1. Amphibious Aircraft Development:
Water, not land, drew aviation to Port Washington, Long Island. Like the Hempstead Plains, the flat expanse of Manhasset Bay fronting it, evoking nautical images, became inextricably tied to aeronautical development during the first half of the 20th century. Its calm, deep waters– centrally located only 15 miles from New York City, yet at the threshold of the Atlantic Ocean and the European continent-proved the ideal breeding ground for craft which combined the buoyancy of the boat with the aerodynamics of the airplane.
Wealthy aristocrats, such as Guggenheim and Vanderbilt-engaging in yachting on the very waters which were overlooked by their opulent, North Shore mansions-and endowed with significant wealth for the activity, logically sublimated the sport to flying, transitioning from floating craft to air craft. Nautical designers, facilitating this change, equally progressed to this new technology, and Port Washington’s Manhasset Bay, like Nassau County’s Hempstead Plains, rapidly became the cradle of seaplane aviation.
Glenn Curtiss, soon to become synonymous with this branch, both designed and successfully tested the first dual-mode, sea-and-sky airframe, the “F” Boat, here in 1912, inherently expressed in its very name, the “Port Washington,” and its succeeding, larger and improved-performance “M” (for “modified”) version, met the US Navy’s specifications for such a seaplane and resulted in an order five years later, in 1917.
Having already constructed a seaplane base here the previous year, with workshops, hangars, and ramps, Curtiss was able to offer an array of related services, including floatplane testing, pilot training, and public familiarization rides, and this branch was officially established in July when 12 men from Yale University, forming the First Yale Aviation Unit, received Naval pilot training here from Curtiss School Instructor David McCulloch in an “F” Boat. The fleet later encompassed “M” Boat, N-9, and R-9 aircraft.
If Manhasset Bay had been a mirror, it would have reflected an increasing number of speed, altitude, and distance records written above it. In October of 1919, for instance, Caleb Bragg, a local resident, attained a 19,100-foot altitude in a Loening Monoplane, while David McCulloch himself climbed 400 feet higher two years later, in August, a record applicable to both land- and seaplanes because of the four people it carried.
Port Washington also served as the home base of an airline which, established in 1919 and operating four, six-passenger Curtiss flying boats, served the Long Island-Atlantic City route, long before casinos were ever envisioned there.
Continually using Manhasset Bay as an aquatic testing surface, Curtiss initiated a series of floatable, powerless glider flights on September 6, 1922. Towed by a speedboat back to its hangar after four unsuccessful attempts to attain sufficient lift off of Port Washington, the sailplane, a miniaturized version of the Navy-Curtiss NC flying boat with a 24-foot-long duralumin hull; a modified bow; 28-foot, silk-covered wings; spruce struts; and the Curtiss signature shoulder yoke control system; finally harnessed a hitherto absent breeze and surrendered to the air for a sustained, nine-second aerial interlude, permitting him to release his grasp of the tow rope for the first time that day. Formerly restricted to land and hilltop launches, gliding now expanded to the aquatic realm.
“This is the first step in sea soaring,” Curtiss proclaimed. Unlike the traditional, land-based gliders, which maintained balance by means of vertical currents, its nautical counterpart negotiated sea-air whose currents moved parallel with the water and needed to emulate the albatross bird, “which takes off from a wave and soars immediately,” according to him. In order to continue soaring, he needed to “have knowledge of the variations of air currents over the water,” the intended aim of his initial experiments.
Subsequent flights demonstrated that the absence of a breeze and not an inherent design deficiency, was the culprit of the first four failed attempts, which had exhibited optimum balance and control before having been released from their tethers.
Some of these aviation advancements were not without support and financial backing. In 1926, for example, Sands Point resident Daniel Guggenheim and his son, Harry, promoted air competitions and provided incentives to improve aeronautical safety and reliability.
2. Early Manufacturers:
Aside from Curtiss designs, those of the EDO Aircraft Corporation equally used Manhasset Bay as their acceleration surface.
Founded by Earl Dodge Osborn, whose initials provided his company’s name, in College Point on the shore of Flushing Bay with 14 employees, he designed his first aircraft, designated the “Malolo,” the following year. Powered by a 110-hp, twin-bladed engine mounted atop its high wing, the small, all-metal, hull-shaped seaplane, sporting a pontoon beneath it, proved too slow to attract any orders, but its novel aluminum floats, a radical departure from the heavy, water damage-prone wooden ones, were strong and durable, yet light weight.
