In May 1919, four U.S. Navy officers based in Montauk tried to fly a blimp the size of a football field to Europe. At the time, they were stationed at the Montauk Naval Air Station where giant blimps and seaplanes based there flew along the Atlantic Ocean beaches on the lookout for Germans.
World War I had ended the prior November, however, and the base, with its towers, hangers and runway right about where downtown Montauk is today, had not yet received the order to decommission the field. So the officers had nothing to do. What they did know, however, was that in 1917, the Daily Mail, a British newspaper, had offered a prize of 10,000 pounds to the first crew that could successfully fly an aircraft across the Atlantic. Some had already tried and failed, with some of those lost at sea. No one had yet succeeded.
The four men were Lt. J. Campbell, Lt. J.V. Lawrence, Lt. Charles Little and Lt. Cdr. E. W. Coll. The C-5 blimp lifted off from Montauk on May 14, 1919 in clear weather. Heading out to sea, they followed a route that would take them over Newfoundland, past Greenland, Iceland and then, triumphantly, to a landing field on the west coast of Ireland. They expected that with the prevailing winds, the flight would take about 40 hours.
Unfortunately, they ran into a terrible storm. They bumped along so badly that all four got airsick. Then, several times, the twin Hispano-Suiza engines failed and, without power, the blimp drifted frighteningly off course until the engines could be restarted. Then, just before reaching the coast of Newfoundland, their radio navigation equipment failed. They’d have to abort.
As they rocked and rolled above Newfoundland into the night, they sent out a message to anyone who could guide them to St. John’s, Newfoundland and its airfield. If they couldn’t find it, they’d be blown out to sea and lost. A reply came from a ship, the Chicago, berthed at St. John’s. They were asked if they could see a railroad track below. They said they could. The Chicago said to follow it and it would dead-end at St. John’s.
And so that’s what they did. The blimp was anchored at the airfield and about 100 men from the Chicago attempted to hold the blimp down with ropes. This was successful, and the four fliers were helped out, given food and a place to sleep.
During the night, however, the storm worsened, and in winds exceeding 40 miles an hour, the C-5 broke free, and flew off until last seen by a British steamship 80 miles out at sea.
The next month, two British fliers flew a modified Vickers Vimy bomber from Newfoundland to Ireland to claim the prize presented by Winston Churchill before he became England’s prime minister. Later that year, a New York City hotel owner named Raymond Orteig offered $25,000 to the first person who could fly nonstop across the Atlantic alone. Also later that year, the Montauk Naval Air Station was decommissioned and the officers sent home.
It wasn’t until 1927 that Charles Lindbergh flew his Spirit of St. Louis from Roosevelt Field on Long Island to Paris to claim that later prize.
Framed photographs of the C-5 blimp at Montauk with its 50-man ground crew are on display on the walls of the Shagwong Tavern in downtown Montauk today.