National Guard's First Aviator
By CW4 Mark J. Denger
California Center for Military History
According to the U.S. Navy, the history of Naval Aviation rightly begins with the story of Eugene Burton Ely ... so too does the birth of aviation in the National Guard.
Eugene was born in York Township, Iowa on October 21, 1886. He was raised on the Harrison family farm outside of Williamsburg and attended local schools there where his interests "in all things mechanical" intensified. In 1904, he moved to California, settling down in San Francisco, where he became active in the automobile business. He naturally loved automobiles and their engines and soon became an expert driver, first as a chauffeur and then doing some local automobile racing becoming one of this nation's first auto racers and a personal friend of Barney Oldfield and Eddie Rickenbaucker.
It was here in San Francisco that he met and, in 1907, married the lovely Miss Mabel Hall, of Corte Madera, California. She would go on to play an active role in his subsequent aviation career, acting as both manager and publicist. But in 1909, the two moved to Portland, Oregon, where Eugene took up work as an automobile mechanic which led to an unusual relationship with E. Henry Wemme.
Captain Washington Irvine Chambers, USN
Eugene Ely flies into naval history as he departs from the USS Birmingham
In February 1910, shortly following America's First International Air Meet in Los Angeles, Wemme had purchased one of Glenn Curtiss' first biplanes and took the agency for them in the Northwest. However, never having flown himself, nor having any actual knowledge of aeroplanes, Wemme found himself unable to fly the Curtiss plane himself. Charles Hamilton would be the first to fly Wemme's plane. After the plane was crashed by another Ely purchased the wreck from Wemme. Eugene, believing that flying was probably as easy as driving a car, purchased the little biplane, spending several weeks very cautiously teaching himself to fly. Eugene quickly acquired the feel of the aeroplane and was in the air by April 1910, was making short straightaway hops. For the next two months he would continue to practice with this new contraption until he felt he had mastered the little flying machine. Ely would later be awarded the Aero Club of America's Pilots Certificate No. 17.
The Draw of Riches and Fame
After doing considerable flying in the Portland area, Eugene realized he could earn more money flying than by working on cars and decided to undertake some exhibition work entirely on his own. The couple then moved onto Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he entered the Twin Cities flying meet held on June 22nd to 25th of that year. It was there, in Minneapolis, where Eugene would compete against some of America's most experienced pilots. The competition which proved to be a major turning point in his new career. Also, flying at the Twin Cities flying meet was aviation's pioneers Charles Willard, Bud Mars and Glenn Hammond Curtiss.
Appendage of the Curtiss Exhibition Team
The following week, Eugene found himself on an East Coast tour as a part of the Curtiss Exhibition Team. Acting as his manager, Mabel would travel with her husband. Their first stop was Sioux City, Iowa, a few short miles from where Eugene grew up. It was here, on June 29 to July 1, that Eugene would first fly with Bud Mars. He and his wife Mabel traveled to Winnipeg, Canada, for his first exhibition in early July 1910. There he made two successful flights making history in the process. The later part of the month, the Exhibition Team traveled to Omaha, Nebraska, where from the 23rd to 27th of July Eugene put on some great exhibitions at Creighton Field.
In August, Eugene and Mable found themselves in New York where Eugene flew at Rochester, from the 5th to the 7th, and then it was on to the Sheepshead Bay Meet at Long Island, on August 19th, where he again was flying with Curtiss, Mars, Charles Willard and John A. Douglas McCurdy. From New York, the men made a cross-country flight. It was on this record making trip back to California that Eugene was awarded a Trophy by the Manhattan Beach Hotel on August 27th for flying the greatest number of hours and attaining the highest altitude of any aviator during the meet. In his own maverick style, he landed on the beach in front of the hotel to accept his trophy, and following the luncheon held there in his honor, he then departed the same way he came. These aviation meets were taking Eugene and Mabel around the country and in September of that year, Eugene was flying at Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he took part in exhibitions on the 5th and 6th. From there the couple found themselves in Rock Island, Illinois, from the 12th to 17th, and then it was on to Roanoke, Virginia, on the 21st and 22nd. A week later, Eugene was back in New York demonstrating his craft in Poughkeepsie, from the 27th through the 30th.
From October 1st to 7th, Eugene competed at an air meet in Chicago, Illinois with Curtiss, Willard, McCurdy and Blanche Scott. The exhibition schedule was grueling on both pilots and equipment. The main event being held at the Hawthorne Racetrack, sponsored by the Chicago Post, which was the starting point of a great air race from Chicago to New York. The prize $25,000, which had been put up by the Post. Several aviators from around the country had entered the Chicago-to-New York race, but by race time, Ely was the only pilot to actually start the one-thousand-mile flight from Chicago to New York. After traveling about 12 miles, however, Ely was forced to land with engine trouble. When this was corrected, he attempted to take off with the help of bystanders but broke the front wheel during a take off. The next morning the gas line broke on a take off and he landed in a ditch, which causes some minor damage to the plane. After making the necessary repairs he finally got back off the ground, but 25 minutes later the motor quit at 2,000 feet and had to make a forced landing where he broke the front wheel again. Since the time limit to complete the race was October 16th, and having traveled just 19 miles from his starting point, Ely gave up his pusher just wasn't rugged enough for this type of cross-country flying.