Switching his focus from designing seaplanes to the pontoons which supported them, he was able to retrofit land-based aircraft, whose range was then insufficient for anything other than short sectors and whose required concrete runways were often inadequate in both length and number, thus provisioning them for long-range travel with the unlimited ocean expanses serving as potential aquatic airports.
First retrofitted to a Waco 9 biplane, whose power output was inadequate to lift the heavier, wooden types, the production aluminum floats improved, as would later occur with all aircraft, its performance, range, and payload.
EDO floats were further enhanced with fluted bottoms.
Employing some 100 people by 1929, the company, enjoying a virtual monopoly, designed eight different types mountable on 25 aircraft, and became the sole float supplier of the Army and the Navy during World War II.
Its floats also facilitated several notable flights, including those made by Charles Lindbergh’s Lockheed Sirius and Admiral Richard Byrd’s Curtiss Condor during his South Pole exploration.
The second significant operation to take root in Port Washington, after that of Curtiss’s, was the American Aeronautical Corporation.
Founded By Enea Bossi in October of 1928 to license-build Italian Savoia-Marchetti seaplanes in the United States, it temporarily established a base in Whitestone, New York, while seeking a more permanent location. It ultimately selected 16 acres on Manhasset Isle, chosen because of its level and sandy soil, favorable water conditions, and proximity to Manhattan, constructing a $1.5 million 235,000-square-foot factory, designed by Lockwood Greene Engineers and actually built by Commonwealth Industries. It encompassed a flying school and Army Air Corps-sponsored seaplane base. Officially dedicated on September 14 of the following year, it became America’s largest such combined complex, soon earning the name “New York Seaplane Airport,” and causing the hitherto quiet, countrified community to morph into an industrial site whose heart was pumped by mechanics, machinists, engineers, assemblers, and pilots.
Two versions of a single, amphibious design emerged through its hangar doors. The S-56, manufactured under ATC Approved Type Certificate A-287–awarded on January 4, 1930–sold for $7,300 and, powered by a 90-hp engine, had a production run of 36. It was the first low-cost seaplane available. The second, the S-56B-built under Approved Type Certificate A-336-featured a more powerful, 125-hp Kinner B-5 engine and was priced at $7,825.
The S-55, which failed to proceed into production, and its S-56 successor, were tested at Miller Army Air Field. The latter, of wooden construction, sported a 32.5-foot wingspan with significant clearance between its upper and lower ones to facilitate powerplant installation and its dual-bladed propeller. It had a 2,150-pound gross weight and accommodated up to three in open seats.
The type made two notable achievements. Piloted by W. B. Atwater, it made the first fight from Port Washington to Chicago and, in August of 1930, notched up an unrefueled endurance record of 22 hours, 19 minutes.
By May of 1929, the American Aeronautical Company attracted more than $400,000 of Savoia-Marchetti airplane orders, but, victim to the Depression, the license-manufacturing partnership was consumed by its bite the following year.
During the same year that it was established, so, too, was the Curtiss seaplane flying school on Manhasset Bay’s Orchard Beach with a fleet of float-equipped de Havilland Moth biplanes.
The first three decades on Manhasset Bay, characterized by seaplane-sprouting seedlings, experimentation, test flying, barnstorming, pilot training, flying school establishment, and ever-increasing performance and reliability, yielded to the era of the flying boat and international airline service.
3. The Flying Boat Era:
Long intending to inaugurate scheduled, transatlantic, mail and passenger flying boat service to complement its existing Pacific routes, Pan American Airways Corporation selected Port Washington as an interim departure point until its more permanent facilities were constructed in North Beach, acquiring the American Aeronautical Corporation’s cavernous hangar and seaplane ramp complex in December of 1933 under the “Marine Airport Corporation” aegis, once again injecting Port Washington with the promise of growth. The facility, at least temporarily, became the nautical equivalent of Idlewild International Airport, which, although located on Jamaica Bay, only became a landplane counterpart.
