Navy Power-A View From The Air
Seventy-five years ago a powered kite landed on a cruiser. From that stunt grew the weaponry that has defined modern naval supremacy.
October/November 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 6
Late in 1910, just seven years after the Wright brothers had flown at Kitty Hawk, a noted civilian pilot, Eueene B. Ely, employed by the Curtiss Aircraft Company, took off in what might today be called a powered kite, a fifty-horsepower Curtiss pusher aircraft, from an inclined wooden platform built on the bow of the scout cruiser Birmingham , anchored in Hampton Roads, Virginia. His plane sagged startlingly low as it cleared the bow ramp, nearly hit the water—by some accounts actually did so and damaged its propeller —and moments later everyone heaved a huge sigh of relief as the sweating Ely put his craft safely on the ground at a field some two miles away.
Two months later, in January 1911, the first landing aboard and takeoff from a man-of-war took place. In preparation, an inclined landing platform similar to Birmingham ’s had been built over the stern of the much bigger U.S. armored cruiser Pennsylvania , slanted upward over her after eight-inch gun turret. Arresting gear, consisting of sandbags on the ends of taut ropes elevated a few inches above the wooden planks, was stretched across it, and a canvas barrier was rigged to prevent the plane from striking the ship’s mainmast, where the landing platform necessarily terminated. The Pennsylvania was anchored in San Francisco Bay. With every available observation space crammed with onlookers, Ely landed his same Curtiss on the platform, rolling uphill and catching about half of the arresting lines with the hook built into the tail of his fragile machine. Most accounts say he nearly hit the canvas screen, but Ely later claimed his craft should have been allowed to roll even closer to it. (Most of the duly impressed witnesses felt he had come quite close enough.) About an hour after landing, Ely climbed back into his plane, revved up its engine, and signaled to cut the hold-down line. The plane clattered down the runway and over the stern, again dropped alarmingly but only to within ten feet of the water, and then rose triumphantly into the air. It is surprising how many of the techniques innovated for that single short flight are still in use today.
Naval aviation can be dated from that day, but there were earlier preliminaries. The first Officer in Charge of Aviation (imagine anyone with that title today!) was Capt. Washington Irving Chambers, USN, and it was he who persuaded the Navy Department to allow the experiment to be made in the first place. For this and other services, Chambers is sometimes called the father of naval aviation, and some authorities give May 8, 1911, the day Chambers signed the order for two aircraft from Glenn Curtiss’s aircraft factory, as the true inauguration of naval air. Capt. Charles F. Pond, of the Pennsylvania , an old sea dog proud of his seamanship, foresaw a great future for aircraft in the Navy and was delighted to lend his ship for the occasion. Ely, of course, gets the credit for the actual landing and takeoff.
After the Pennsylvania there was still a very long way to go, and almost immediately controversy developed. Battleship adherents, who believed in the great and storied fleet action between perfected steel behemoths hurling tons of ogival-shaped spinning projectiles at one another, saw the airplane as a magnificent platform for scouting and spotting (correcting the fall of shot). Every battleship and all new cruisers were swiftly assigned an air department and two or three float planes, with catapults for launching them, and cranes or derricks for hoisting them back on board. The rules for battle practice were rewritten, and gunnery officers and captains studied how to get the most out of this interesting and potentially useful contraption. To battleship aficionados the millennium—accurate gunfire at long range—seemed nearer at hand, and they blessed the airplanes that made it so.
The growing group of fliers was not, however, enchanted with the prospect of being an adjunct to what they saw as a mission without a future. From their point of view, maximum gun range was ridiculously less than the distance they could carry a bomb. Float planes were slow and vulnerable, and observation planes slowly circling over a battle fleet to spot gunfire would be sitting ducks for combat aircraft. The idea of flying directly off ships at sea—and landing aboard them—as was pioneered on the Birmingham and Pennsylvania , appealed to them far more. Finally, after much discussion over design, the collier Jupiter , best and fastest of her class, was taken in hand in 1920 for conversion into our navy’s first aircraft carrier, the Langley . The then Commander Kenneth Whiting K is generally given most credit for design and authorization of the Langley , but there were many other dedicated officers who foresaw control of the air as being potentially as important as control of the sea and who acted accordingly. Most had yet to fly in an airplane, and many never did, but that did not prevent them from appreciating the possibilities.