On the 12th of October, Eugene Ely again took up demonstrating his flying abilities in Youngstown, Ohio. Eugene was now off to Long Island, New York where he was scheduled to compete at the International Aviation Tournament held at the Belmont Park Racetrack. This air meet at Belmont was the East Coast's first International Air Meet and from the 22nd to the 31st of October, twenty-seven of the world's leading aviators competed in this historic multinational tournament for the $74,800 in prizes being offered by the promoters for contests of altitude, speed and distance. An additional $10,000 was offered to the pilot flew the fastest round trip between Belmont and the Statute of Liberty. America's hopes rested primarily on the Glenn Curtiss and Wright Brothers teams. Alfred le Blanc, Hubert Latham, Count Jacques de Lesseps, Emile Auburn, C. Audemars, Rene Barrier, Rene Simon and Rolland Garros represented France; Claud Grahame-White, Alec Ogilvie, McCardle and James Radley were among the English fliers; Ely, Willard, McCurdy, Mars and Thomas F. Hamilton flew for the Curtiss Team; while Walter Brookins, Arthur Christie, Frank T. Coffyn, Arch Hoxsey, Ralph Johnstone, Philip Parmalee and Earl L. Ovington flew for the Wright Brothers Team. And there were others like Capt. Frederick W. Baldwin in his famous Red Devil biplane, Clifford Harmon, J. Armstrong Drexel, Tod Shriver and John J. Frisbie, who flew for the Americans. Despite competing against some of the best aviators in the country, much less the world, Ely made a very good showing.
On November 2nd, Eugene was off to Maryland where another air show was to open at Halethorpe Field on the 3rd to the 12th. Once again, Ely was competing against such aviation's greats as Hoxsy, Willard, Delesseps, Drexel and Radley. But it was on the 14th of November, when Eugene was at Norfolk, Virginia, that he would make the first of two historically notable flights during his fabulous flying career. Ely was starting to feel pretty confident about his flying abilities. Eugene loved to fly and could hold his own against the best. Furthermore, he was making good money and a name for himself in a business which promised an unlimited future. To top things off, Curtiss liked him and seemed to trust him over some of his more experienced pilots.
Curtiss had become a dominant figure in aviation circles. By 1910, Curtiss' aeroplanes were more famous than those of the Wright Brothers and Curtiss himself had become a dominant figure in aviation. Curtiss was always looking for possible new exhibition flyers and at that event he took quite a liking to the young Ely. Ely had a logical theory of flight and a ken interest in the machines themselves. He spent a lot of his time on the ground working with his plane, learning everything he could about his machine. Simply put, Eugene was interested in everything about the aeroplane and this impressed Curtiss. What's more, Ely had a natural flying ability. Curtiss immediately signed Ely on as one of his exhibition men.
Prelude to Glory
Captain Washington Irvine Chambers, an experienced engineer, had been assigned to the Office of the Aid for Material to the Secretary of the Navy. He was given the collateral duty of liaison between the Navy and the swelling number of letter-writers who were eager to advance their schemes or designs involving aviation. He was immediately assigned the duty of monitoring the progress of aviation and tasked to deal with this flood of correspondence the Navy was receiving on the subject.
Less than seven years earlier, the Wright brothers had launched their pusher biplane into a brief but impressive flight. In the intervening years, advocates of aviation fought for recognitionand money.
At first, the Navy's interest in aviation was skeptical, if not openly discouraging. Twelve years before Chambers entered the picture, "The Joint Army Navy Board to Examine Langley's Flying Machine" was formed at the urging of Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt. A Navy member reported favorably on it to the General Board. But the Secretary, upon the advice of another Bureau in the Department, decided "the apparatus as [it] is referred to pertains strictly to the land service and not to the Navy."
On at least two occasions between then and 1910, officials from the U.S. Navy had observed these fledgling aeroplanes in flight in 1907 and again in 1908, during a test by the Wright brothers at Fort Myer, Virginia. Nevertheless, the Navy Board would go on to hold to its attitude that "aeronautics" had "not yet achieved sufficient importance in its relation to naval warfare" to warrant support from the Navy. Nevertheless, there was a growing group of enthusiasts, namely members of the U.S. Aeronautic Reserve, who asked the Navy to appoint a representative who would handle aviation matters. The U.S. Aeronautic Reserve was a civilian organization which enjoyed semi-official status. But it was not until 1910 that specific action was taken.
Curtiss had long been trying to get the Navy's business. Curtiss, who had successfully flew a prize-winning flight between Albany and New York, prophesied publicly that "The battles of the future will be fought in the air. The aeroplane will decide the destiny of nations." He added, "Encumbered as [our big war vessels] are within their turrets and military masts, they cannot launch air fighters, and without these to defend them, they would be blown apart in case of war." With this, the "battleship controversy" was on, and blown up by a barrage of publicity in a competitive press, Curtiss added weight to his argument by a series of tests in which he lobbed 15 out of 22 "bombs" into targets shaped like battleships near Hammondsport, New York. The Navy now had no choice but to respond.
Chambers' job proved far from easy. At the time of his appointment, Chambers knew little about flying machines. To further complicate matters, he was given no space to work in, no clerical help, no operating money, no authority, and very little encouragement. But when the Navy was invited to send a corps of midshipmen to Halethorpe, Maryland, where an aviation meet was scheduled to be held, Chambers and two other officers were sent instead. For the Navy, Chambers, and Naval Aviation, it was a fortunate decision. Several problems nagged Chambers. There was not conclusive proof, for instance, that it was feasible to launch and land aircraft at sea. And if there was to be any future for aviation in the Navy, someone had to demonstrate that an areoplane could operate with the Fleet. Navy officials were still very apathetic about the program and only gave it a token cognizance.