Service inauguration, contingent upon landing rights, was delayed for several years until a breakthrough occurred on February 22, 1937, when the British Air Ministry ultimately issued Pan American a permit to operate scheduled flights to, through, and beyond the United Kingdom, with similar route authorities subsequently obtained from Canada on March 5, Bermuda on March 25, Ireland on April 13, and Portugal on April 14. The service, however, could only be launched when Britain’s own, and competing, Imperial Airways’-predecessor of BOAC/British Airways– transatlantic operation began, and its empire Class flying boats were still in their final design phase.
Pan American, equally awaiting its Boeing B-314 Flying Boats, intended transatlantic aircraft type, elected to deploy two smaller Sikorsky S-42 amphibians on the partial, 770-mile oceanic crossing to Bermuda, but the British agreement extended to this route as well.
Both carriers commenced this abridged, but first, transatlantic sector with simultaneous, route-proving flights on May 25, 1937, Pan American operating the eastbound segment with the “Bermuda Clipper” and Imperial Airways serving the reciprocal, westbound route with its “Cavalier” flying boat. Although the agreement stipulated that the two points had to be connected with the same aerial suspension time, Pan American’s S-42s offered higher cruise speeds than those of Imperial Airways’ equipment.
After several trial flights, scheduled passenger operations began the following month, on June 18, to and from the Port Washington Marine Base, where Pan American itself provided the British airline’s maintenance, each operating a single weekly round-trip.
According to a 1937 document for “PAA Airport No. B-335-4,” that base offered the following facilities:
“Distance and Direction from Center of City: Adjacent to Port Washington.
“Area: Approximately 12 acres.
“Landing and Take Off Areas: Unlimited in Long Island Sound.
“Marking and Identification: 2 hangars, 2 ramps, and floating walk – Plum Point.
“Remarks: Station operated by Pan American Airways. At present, used as port-of-entry for USA-Bermuda services by Pan American Airways and Imperial Airways.”
The Bermuda route was not without mishap. During one of its eastbound legs, the Cavalier Flying Boat operated by Imperial Airways penetrated icing conditions and its captain radioed of a potential, open-sea landing. But 49 minutes later, the virtually powerless behemoth, emitting a cough from the last of its four still-sputtering engines, descended toward the angry ocean surface, devoid of control.
Plunging into the crest of a mountain wave, it came to an abrupt stop, spitting the five crew members and eight passengers from its crushed carcass and exposing them to the churning elements with nothing but flotation packs to which to cling for salvation.
Struck by a piece of wreckage as he exited the fuselage, one passenger, unable to swim, drowned, while the steward, losing his grip of the flotation ring, succumbed to the sea’s swallow shortly after.
Although Pan American had tamed the Pacific with a fleet of ten Sikorsky S-42 and Martin M-130 flying boats designated “Clippers” to reflect the tall-masted sailing ships which had plied the seas during an earlier period, they failed to offer adequate speed or capacity for transatlantic operations, as demonstrated by the July 3, 1937 transatlantic survey flight operated by “Clipper III” to Foynes, Ireland. It required six days, by means of several intermediate stops, to complete. Nevertheless, it constituted the first time that a North Atlantic weather map had been consulted and witnessed the first aerial iceberg sighting from a commercial aircraft. Imperial Airways’ “Caledonia,” operating the westbound trip, landed on Manhasset Bay the same day that “Clipper III” had reached Ireland, but in the afternoon, having first circled Manhattan.
Despite the pre-existing service inauguration agreement, Pan American, finally taking delivery of the first of six Boeing B-314s intended for its Pacific and Atlantic divisions, could wait no longer and began a series of route-proving flights, which led to the actual passenger-carrying one.
“Like rigid airships,” according to Tom D. Crouch in his book, “Wings: A History of Aviation from Kites to the Space Age” (W. W. Norton and Company, 2003, p. 342), “the large flying boats represented a bridge technology, capable of covering intercontinental distances at a time when faster and more efficient land-based aircraft did not yet have the range or carrying capacity for the task.”
The first route proving service, occurring on March 26, 1939 and operated by aircraft “Yankee Clipper,” carried 11 crew members and nine operation-related employees from Boeing, Wright Aeronautical, and the airline itself, crossing the Atlantic to Horta, before continuing to Lisbon, Biscarosse, and Marseilles. One week later it returned to Port Washington.
