From: Lawrence Kettinger Jr (Courtesy of
bit of naval aviation history in photos . . . .
day the Navy learned it could fly from ships
One hundred years is a very long time. Yet in the hierarchy of modern
marvels, the ability to recover and launch aircraft from the
deck of a moving ship stands out as one of our signature
accomplishments. Which just goes to show you: Some tricks
never grow old. Naval aviation was invented one hundred years ago, on
January 18, 1911, when a 24 year-old barnstormer pilot named Eugene B.
Ely completed the world's first successful landing on a ship.
It happened in San Francisco Bay, aboard the cruiser USS Pennsylvania,
which had a temporary 133-foot wooden landing strip built above her
afterdeck and gun turret as part of the experiment.
Ely accomplished his
feat just eight years after the Wright Brothers made their first
flight at Kitty Hawk . His aircraft was rudimentary: a
Curtiss Model D "Pusher" biplane, equipped with a 60 hp V-8
engine that gave the aircraft a 50 mph airspeed. To get a
sense of how simple it was, behold a contemporary replica of
Ely's 1911 Curtiss Pusher that was built to celebrate this
But back then, innovation was afoot. Ely's Curtis Pusher had been
fitted with a clever new invention called a tailhook. The
idea was to quickly halt the aircraft after landing by using
the tailhook to catch one or two of 22 rope lines. Each propped up a
foot above the deck and weighted by 50-pound sandbags tied to
each end -- Strung three feet apart along the
Pennsylvania 's temporary flight deck.Mark J. Denger of the California
Center for Military History has written a tidy biography of Eugene Ely
which narrates the historic day: 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 (Tanforan
Racetrack, in San Bruno , Calif. ) 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
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 center line of the
Pennsylvania's deck at 11:01 a.m.
The forward momentum of his plane was quickly retarded by the ropes
stretched between the large movable 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. 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. 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."
(NOTE: Safety first!
Check out Ely's inner-tube life preserver!)
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 Ely's, 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 racetrack where another
tremendous ovation awaited him.
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.
Indeed. The US Navy's
first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley, was commissioned in
1922, eleven years later. But Ely didn't live to witness the
milestone; he died just a few months after his historic
flight, on October 11, 1911, when he was thrown from his
aircraft during a crash at an air show. But 100 years ago, he merged
the power of naval warships and aviation in ways that remain
cutting-edge, even today.
Photos on this page are the property of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum