island.
We did not drive any cars off the cliff, of course. We threw model airplanes. We had engineers from Grumman Aerospace up in the Lighthouse tower to officiate, we had the Coast Guard and much of the Montauk fishing fleet right off the cliff, we had the Eastern Long Island Surfing Association down on the rocks to pick up the model airplanes and 55 entrants from as far away as Chicago. We even had a celebrity—Dick Cavett threw an entry out over the cliff toward Portugal—but he didn’t win.
First prize for this event was a one-week all expenses paid vacation in Portugal for two, including airfare, all provided by the Portuguese National Tourist Office in Manhattan.
The competition was won by a man from Port Washington, New York, who had built a model airplane with a front and back propeller. When the rubber band for the front one unwound, it kicked of the rubber band for the back one. It won the event hands down.
The couple, Mr. and Mrs. Steven Wolff, was interviewed. Mrs. Wolff said she was afraid to go on an airplane. But I learned later they did go anyway. She just closed her eyes the whole way. And they had a wonderful time.
Thus completes this survey of Unsuccessful Attempts to Fly to Europe, from dirigible to model airplane, during the 20th century. Perhaps there will be more in the 21st. [/expand]

More from Our Sister Sites