The second, intended as the inaugural air mail flight and operated by the same aircraft, took place two months later, on May 20, the 12th anniversary of Lindbergh’s solo crossing in the Spirit of St. Louis, casting off at 1308 local time with 1,804 pounds of post on board and peeling its ship-like hull off the waters of Manhasset Bay. Piloted by Captain Arthur E. LaPorte, the colossal, high-winged, quad-engine, intercontinental flying boat circled the World’s Fair, whose Aviation Day celebration was attended by the thousands, before commencing its aerial Atlantic bridge and radioing that it sustained a 175-mph cruise speed and was 268 miles east of New York shortly after 1500. It then continued to the Azores, Lisbon, and Marseilles.
Returning seven days later with 2,025 pounds of mail, it successfully completed the US’s first scheduled, commercial, transatlantic round-trip, reciprocally mimicked by Imperial Airways, which had finally inaugurated its own ocean-spanning operation.
The long-awaited passenger service, with $375 one-way and $675 round-trip fares, began the following month, on June 28, with aircraft “Dixie Clipper.”
Amid the blare of a brass band and the quay thronged with friends, relatives, messengers, reporters, and photographers, the 22 passengers, having had their tickets, passports, and baggage checked (the latter restricted to a 15-pound maximum), filed down the long dock to which the B-314, immersed in Manhasset Bay, was moored, then the most mammoth and luxurious airliner, in- and externally reflecting the nautical heritage which had inspired it.
Based upon the design requirements submitted by Juan Trippe of Pan American to Boeing, Consolidated, Douglas, and Sikorsky, in February of 1936, for a long-range, four-engine, transoceanic amphibious airliner capable of carrying a 10,000-pound payload on at least 2,400 statute mile routes against a 30-mph headwind and cruising at a 150-mph airspeed, the aircraft, as befitting a mixed-mode vehicle, employed ship construction techniques with a compartmented double bottom and full-depth, forward and aft, watertight bulkheads, producing a 106-foot overall length. The massive, three-section, high-mounted wing, which spanned 152 feet, was subdivided into a center, hull-integral section which extended beyond either side’s inner engine nacelle, and two outer, watertight sections. Its center wing spar, supported by the upper fuselage, featured both increased strength and internal volume, while its 4,200-gallon fuel capacity was distributed between wing center section and lower-fuselage extending sponson tanks. Appearing like mini-wings, they provided lateral, in-water stability, obviating the need for traditional floats, and alternatively served as passenger entry platforms leading to the cabin door. So cavernous were the main wings, that they contained interior catwalks to permit in-flight inspection and maintenance of both their structure and that of the engines’.
Powered by four, 14-cylinder, two-row, 1,500-hp Wright Cyclone R-2600-A2 piston engines housed in 69-inch-diameter nacelles and driving three-bladed, 14.9-foot-diameter, fully-feathering Hamilton Standard hydromatic propellers, the Boeing B-314 had an 82,500-pound maximum takeoff weight and a 23,500-pound payload capacity. Its service ceiling was 21,000 feet.
First flying on June 7, 1938 from Lake Washington on the West Coast, the aircraft exhibited yaw axis instability during the 38-minute trial and was subsequently retrofitted with its later-characteristic triple vertical tail, resulting in type certification on January 26 of the following year.
Piloted by Captain Rod Sullivan, who had previously operated the inaugural flight to Wake Island in the Pacific on board the S-42, the transatlantic B-314 “Dixie Clipper” inched away from the dock at 1500 local time with the 11 crew members, 22 passengers, and 408 pounds of mail. Lumbering through Manhasset Bay, it executed its acceleration run, cascading water by the drowning load behind it. Moving up on step, it disengaged itself from the surface which had provided its buoyancy-and the North American continent-hovering above it at a 120-mph airspeed. When a post-departure engine check revealed positive readings, the throttles were pulled back from the 1,550 to the 1,200-hp level, thresholding an initial climb to 750 feet, and then a secondary power reduction, to 900 hp, for a final ascent to altitude at 126 mph.
Reflecting oceanliner-standard service, white gloved stewards distributed the passenger list in a cabin, which equally could have doubled as that belonging to a nautical vessel.
Subdivided into two decks, the flying boat featured a carpeted and upholstered-chair upper level, which stretched more than six feet in height and extended 21 feet in length, and was provisioned with cockpit positions for the pilot, the copilot, the navigator, and the radio operator; a master’s desk; a meteorologist’s station; crew sleeping bunks; and a baggage compartment which was partially located in the wing. Cockpit and cabin crew consisted of between ten and 16 members. A starboard-positioned stairway provided inter-deck connection.
