A Moment In Naval Aviation . . .
Eugene Burton Ely
The history of Naval Aviation as we now know it rightly begins with the story of Glenn Curtiss and a California National Guardsman by the name of Eugene Burton Ely. Naval officials had truly only begun to take notice of the aeroplane just two months earlier, when, on November 14, 1910, the young Curtiss exhibition pilot Eugene Burton Ely took off from an inclined platform specially built over the forecastle of the cruiser USS BIRMINGHAM off the Virginia capes. Two months latter, on the morning of the 18th of January, Eugene Ely cranked up his Curtiss Biplane, wrapped a few inflated inner tubes around himself, in case he missed, and headed across the San Francisco Bay toward the cruiser USS PENNSYLVANIA and thus became the first man in the world to both land an aeroplane on a ship and take-off again.
Ely was a relatively small man who was not prone to talk a great deal about his exploits. In fact he looked lightly upon many of his most startling performances and did not take unto himself much of the credit which those interested in aviation throughout the world showered upon him as a result of his feats of skill and daring.
Eugene Ely and his wife were the honored guests of Captain Pond for lunch. Although it must have pleased him to know that his efforts were appreciated, still he seemed to loath to be made so much of. Like his mentor Glenn Curtiss, flying was simply Ely's business which speaks to his professionalism and manner. 57 minutes later Ely turned his plane around, powered his engine and began to trundle down the PENNSYLVANIA's deck, making a perfect take-off. Once in the air, he rose to 2,000 feet and headed back to Selfridge Field where another tremendous ovation and hundreds of spectators awaited him.
The little crude Curtiss pusher biplane had been specially equipped with arresting hooks on its axle. At approximately 10:45 a.m. Ely had taken off from Selfridge Field and was headed for the San Francisco Bay. The PENNSYLVANIA's captain, Charles F. Pond, had suggested that the operation be carried out at sea with the ship's head to the wind and at any desired speed from 10 to 20 knots. But because of the wind condition, Ely opted for a vessel riding at anchor, and he conformed to his wishes. In the bay the PENNSYLVANIA rode to the flood tide, a breeze of 10 to 15 mph was on her starboard quarter. The PENNSYLVANIA was jammed with crew and spectators topside. Five hundred yards to port lay the cruisers WEST VIRGINIA and MARYLAND, whose decks were also filled with spectators. In the harbor were several small boats filled with reporters and fans of aviation waiting for just a glimpse of this historical event.
Fifteen minutes after take off Ely's plane was sighted one-half mile from the PENNSYLVANIA's bridge at an altitude of 1,500 feet, cruising at a speed of 60 mph. The aeroplane dipped to 400 feet as it passed directly over the MARYLAND and, still dropping, flew over the WEST VIRGINIA's bow at an height of only 100 feet. 500 yards from the PENNSYLVANIA's starboard quarter Ely headed straight for the ship, cut his engine when he was only 75 feet from the fantail, and allowed the wind to glide the aircraft onto the landing deck.
At a speed of 40 mph Ely landed on the centerline of the PENNSYLVANIA's deck at 11:01 a.m. Reportedly, the first eleven lines were passed, taing only the second eleven to bring the craft to a stop 30 feet from the deck's edge.
Once on board the PENNSYLVANIA, pandemonium brook loose as Ely was greeted with a bombardment of cheers, boat horns and whistles, both aboard the PENNSYLVANIA and from the surrounding vessels. Ely was immediately greeted by his wife, who pinned some violets on her husband, and after completing a few interviews and photographs for reporters, was escorted to the Captain's cabin. Ely was a modest man if ever there was one. On that January morning, almost immediately after his landing, the crowd all wanted to congratulate him.
The National Guard of California proudly claims Eugene Burton Ely as one of their pioneers in aviation history.
Eugene Ely's historic landing on the USS Pennsylvania. Note the sand bags on the cruiser's deck.
Eugene Burton Ely with his wife, Mabel, standing next to John McHenry, Jr., and his uncle, the commander of the USS Pennsylvania Captain Charles Fremont Pond
Ely's take-off from the USS Pennsylvania
Eugene Ely prepares for his historic landing on the USS Pennsylvania.
By CW4 (CA) Mark J. Denger, California Center for Militay History
(c) 1995-2000 (Rev. 2010)
All Rights Reserved
Mark J. Denger
California Center for Military History
Short Biography of Eugene Burton Ely
Short Biography of Glenn Hammond Curtiss
Early History of Aviation in California
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