When Chambers was attending the International Air Meet at Belmont Park, New York, as an official naval observer, he had the good fortune to meet with Curtiss and Ely and spoke of his interests in having an aerial service to and from ships at sea. Chambers had learned that, as a publicity stunt aimed at winning a mail-carrying contract, the German owned Hamburg-American Steamship Company was planning to launch a plane from one of its ships. Chambers placed all his cards on the table. Chambers suspected that the German navy was actually behind the Hamburg-American Steamship Company's project, and resolved that the U.S. Navy should be the first to fly a plane from a ship to shore. Curtis and Ely agreed. The thought that such an advance might be made by a foreign power when, the proposed aircraft had been developed by this country appalled Chambers. Curtiss was more than eager to take up the challenge. Chambers then informed the two men that he didn't have enough money in his budget for payment of services, but thought he could obtain approval to provide a ship from which to fly from. Curtiss and Ely agreed to undertake the project. Interestingly enough, the Wright Brothers had been offered the task first but animatedly refused. When Ely agreed to make the attempt, Chambers, with the financial help from a wealthy aviation enthusiast John Barry Ryan, and official backing from Assistant Secretary of the Navy Beekman Winthrop, managed to arranged for the cruiser BIRMINGHAM (CL-2). The cruiser BIRMINGHAM was ideally suited for the task. She was a scouting cruiser with four tall stacks, her open bridge was but one level above the main deck. On her forecastle, plans called for yard workers at the Norfolk Navy Yard to construct an 80-foot by 24-foot wooden ramp which sloped at five degrees from the bridge rail to the main deck at the bow. The forward edge of the platform was approximately 37 feet above the water line.
The German line, mindful of the Navy's experiment, moved up its target date in an effort to be the first to launch. It soon became a race against the clock as New York newspapers told of the Hamburg-American Line's announced that J. A. D. McCurdy, another famous Curtiss trained pilot, would attempt to fly off a ship on November 5, 1910, as their liner Kaiserine Auguste Victoria left New York Harbor. Chambers spurred yard workers to a greater effort, as Ely headed for Norfolk by train. Ely's mechanics were sent ahead to assemble the celebrated Hudson Flyer. But the clock was running out. McCurdy and his airplane were already on board the Victoria when it left port. However, the weather turned foul and McCurdy was unable to take off and his plane was offloaded so that the liner could remain on its schedule. But the workers at the Hamburg-American were already outfitting another ship, the Amerika, scheduled to sail on November 12th. Meanwhile, back at the Norfolk Navy Yard, workers were still struggling with technical problems. But fortune was to smile upon Ely as misfortune was to beset McCurdy. It seems that McCurdy's areoplane was damaged while loading it onto the Amerika, and the ship sailed off, leaving a frustrated McCurdy and his broken flying machine on the dock.
With the plane now assembled, less the engine, Henning and Callan hoisted the plane aboard the BIRMINGHAM, pushed it to the aft end of the newly constructed platform, and secured it. Then Ely's chief mechanic Harrington arrived with the engine. The three mechanics were getting it out of the crate when Ely and Chambers boarded the ship.The gloomy morning of that Monday, November 14th, saw an entourage of Navy officials and onlookers awaiting the big show. But the weather continued to threaten the event as it was still raining when the BIRMINGHAM got underway. As the ship set sail, Ely wanted to double check everything to avoid any chance of failure. They had almost reached the destroyers BAILEY and STRINGHAM, which had been waiting with Winthrop and the other officials from Washington, when another squall closed in. The BIRMINGHAM anchored a quarter mile off Old Point Comfort, near Hampton Roads. All they could do now was wait. It was nearly 2:00 p.m. when the squall moved off to the north. Ely climbed into his plane's seat as Henning spun the propeller. Under the bridge the wireless operator tapped out a play-by-play account of the engine testing. When the engine warm-up came to an end, at 2:15 p.m., dark clouds were again above the topmast. Nobody liked the looks of the weather. The cruiser WASHINGTON had radioed that the weather was unacceptable up the bay and the Weather Bureau reported that it would be worse the next day. Chambers was heard to comment that "If this weather holds till dark, a lot of those guys will go back to Washington shouting 'I told you so'."
The plan had called for Ely to land at the Norfolk Navy Yard. But the plane shook as though the engine was trying to jump out of the plane. To make matters worse, Ely's sense of direction had left him. There were no landmarks, only water below. He swung left. There was no question in Eugene's mind, he was going to have to land and land quickly. On the ground he might stop the vibration, take off again, and find the Navy Yard.
A strip of land loomed ahead. Five minutes after his mechanic had pulled the toggle, Ely had successfully flown the plane some 2-1/2 miles, landing on the beach at Willoughby spit, near Ft. Monroe, a few yards from the Hampton Roads Yacht Club. Upon examining the splintered propeller he soon realized that the plane would not take him to the Navy Yard. In Ely's mind he had failed. He blamed himself. He knew he could do it without hitting the water. Now the only question was if he would be giving another chance? Suddenly, boats full of people converged on the yacht club dock. Their enthusiastic congratulations confused Eugene. "I'm glad you did not head for the Navy Yard," Chambers told him. "Nobody could find it in this weather." Captain Fletcher agreed.
Ely figured that in not making the Navy Yard, he had failed. Chambers and Ryan spent the rest of that evening trying to convince him that he had succeeded. Chamber's told him that the particular landing place was unimportant. The important thing was that he had shown that a plane could fly from a ship, and that the U.S. Navy could no longer ignore the aeroplane. The observers were so elated with the feat that Commodore Ryan was compelled to give Ely $500 to pay for a replacement propeller.
The flight had indeed been extraordinary success, but Chambers tempered his jubilance with the following statement: "After [Ely] had demonstrated his ability to leave the ship so readily, without assistance from the ship's speed, or from any special starting device, such as that formerly used by the Wright brothers, my satisfaction with the results of the experiment was increased...." Following Ely's historic flight, Captain Chambers, the initiator of the BIRMINGHAM flight, secured permission from the navigation and construction and repair bureaus to fit the cruiser PENNSYLVANIA for use as an experimental aviation ship. Chambers, who was immensely pleased with the BIRMINGHAM launching, was now interested in proving it practical to land a plane aboard a Naval warship. Already thinking of the future, Chambers reported that "His [Ely's] demonstration, that an aeroplane of comparatively old design and moderate power can leave a ship in flight while the ship is not underway, points clearly to the conclusion that the proper place for the platform is aft. An after platform can be made longer, will not require a lessening of the stays of any mast and its essential supports can be so rigged as a permanent structure of a scout cruiser as to cause no inconvenience in arranging the other military essentials of the ship's design."
