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Louisville's Seaplanes: History of a landlocked city and its naval aircraft (part 2)

by GlobalAir.com 4. June 2010 16:01
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The following is by Louisville historian R. David Schooling. Images are used with implied permission. Read Part 1 here.

 
The Grumman Widgeon was a large, generously appointed, six-place amphibian that Thompson also owned and kept in the Kentucky Flying Service hanger at Bowman Field (LOU), but he frequently flew it into and out of his personal  seaport on the wharf at 2nd & River.

This plane, along with the Piper J-3 and the two Seabees, presented an unusual visual impact attracting curiosity seekers crossing the bridge or entering Louisville from U.S. 41-River Road or arriving or departing train passengers along the elevated track of the Illinois Central atop the wharf  glancing out of their train windows down at the activities on the riverfront. This was an era preceding modern freeways, newer Ohio River bridges and one in which trains still ran.

 
The largest amphibian ever to splash into Louisville's wharf was the
massive Curtiss NC-4 four engine plane. This record setter was the
world's first aircraft to cross the Atlantic. The Nov. 11 & 12  Louisville
visit was 
part of the 1919 goodwill tour.
Photo courtesy the Bowman Eagles Flying Club.

There is some historic record of an earlier attempt to start up seaplane operations in Louisville, perhaps as early as the 1920s. Take for instance the intriguingly named firm dating from July 5, 1920 called the "Ohio River Aero Transport Company."

This company likely was directly connected to a short-lived airmail service using small flying boats operating between Cincinnati and Louisville, mentioned in archived newspaper clips. Further detail about  these  operations  are  unavailable. Thompson’s Seaplane Base operated for a number of years during the mid-to-late 1940s and early 1950s. Details of its closure are uncertain, but Louisville's Seaport and Mr. W.C.Thompson were both widely known and fondly remembered.

 

Without doubt, the largest and most historically notable amphibian aircraft to ever slice her keel through the waters of the Ohio River and pull up to the Louisville wharf was the gigantic, four-engine NC-4 flying boat, which made the first ever Trans-Atlantic crossing.  

Here are some of the impressive statistics for this craft: Wingspan 168 ft.- Power plant- Four 400 h.p. V-12 engines, Fueling Systems Nine 200 gallon fuel tanks with 1,800 gallons of fuel aboard, Operational weight 28,000 lbs. Crew of Six, Dual open-air pilot and navigator cockpits, bow and aft machine gun ports and hatches.

The NC aircraft originally was designed for anti-submarine patrol duties. After its record setting achievement, the NC-4 aircraft was dismantled and shipped back to the States on the USS Aroostook. The crew returned to the United States via the transport USS Zeppelin to the Navy port at Hoboken.

After much pomp and celebratory receptions for the crew’s  achievement, the NC-4 was reassembled and assigned to a schedule of goodwill tours throughout eastern and southern ports. It was flown up the Mississippi to St. Louis, where it officially was transferred by the US Navy to the Smithsonian Institution. After St. Louis, the aircraft made its way to Louisville’s Ohio Riverfront wharf only five months after its achievement at Lisbon, Portugal for viewing by appreciative Louisville citizens at the Ohio River on Nov. 11 and 12, 1919.

Numerous Louisville pilots received water ratings and seaplane training in one of the various Thompson aircraft, flying in and out of the Louisville seaport with W.C."Tommy" Thompson instructing at their side. The wonderful color photo taken under the bridge would have been nothing short of spectacular had all of Thompson’s seaplanes been in a single picture. This story is but one tiny portal into Louisville's long-vanished waterfront, which still holds many similar historic gems.

For posterity sake the research alone has been quiet an adventurous trip.

 

 


W.C.Thompson and friends at the  2nd & River Louisville Seaport

R. David Schooling is a freelance author and historian based near Louisville, Ky., with deep interests in little-known aspects of the area's history. He has written numerous articles and has been published widely, in local and regional publications, especially urban-affairs issues.
An Air Force veteran who served in Japan and Europe, he eventually was assigned and detached to the Royal Air Forces in Germany. Now retired and living just across the Ohio River in Clarksville, Ind., he is working on his latest endeavor, historic electric railways. Inter-urbans, elevated’s and rapid transit were all abundant in Louisville years ago.

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