The sound-proofed cabin, itself subdivided, featured five, ten-passenger compartments; a single, special, four-passenger section; a deluxe bridal suite; a dining room; a full-service galley; a men’s restroom; and a ladies’ powder room. Passenger capacity included 74 by day and 34 by night, in convertible berths.
Moving through the cabin, the passengers introduced themselves, before partaking of the formal, multiple-course dinner served in the 10.5-by-12-foot dining room. Accommodating 14 per sitting, it sported terra cotta carpeting, white linen-covered tables, china, silverware, fresh flowers, and printed menus.
A 2030 position report indicated that it was leveled off at 7,400 feet over cloud and was 770 miles from its Port Washington origin.
Aerially connecting the North American and European continents, the “Dixie Clipper” alighted in Horta, the Azores, and Lisbon, Portugal, before terminating in Marseilles, France, after a successful, inaugural transatlantic crossing.
Port Washington served as the origin and destination of other amphibious, intercontinental services, both provided by Germany, but of short duration and, in one case, of particularly unique form.
The first of these was operated by the Dornier Do-X, an equally colossal flying boat. Designed by Dr. Claudius Dornier, the 131.4-foot-long aircraft sported porthole windows from bow to stern; high, elliptical-tipped wings with a 157.5-foot span and a 4,844-square-foot area; and 12 engines housed in paired, tractor-and pusher configured, tower nacelles extending above its leading edge. Of 524 hp, these Bristol Jupiter radials initially proved insufficient for its 123,460-pound gross weight, resulting in the later retrofit of 12-cylinder, water-cooled, 610-hp Curtiss Conqueror powerplants. It first flew on July 12, 1929.
Like the Boeing B-314 which followed it by almost a decade, the Do-X featured two internal decks, the upper containing the cockpit, the navigator station, the engine controls, and the radio operator, and the lower offering 66 berth-convertible seats in an equally oceanliner-luxurious cabin with a bar, a dining salon, an electric galley, and a smoking room. It once flew with 170 on board.
Despite its impressive power appearance, however, even the higher-capacity engines only produced a meager, 1,056-mile range and a 1,650-foot service ceiling. Nevertheless, it made experimental transatlantic flights and used Port Washington as its maintenance and repair base.
Greater success was achieved with a mixed-mode, air-and-sea operation undertaken in 1937 and 1938. Positioning the Schwabenland, a rebuilt freighter, near Long Island, and the Friesenland, a purposely-designed catapult ship near the Azores, the Germans inaugurated transatlantic service with two Blohm and Voss HA-139s respectively designated “Nordmeer” and “Nordwind.”
The low-wing, quad-engine, aircraft, powered by Junkers Jumo engines and supported by massive floats, carried four crew members and 880 pounds of payload, and were cordite-launched from their ships’ 110-foot-long catapults, enabling them to accelerate from zero to 95 mph in just two seconds, a force equaling 4.5 g’s. A third airplane, the “Nordstern,” later joined the fleet, and seven round-trips were altogether made, on which the aircraft completed the remainder of the Atlantic crossing.
As befitting a destination directly served by scheduled, international airline service, Port Washington was subjected to considerable development: paved roads now covered the agricultural foundation upon which it once rested; car and taxi service offered a surface link to New York City, to which most passengers were destined; and businesses expanded.
But Port Washington’s second prosperous aviation era promise lasted less than a year, with the Boeing B-314 flying boat fleet which had made it possible, the last operations entailing the landing of “Dixie Clipper” on the morning of March 28, 1940 and that of “Yankee Clipper” and “American Clipper” in the afternoon.
4. The Grumman Corporation:
Pan American’s scheduled, transatlantic service, transferred to the North Beach, and eventually-renamed, La Guardia, Airport, were almost as short-lived as that of the American Aeronautical Corporation which had preceded it, and, when World War II’s curtains opened, the Port Washington-associated airline operation’s closed, replaced by aircraft parts’ assemblers feverishly working to preserve freedom.