The feat itself not only demonstrated the practicality of aviation in Naval service, but it put Ely on the front pages of virtually every paper in America. Though Ely's flight opened a few Navy eyes, it did not loosen the Navy's purse strings. Curtiss, at this time, offered to teach a Naval officer the mechanics of flying, absorbing the expense himself. Chambers recommended the immediate approval of the plan and Lieutenant Theodore G. Ellyson was ordered to North Island. A series of experiments followed, in conjunction with the pilot's training.
Business Always Comes First
Eugene wasted no time in returning to his exhibition work. There was little time for personal time. With repairs made, he was again flying an exhibition for the people at Norfolk on the 15th. The following day he was in Raleigh, South Carolina for exhibitions on the 16th and 17th and then, from there, it was onto Birmingham, Alabama, where he again put on some exhibitions on November 21st and 22nd. It was then on to Jackson, Mississippi, for even more exhibitions on the 28th and 29th of November. The first three days of December found Eugene competing with McCurdy and Ward in New Orleans, Louisiana, and from there it was back to South Carolina, where he and McCurdy were competing in Columbia on the 7th to the 10th. Eugene was then on to Atlanta, Georgia, on the 15th to 18th.
Finally, it was now back to California to complete as a contestant in the second annual Flying Meet at Dominguez Field, Los Angeles, California, scheduled for December 24th to January 2nd, 1911. Now back at the Curtiss Flying School in California, the Curtiss Team consisting of Curtis, Ely, Willard, Hugh Robinson and Lincoln Beachy, were all making the necessary preparations for the up coming International Air Meet to be held at Dominguez. This meet promised to be as large an event as the 1910 Air Meet, with Walter R. Brookins, Hoxsey, Philip Parmelee, Glenn Martin and others representing the United States, and Boyd Latham and James Radley representing Europe. At this air meet, Eugene made the second best showing of the Curtiss Team. But there was little time to rest. Following the air meet in Los Angeles, the Curtis team returned to North Island to make preparations for California's "Second International Air Meet" in San Francisco.
Eugene Ely and Glenn Curtis at the second annual
Los Angeles International Air Meet, January 1911
Immediately following Ely's successful flight from the deck of the BIRMINGHAM, Captain Chambers had been kept busy making arrangements for another at-sea demonstration. His plan called for a larger deck to be built on the cruiser USS PENNSYLVANIA (ACR-4). On January 4, 1911, the cruiser PENNSYLVANIA, commanded by Captain Charles F. Pond, entered Mare Island Navy Yard for urgent and unusual temporary "alterations," prosaically described as "erection of platform in connection with aviation meet."
The immense task of building the deck had been assigned to the Mare Island Navy Yard near Vallejo, California. The workers at the shipyard had never seen or undertaken anything like it before. This work involved building a wooden platform 133 feet 7 inches long (from the mainmast to just over the fantail) and 31-feet 6-inches wide over the main deck. The deck was angled upward from the stern and over the after turret and secured to the mainmast. At its after end it was angled down 30 degrees over the stern for a length of 14-feet 3-inches. Bulwarks of 2-inch wood planks extended up the sides for about 2 feet to prevent the aircraft from falling into the sea. Running the length of the platform, parallel guide rails of 2-inch by 4-inch scantling were placed 12-feet apart, which would confine the aircraft to the center of the landing deck. Two canvas screens, 20-feet high and 6-feet apart, were fitted just aft of the main mast.
The plan called for twenty-two parallel manila lines to be strung across the deck three feet apart and affixed to two 50-lb. sandbags athwart the deck, each pair connected by a twenty-one thread line, tightly stretched across the guide rails. To prevent the aircraft from sluing, each bag was accurately weighed. The bags were placed 3 feet apart and propped up to about one-foot high so as to be caught by a makeshift arresting gear which were to be fitted on Ely's plane. In event the jury-rigged experimental arresting gear failed, the canvas screen which was fitted at the end and on the sides of the platform would serve as an emergency stop. This arrangement was a clever one and in general pointed the way to the modern arresting gear and safety barrier system that is employed on the Navy's aircraft carriers of today.
Shipyard workers from Mare Island Navy Yard preparing USS Pennsylvania for placement of platform.
Meanwhile, back at the Curtis Flying School at North Island, Ely's crew was busy rigging three pairs of steel hooks on an extended skid to snag those lines. With this completed, Eugene was now off to the Mare Island Navy Yard where he and his crew would be kept busy making the final arrangements to demonstrate to Navy officials that a Curtiss built airplane could both land and take off from a ship.
Time was short as Eugene and the other members of the Curtis Team were scheduled to be contestants at California's "Second International Air Meet" held at "Selfridge Field" near the Tanforan race track from January 7th to 26th. Also flying there, besides Ely, were Charles Willard, Lincoln Beachey, Hugh Robinson, Walter R. Brookings, Philip Parmalee, Boyd Latham, James Radley, Red Wisemand and Clarance Walker, in addition to a number of local and amateur aviators who were entered in their events.
An important objective of this particular meet was to explore the military uses of the aeroplane. At this Air Meet several tests of a military nature were to be carried out including bomb dropping contests, wireless telegraph experiments and similar activities. Lieutenant Paul W. Beck of the Signal Corps, who was stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco, had attended the first International Air Meet in Los Angeles in 1910 and had become convinced that the U.S. Army should own its own airplanes equipped with the wireless telegraph for scouting and combat purposes.
