A Salute to the Pioneers of Aviation

Commander John Towers and the First Flight Across the Atlantic

"STAND OFF! We’re going in under our own power!" Such was Navy Commander, John Tower’s reply to the USS Harding’s offer to tow his crippled NC-3 boat-plane to the safety of Sao Miguel Island. It was May of 1919 and Towers had spent the past 50 hours and 200 miles on treacherous and frigid seas using just the ruined NC-3’s rudder and his own dead-reckoning to navigate toward land. He was not about to be towed the rest of the way. It was all part of the first flight across the Atlantic, eight years before Lindbergh's flight.

John Towers at the controls of a Curtis pusher, 1911
John Towers at the controls of a Curtis pusher, 1911

Towers was the genius mind behind and the commander of this historic mission to cross the Atlantic. Though his NC-3 did not complete the flight -- nor did the NC-1 -- a third plane, the NC-4, did finish to fulfill Towers’ vision that the Atlantic need not be a barrier to flight. Since Towers’ mission involved stops in New Foundland and the Azores Islands, it has since been lost in the limelight of Lindbergh’s solo, nonstop flight. Yet, under Towers’ vision and leadership the first step was taken toward transatlantic flight, inspiring others to follow, and changing the world of flight forever.

In April 1919, foul weather thwarted the Navy Curtiss-2 (NC-2) from starting the trip from Rockaway Naval Air Station. Under Towers’s command, the remaining three NC’s took off on May 8th. Towers flew the Flagship NC-3. Patrick Bellinger commanded the NC-1 and Albert C. Read piloted the NC-4.

The NC-4 at her anchorage at Ponta Delgada.
The NC-4 at her anchorage at Ponta Delgada.
May 20, 1919.

The trip started with an initial flight to Halifax. The NC-4, however, experienced engine problems and had to make an emergency landing in the ocean. The NC-3 and NC-1 continued from Halifax to Trepassay, New Foundland, where they waited there for the NC-4. On May 16 the three planes continued on their way from Trepassey's harbor. The planes were supposed to fly together but Towers’s NC-3 and Bellinger's NC-1 could not keep up with the NC-4 as night crept in. In the morning, they hit dense fog and terrific rain storms.Towers lost his way and was forced to put the plane down on cold raging seas. In the process, the plane’s wing struts were severely damaged and Towers was unable to get the plane back up into the air. A seasoned navy man, Towers used a bucket as an anchor, and employed the plane's rudder to navigate the 200 miles toward Sao Miguel Island. It would have been an arduous undertaking with a reliable ship, let alone a damaged airplane. Yet, after 52 exhausting hours, Towers and his crew came to port in a harbor in the Azores. A gathered crowd celebrated their arrival with a joyous welcome. After nine days of awaiting repairs, Towers flew the NC-3 on to Lisbon to complete the flight, a victory for Naval aviation.

Orvis recognizes and admires such pioneers as Admiral Towers; leaders who aspire and achieve with resolve and character, without the motivation of celebrity but with the desire to innovate and expand horizons. Orvis has developed a line of clothes inspired by pioneers such as Commander Towers and the clothes they wore during their endeavors. We’ve chosen styles and materials modeled after the originals, such as the bush pilot jacket of French Lamb; the World War II Mechanic’s Sweater with its half-cardigan stitch and Zambezi Twill elbow patches; and our shearling-lined leather flight boots. Orvis' own mission has always been to offer products worthy of our name and worthy of you. Now we offer clothes and accessories worthy of the heritage of our bravest of unsung pioneers.

John Towers

Highlights of Tower's Naval Aviation Career

1911  Towers and a fellow pilot set a record for distance, flying the A-1 from Annapolis to Old Point Comfort, Virginia.

1912  Towers rigged extra gasoline tanks to a Curtiss and remained in flight above Chesapeake Bay for more than 6 hours, a world record and the first official record flight by a Naval pilot.

1913  Towers was a passenger in a Wright seaplane flown by Ensign William Billingsley when the Wright hit turbulence. Pilots and passengers of the time did not wear restraints and were exposed to the open air, and Billingsley fell 1,600 feet to his death. Towers held onto a wing strut and rode down with the doomed plane. Afterward, he ordered safety belts installed in all Navy planes, the first time in aviation history.

1914  Towers sets up the first training Naval Air Station in an abandoned Navy yard at Pensacola, Florida, and leads his unit in the first Naval air operations during the Mexican crisis.

1919  Towers lead the Navy's Trans-Atlantic flight of Curtiss NC flying boats.

1921  In perhaps his greatest contribution to aviation, Towers began training of Navy pilots in land planes, in his anticipation of the requirements of the Navy's aircraft carriers yet to come.

1922 Towers serves as Executive Officer, and later the Commander of the Langley, the first air craft carrier. Later, he commands the USS Saratoga.

WWII  Towers becomes Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, with the rank of Admiral, becoming the first pioneer Naval aviator to achieve flag rank. He is responsible for expanding Naval aviation. During World War II he helps develop the strategy that wins the war in the Pacific Theater, and commands the second carrier task force—Task Force 38 and the entire 5th Fleet. Following World War II he is Commander in Chief of the Pacific fleet. Finally as Chief of the Navy's General Board.

1947  Towers ends his long and distinguished 41-year career in Naval aviation and in 1955 he passes on.

1966  Towers is enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

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