Active in the Grumman Corporation’s newly-opened Plant #5-which opened in 1943–they counted among a 4,000-strong team which built cowlings, wing panels, and turrets for Navy TBF Avenger torpedo-bombers and F6F Hellcat fighters, keeping the bay-located city abuzz 24 hours per day as they attempted to feed World War II’s need for aircraft and once again re-injecting it with economic stimulation. Like the earlier seaplanes and later flying boats that connected the world, these components, via the aircraft final assembly lines, linked other part manufacturers and the airplane itself with the very country which had created them.
But, equally like the Pan American abandonment, Grumman itself left the town in 1945.
5. Republic Aviation Corporation:
A second round of war-necessitating manufacture re-lit the six-year suspension between the end of World War II and 1951 when the Republic Aviation Corporation reoccupied Grumman’s Plant 15 in order to supply the Korean War’s insatiable hunger for aircraft.
Providing initial employment for 90 when it opened the following January, and peeking with 2,655 personnel in 1953, it witnessed the manufacture of wings for F-84F, RF-84F, and F-105 fighter jets, as well as the subcontracted production for other manufacturers, such as Boeing.
Preparing the local workforce for potential aviation careers, Republic offered paid training programs to Port Washington High School students.
But, like all the other curtains which had closed before it, Republic’s did so in 1956 for the final time, abandoning its factory two years later and unofficially terminating Port Washington’s five-decade, multi-faceted, civil and military aviation chapter. Although the hand-me-down Plant 15 was sold to Thypin Steel, it was subsequently demolished. Long-range, higher-speed aircraft no longer needed its waters, and wars no longer needed its manufacturing plants.
6. Full Cycle:
In 1994, the abandoned Republic Aviation Corporation factory, weather-worn, surrounded by rubbish, and peeling at its seams, was demolished-and deposited into history. The bay-fronting seaplane hangars, reflecting the life cycle, were reduced to the flat ground from which they had originally risen-and seeds from which bay-fronting condominiums later sprouted, perhaps illustrating the fact that the earth is nothing more than a blank slate on which is written whatever man determines are his present-time needs.
On a recent, frigid February day, Manhasset Bay, reflecting the silver, cloud-streaked sky, was a virtual ice sheet, the swirls on its water frozen before having had the opportunity to dissipate into the indistinguishable whole-somehow symbolic of its very aviation heritage. A four-sided sign, located on Manhasset Walk and sporting the silhouette of a Sikorsky S-42 flying boat, synopsized Port Washington’s principle past industries, indicating that the 11-acre site across the water, at Tom’s Point, had once been the center of a booming aviation business with factories and had been the departure point of the first Pan American seaplane flight to Europe.
The snow-covered walk led to a brown granite-affixed plaque, installed on the southwest corner of the North Hempstead town dock in 1969 by the Port Washington Wings Club, and overlooking Manhasset Bay next to a tall pole atop which the American flag, bombarded by winter’s icy whip, determinedly waved. “To commemorate the achievement of the first commercial survey flights made across the North Atlantic jointly by Pan American Airways and Imperial Airways, forerunner of British Overseas Airways Corporation,” it read. “Piloted by Captain Harold E. Gray, the Pan American Sikorsky S-42B Clipper flying boat departed from Port Washington and arrived at Foynes, Ireland, July 9, 1937. Piloted by Captain Arthur S. Wilcockson, the Imperial Airways Short ‘G’ Class flying boat ‘Caledonia’ arrived at Port Washington on this date from Foynes. Thus was pioneered the beginning of a new era in communications between the peoples of the world.”
A blur of seagulls took flight from the snow-covered ground, creatures which man had initially attempted to emulate, while an MD-80 soared overhead, crossing the bay before banking left in order to begin its final approach to La Guardia Airport. But it did not alight here, for that airfield, originally named “North Beach,” had quickly replaced Port Washington’s waters. Other than the plaque itself, the birds and the modern jetliner constituted the only-and fleeting-flight-related movement. The pinnacle of its aviation activity, with nary a reminder, now seemed just as fleeting.
Cocooned in their white, protective, hibernation coats, the boats across the bay, once the gateway to the Atlantic and Europe, were again the only vessels to occupy it, as they had before Curtiss had first landed here in his “F” Boat, indicating that all things do, indeed, begin anew.
Crouch, Tom D. “Wings: A History of Aviation from Kites to the Space Age.” New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2003.