One of the scheduled events included a mock attack against the airfield, with army troops marching from the Presidio. Planes were to be sent up to find and photograph the approaching "enemy." A Curtiss biplane was to be used to establish radio communication while scouting for the advancing army. During the air meet both Parcel and Willard carried these wireless sets and successfully received messages in flight instructing them to perform certain maneuvers.
Lieut. Beck would go up with Parmalee in a Wright aeroplane, equipped with one of the wireless telegraph transmitters, and successfully tap out a half-dozen messages, which were transcribed back at the wireless shack and handed to the officials. Beck would go on to take flying lessons from Glenn Curtiss, and to promote the cause of airplanes and the airborne wireless telegraph with speeches and articles.
Another highlight of the International Air Meet included members of the Second Battalion of the Thirtieth Infantry who were to take part in field exercises. When these soldiers established their camp in the fields near the Tanforan Racetrack, they promptly named it "Camp Selfridge" and appropriately named the adjacent airfield "Selfridge Field" in honor of Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge of San Francisco, one of the Army's earliest fliers, who had been killed in a flight with Orville Wright in 1908.
Parmalee, in a Wright areoplane, also took part in these military tests when he and Lieutenant Myron Crissy, U.S. Army Air Corps, succeeded in dropping the first explosive aerial bomb from an aircraft in flight. The result was a four-foot by three-foot hole in the ground. But it was Eugene Ely who would steel the headlines at this meet by making his second very notable, and undoubtedly most historic flight.
USS Pennsylvania's platform readied by Mare Island Navy Yard.
The Main Event
Naval aviation history had been made just two months earlier when Ely took off from an inclined platform over the forecastle of the cruiser BIRMINGHAM off the Virginia capes. Flying safely to shore was one thing, getting back to the ship was another, and in January 1911, Eugene Ely set out to prove it could be done. The ship this time was the cruiser PENNSYLVANIA, the place San Francisco Bay.
The Big Show
Meanwhile, Ely's mechanics, John C. Henning and John Lansing Callan, had been the first of the Curtis team to arrive in Norfolk and had already begun the task of assembling the plane by the time Ely arrived by train that Sunday. The weather was bad when Eugene arrived in Norfolk. Visibility had dropped to less than a mile and light showers mixed with hail threatened to postpone the launch. But Eugene was not discouraged as he knew he could do it. Ely remained optimistic, telling reporters at the old Monticello Hotel in Norfolk, "Everything is ready. If the weather is favorable, I might expect to make the flight tomorrow without difficulty."
By 2:30 p.m., the sky to the south began to look as if it might clear. Captain Fletcher, commanding the BIRMINGHAM, decided to get under way. Ely was ready. He idled the engine and waited. Then he gunned the engine to clear it, twisted the wheel for a feel of the rudder, rechecked the setting of the elevator, and looked back at the captains on the bridge wing. Then Ely noticed the horizon darkening with another squall. He looked at Chambers, and pointed at the approaching storm. The captain nodded. Both Ely and Chambers knew it would be close, but there was nothing either could do. Thirty fathoms of chain were still in the water. So at 3:10 p.m., as the clouds began to lift enough to see the shoreline, Ely checked everything again, and stared out at the oncoming squall. Eugene decided he couldn't wait for the ship to start steaming into the wind. If he was ever going to fly off that ship, it had to be now.
Ely's plane being loaded onto the USS Birmingham
Final placement of Ely's plane on the platform of the USS Birmingham
At 3:16 p.m., Eugene cranked up the motor. He gave the release signal. Harrington hesitated. Ely emphatically repeated the signal. At 3:17 p.m., Harrington released the toggle and stood there watching the plane trundle down the sloping deck. As the 50-horsepower Curtiss plane cleared the ramp, spectators on a nearby ships stood in shock as it plunged downward toward the water sinking so low as to splinter the propeller tips on the waves. The wheels of the plane actually struck water before enough speed was achieved to create enough lift to propel the aircraft into a climb. Before anyone could respond the plane came back into sight, climbing slowly toward the dark clouds. The wireless operator now tapped out," Ely just gone."
Eugene was now ready. All the preparations had been made. Captain Charles F. Pond, the PENNSYLVANIA's captain, 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. Because of the wind conditions that day, Ely opted for the vessel to be riding at anchor, and Pond naturally conformed to his wishes In the bay the PENNSYLVANIA rode the flood tide, a breeze of 10 to 15 mph was on her starboard quarter. Everything seemed ready. Five hundred yards to port lay the cruisers WEST VIRGINIA and MARYLAND which served as viewing stands for official onlookers. Also in the harbor that day were a number of small boats filled with reporters and fans of aviation waiting for just a glimpse of this historical event. Ely now sat down on the wooden seat of his Curtiss built areoplane, pulled on his heavily padded helmet, fixed his goggles, checked the bicycle tubes that formed an "X" across his chest, and a moment later prepared for take off. The crowd watched in anticipation as the Curtiss Pusher's motor was started. At 10:45 a.m., Eugene began down the Tanforan Airfield and disappeared into the sky.
The forward momentum of his plane was quickly retarded by the ropes stretched between the large movable bags of sand that had been placed along the entire length of the runway. As the plane landed, the hooks on the undercarriage caught the ropes exactly as planned which brought the plane to a complete stop.
And so it was, on the morning of January 18, 1911, Eugene Ely, in a Curtiss pusher biplane specially equipped with arresting hooks on its axle, took off from Selfridge Field and headed for the San Francisco Bay. After about 10 minutes flying North toward Goat Island (now Yerba Buena), Eugene spotted his target through the gray haze the PENNSYLVANIA.
Eugene Ely Before Take-off from Selfridge Field
Ely's plane was first sighted one-half mile from the PENNSYLVANIA's bridge at an altitude of 1,500 feet, cruising at a speed of approximately 60 mph. Now ten miles out from Tanforan, he circled the several vessels of the Pacific Fleet at anchor in San Francisco Bay. 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. With a crosswind of almost 15 knots, he flew past the cruiser and then banked some 500 yards from the PENNSYLVANIA's starboard quarter to set up his landing approach. Ely now headed straight for the ship, cutting 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.
Everything had gone exactly as planned. Pond called it "the most important landing of a bird since the dove flew back to Noah's ark." Pond would later report, "Nothing damaged, and not a bolt or brace startled, and Ely the coolest man on board."
Once on board the PENNSYLVANIA, sheer 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, Mabel, who greeted him with an enthusiastic "I knew you could do it" and then by Captain Pond, Commanding Officer of the PENNSYLVANIA. Then it was time for interviews and a few photographs for the reporters.
"There was never a doubt in my mind that I would affect a successful landing," Ely is quoted in a March 1911 Naval Institute Proceedings article. "I knew what a Curtiss biplane could do, and I felt certain that if the weather conditions were good there would be no slip."
After completing several interviews, Ely was escorted to the Captain's cabin where he and his wife were the honored guests at an officers lunch. While they dined, the landing platform was cleared and the plane turned around in preparation for takeoff. Then the Elys, Pond and the others posed for photographs. 57 minutes later, he made a perfect take-off from the platform, returning to Selfridge Field at the Tanforan race track where another tremendous ovation awaited him.
There can be little doubt that Ely's daring flight that day, during the early history of aviation, was one of the most outstanding achievements ever made by any of the pioneer aviators. The implications of its military and commercial usefulness will remain with us for all time. Ten years later the Mare Island Naval Shipyard built collier JUPITER would enter the Norfolk Navy Yard to have a flight deck installed, making her the Navy's "Covered Wagon".
Secretary of the Navy George Von L. Meyer, suitably impressed, in a meeting of the House Naval Affairs Committee, recommended to Congress that $25,000 should be authorized for the advancement of naval aviation experiments. But Secretary Meyer remained skeptical and had a different concept of the possibility of naval employment of airplanes in scouting at sea, and informed Curtiss: "When you show me that it is feasible for an aeroplane to alight on the water alongside a battleship and be hoisted aboard without any false deck to receive it, I shall believe the airship of practical benefit to the Navy." At the suggestion of a young naval officer, Glenn Curtiss would convert one of his planes into a "hydro-aeroplane" by fitting a float to the plane's undercarriage. Almost a year after Eugene Ely's famous flight, on January 26, 1912, Glenn Curtiss successfully took off and landed on the waters of San Diego Bay using his "hydro-plane." On the morning of February 17, 1912, Curtiss successfully maneuvered his float-equipped plane alongside the PENNSYLVANIA. The plane was hoisted aboard, and then lowered back to the bay, from where he lifted off for a return flight to North Island.
In March 1912, the Naval Appropriations Act provided $25,000 for the development of naval aviation. True to his word, in May 1912, Secretary Meyer also approved the Navy's purchase of its first aircraft from Curtiss.
Meanwhile, the month of April found the Curtiss Exhibition Team off to an Air Meet in Salt Lake City, Utah where Ely flew with Curtiss, Willard, Brookins and Parceled. There Ely did some remarkable flying and made a great showing. On April 15th and 16th the Team flew to Provo, Utah for exhibitions at the County Fair. From there Curtiss sent Ely to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas to assemble and test a new military plane being delivered to the U.S. Army. Eugene, now with top star billing, resumed his exhibition work and flew at Wichita, Kansas with Charles C. Witmer and Eddie Ward on May 4th through the 7th; at Kansas City, Missouri with Charles Willard on the 12th to 14th and Dallas, Texas with Witmer and Ward on the 17th to 20th.
California's National Guard Sprouts Wings
Ely and Willard, returned from Seattle, Washington, and were back in California by February 4, 1911. This time in Sacramento, where the two men flew demonstration flights for the State officials on the 5th and 6th. As a result, Maj. Gen. E. A. Forbes organized the Aeronautical Detachment of the 7th Company, Coast Artillery Corps, California National Guard on February 20th, 1911, with headquarters at the San Francisco Armor. Eugene promptly enlisted in the California National Guard and became a private. Through Glenn Curtiss the Corps acquired its first plane, and Eugene Ely offered his services to train two officers and carry on experiments in aerial scouting, photography and bomb dropping. He was engaged on this project for a short time.
On March 18th and 19th, Eugene was on the road again flying exhibitions with Willard. This time at San Jose, California. On March 29th and 30th he flew to Pasadena, California with Willard conducting more demonstration flights for state and local officials. On April 1, 1911, the Aeronautic Detachment of the California National Guard received $1,000 from Ely as a donation to a fund of $10,000 that was being raised to conduct experiments in Army aviation. Following his National Guard flying activities in March, 1911, Eugene was appointed Aviation Aide to the Governor of California and later, Ely was commissioned a second lieutenant in the California National Guard on July 27, 1911.
On the Road Again
Meanwhile, following his successful flight in San Francisco, on January 27, 1911, Ely proceeded back to the Curtiss Flying School at North Island (San Diego) with Robinson where they flew with Curtiss at the Country Club grounds on Coronado Island. The bay was jammed with small boats full of spectators from all over Southern California.
On January 28, with 1,500 persons in the stands of the Coronado polo grounds, according to the San Diego Union: "All eyes were turned toward the hangars on North Island. Suddenly on the mist-laden breeze there came a whirring, pounding noise not unlike the flushing of a covey of giant birds, and almost instantly a great salvo of cheers rent the air as a big Curtiss racing biplane lifted itself above the sagebrush across Spanish Bight and ascended higher and higher as its daring driver guided it over a circuitous aerial route, westward toward Point Loma headland." At the controls was Eugene Ely. After executing a spiral turn, in which "it seemed the machine must lose its intangible grip on the upper ether," he landed. Curtiss and his Exhibition Team, chief among them Eugene Ely, knew how to capture the crowd. The climactic event of the day was an aerial race in which a "terrific" speed of sixty miles an hour was attained. Following this event, Curtis sent Ely and Willard to Seattle, Washington for some exhibition work.
Ely and Curtiss over the skies of San Diego
An estimated 35,000 people from all over Nevada turned out to see Ely fly included among them was the Governor and his staff, Indians from several tribes, cowboys, miners and old settlers who could not believe there eyes. Ely was really at his best during this tour creating a tremendous amount of interest in aviation which also reportedly resulted in the selling of a few Curtiss planes for DeVaux.
After completing this assignment in July, Eugene was back on his way to the East and on August 5th, he was one of three contestants in the New York to Philadelphia $5,000 race which had been sponsored by the Curtiss Exhibition Company and Gimbel Bros. Stores. Scheduled for the event were Lincoln Beachey, Hugh Robinson and C. K. Hamilton, but a few days before the race Hamilton withdrew and Ely eagerly took his place. The prize was for the fastest flight between the Gimbel's New York Department Stores and the Philadelphia Department Stores. Ely took off with the other aviators from Governors Island and up the East River to 33rd Street, then across Manhattan, passing over the New York Gimbel Store, the official starting point. Beachy started first, Eugene Ely second and Robinson last. Ely was forced down at New Brunswick, New Jersey, with a clogged fuel line and Beachy won the race.
August 12th to 20th found Ely as a contestant in the famed 1911 Chicago Meet at Grant Park. There he was very active, spending a lot of time in the air, entering all the major events and put up a very fine showing, receiving $4,600 in prize money. On August 25th and 26th he flew at Kenosha, Wisconsin, then went on to the Boston-Harvard Meet, where he was an active contestant through September 4th. There he flew with Claude Grahame-White, Tom Sepwith, Harry N. Atwood, George W. Beatty, Howard Gill and Earl L. Ovington. September 8th to 10th Ely flew in a meet at Brighton Beach, near Coney Island, Long Island, New York with Grahame-White, Tom Sepwith, Harry Atwood and George Beatty. During September 26th to 28th he flew at the Stark County Fair, Canton, Ohio, then went to the Nassau Boulevard Meet on Long Island, New York through October 2nd. Here he competed against 36 noted flyers from England, France and the United States. Among them were Lieut. H. H. Arnold, Lieut. T. De W. Milling, T.O.M. Sopwith, Earle Ovington, C. G. White, Lieut. Paul W. Beck, George Beatty, Lieut. T. G. Ellyson of Navy, Lee Hammond, H. N. Atwood, H. W. Walden, George Dyott, and J. A. D. McCurdy. There he did very well again and all throughout these 1911 Fall events Ely carried passengers wherever he went.
It was about this time that Curtiss directed Eugene to return to California to do some flying for Norman DeVaux, a wealthy manager of the Pacific Reo Motor Car Agency. DeVaux had just taken the west coast agency for Curtiss planes and wanted a pilot to make an extended tour of the major cities to promote interest in flying and demonstrate planes to possible buyers. Eugene Ely started this tour at Eureka, California on May 27th and 28th, and from then until mid-July he made flights at the following cities: Chico, California; Medford, Salem and Portland, Oregon; Butte, Kalispel, Great Falls, Missoula and Lewiston, Montana; Seattle, Washington, and finally Reno, Nevada.
Exhibition at Ericka, California
The Fatal Event
Following this Eugene Ely worked southward and on October 19th, while flying his second flight at the Georgia State Fairgrounds at Macon, Georgia, he crashed and sustained fatal injuries. The accident was said to have been caused by his having removed his front elevator so the plane would be like Beachey's. He was making a dive at the ground to zoom up again, and being used to the front elevator, his plane responded in a different manner, he misjudged his control and struck the ground at an angle at high speed. He was thrown some 30 feet, breaking his neck, and was picked up unconscious and lived only a few minutes.
The tragedy surrounding his death was that the crowd became unruly and rushed to the wreckage to strip souvenirs from his aeroplane and pieces of clothing from his body.
Like his mentor Glenn H. Curtiss, Eugene was a cautious and expert flyer, he did not believe in reckless, daredevil flying, and this was one of the "tamer" stunts he had been doing as a part of his exhibition work. He was only 26 years of age at the time of his death, and was survived by his wife and parents.
His body was returned to Williamsburg via Davenport, Iowa for burial in the Herrington Cemetery. The government of the United States offered to reinter Eugene B. Ely's body in Arlington Natonal Cemetery. His mother refused.
Both the landing and take off were witnessed by several distinguished members of both U.S. Army and Navy, as well as state military officials. Ely had successfully demonstrated the possibility of the aircraft carrier. The concept of the arresting hook and the use of the sand bags, which worked so successfully, were largely the ideas of Curtiss pilots Hugh Robinson and Eugene Ely. The proof of their value is in the fact that this same basic design for carrier landings are still in use today.
(c) Copyright 1997 (Rev. December 2010)
All Rights Reserved
Mark J. Denger
California Center for Militay History
The author wishes express his appreciation to the following archives:
American Heritage Library and Museum, Glendale, California
California Air National Guard, Headquarters, Sacramento, California
California Army National Guard, Headquarters, Sacramento, California
California Center for Military History
California State Archives, Sacramento, California
California State Library, Sacramento, California
California State Military Museum, Maj. Gen. Walter P. Story Library, Sacramento, California
California State University, Special Collections, Los Angeles, California
California State University, Archives and Special Collections, Dominguez Hills, California
California Historical Society
Clackamas County Historical Society, Oregon City, Oregon
Evergreen Aviation Museum, McMinnville, Oregon
Glendale Public Library, Special Collections, Glendale, California
Glenn H. Curtiss Museum, Hammondsport, New York
Hampton Roads Naval Museum, Norfolk, Virginia
Iowa Historical Society
Hill Aerospace Museum, Hill Air Force Base, Utah
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Los Angeles Public Library, Los Angeles, California
Moffett Field Museum, Sunnyvale-Mountain View, California
New York Public Library, New York
National Archives and Records Administration
Washington, D.C. (Pacific Region) Los Angeles, California (Pacific Region) San Francisco, California (Pacific Alaska Region) Seattle, Washington (College Park) National Archives, College Park, Maryland (Washington National Records Center) Suitland, Maryland
National Guard Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C.
National Guard Association, Washington, D. C.,
National Guard Bureau, History Office, Washington, D. C.,
National Museum of the Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio
National Naval Aviation Museum, Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida
Naval Historical Foundation, Navy Yard, Washington, D.C.
Naval Historical Center, Navy Yard, Washington, D.C.
NHHC Archives-Aviation, Naval Aviation History Office, Navy Yard, Washington, D.C
NHHC Operational Archives Branch, Naval Historical Center, Navy Yard, Washington, D.C.
NHHC Photographic Section, Naval History & Heritage Command, Navy Yard, Washington, D.C
NHHC Ships History Branch, Naval History & Heritage Command, Navy Yard, Washington, D.C
Navy Department Library, Navy Yard, Washington, D.C
Office of Air Force History, The Pentagon, Washington, D. C.
Oklahoma Historical Society, Research Division, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Old Guard Museum, Fort Myer, Virgina
Oregon Historical Society, Portland, Oregon
Oregon Air & Space Museum, Eugene, Oregon
Oregon Aviation Historical Society, Cottage Grove, Oregon
Oregon Historical Society, Portland, Oregon
Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon
Pearson Air Museum, Vancouver, Washington
San Diego Air & Space Museum, Library & Archives, San Diego, California
San Diego Historical Society, San Diego, California
San Diego Public Library, San Diego, California
Sacramento Public Library, Sacramento, California
Smithsonian Institute, Archives Division, National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C.
The Museum of Flight Research Center, Seattle, Washington
Tillamook Air Museum, Tillamook, Oregon
United States Navy Museum, Navy Yard, Washington, D.C.
University of California, Berkeley, California
University of California, Los Angeles, California
University of Iowa
University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon
U.S. Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama
U.S. Air Force, Secretary of the Air Force, Office of Information, Washington, D.C.
U.S. Army Aviation Museum, Fort Rucker, Alabama
U.S. Army Center of Military History, Fort McNair, Washington, D.C.
U.S. Army Communications and Electronics Museum, Fort Monmouth, New Jersey
U.S. Army Military History Institute, Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania
U.S. Government Printing Office, Superintendent of Documents, Washington, D.C.
U.S. Marine Corps, History and Museums Division, Washington, D.C.
U.S. Military Academy Library, Special Collections and Archives Division, West Point, New York
U.S. Naval Academy, William W. Jeffries Memorial Archives, Nimitz Library, Annapolis, Maryland
U.S. Naval Institute, Annapolis, Maryland
Virginia Air & Space Museum, Hampton, Virgiania
Williamsburg Historical Society
California State Military Museum, Special Collections, Sacramento, California
NHHC Photographic Section, Naval History & Heritage Command, Navy Yard, Washington, D.C
American Heritage Library and Museum, Glendale, Califoria
Gary Lillis, ICGS, Marengo, Iowa
Eugene Ely landing on the USS Pennsylvania
Eugene Ely being escorted from plane after landing on USS Pennsylvania
Eugene Ely returning to Selfridge Field
Top Right: Mable Ely inspecting medal received by her husband
Left: Eugene Ely receiving an award at Selfridge Field, January 1911
Eugene Ely richly deserves great credit in the pages of American aviation history. As a self-taught aviator he quickly became world renowned and his name will forever remain among the "early flying greats."
As a member of the Aero Club of California, on October 24, 1911, the Club met in special tribute to his memory. During the Emeryville, California Flying Meet in February, 1912, the 23rd was set aside in memory of Eugene Ely. Special "Eugene Ely Day" postcards were sold, telling of his historic flights and the entire gate and card sale receipts of the day were turned over to his widow.
Eugene B. 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.
His contribution to Naval aviation demonstrated the adaptability of aircraft to ship-board operations and opened the eyes and purse strings of the U.S. Navy to aviation. Although it must have pleased him to know that his efforts were appreciated, he seemed to loath to be made so much of. Eugene was a modest man if ever there was one and like his mentor Glenn Curtiss, flying was simply Ely's business which speaks to his professionalism and manner. Glenn Curtiss said of him: "Ely was the highest type of American aviator, as good as the best, he possessed the qualities of personality, character and ability that was admired and highly respected in his private life and his dealings with other men."
In 1933, President Herbert Hoover posthumously awarded Eugene Burton Ely the Distinguished Flying Cross for his many pioneering and historic aviation achievements.
The State of California and its National Guard proudly claims Eugene Burton Ely as one of their own.
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Wreckage of Ely's Plane at Macon, Georgia
Left to right: Mabel Ely, Eugene Ely, John McHenry, Jr., Capt. Charles F. Pond