Those Magnificent Men: 100 Years Of Naval Aviation

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On November 14, 1910, a professional “aviationist” named Eugene Ely stood by his plane on a temporary platform built over the foredeck of the USS Birmingham, a scout cruiser moored at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. On this rainy day, the 24-year-old pilot proposed to be the first man to fly an “aeroplane” from a ship at sea, seven years after the Wright Brothers’ initial flight.

Designed by Glenn H. Curtiss, pioneering pilot, aircraft manufacturer, and the Wrights’ chief competitor, the biplane’s body was crafted from bamboo, fabric, and wire. An open lattice made up the airframe. From a chair on the lower wing, forward of the “pusher” engine and propeller, the pilot controlled lateral and vertical motion through an automobile steering wheel and a pair of pedals. The wingspan measured some 30 feet; the entire 26-foot-long contraption rested on a three-wheel landing gear. Its 50-horsepower engine had not yet arrived.

Ely could claim no expertise as a Navy pilot—no one could in 1910—but he was a talented automobile mechanic who had taught himself to fly barely seven months earlier. His natural flying aptitude, revealed in barnstorming at air meets in Canada and the Midwest, had brought him to the attention of Curtiss. Already an aviation legend, Curtiss held flying license no. 1 from the Aero Club of America and had piloted the first officially witnessed flight in the United States. The former motorcycle racer held the world airspeed title, as well as the American record for a long-distance flight, covering 137 miles between Albany to New York City with two sanctioned stops, a feat that had won him the New York World’s $10,000 prize.

Curtiss had become a vigorous proponent of the airplane’s military capabilities, directly or indirectly involved in demonstrating aerial bombing over water, firing rifles while airborne, and initiating in-flight radio communication. He had also dedicated himself to designing the world’s first seaplane.

He brought Ely into the team of pilots he had assembled to show Americans the wonders of flight—by flying Curtiss-built machines, which he hoped to sell. Indeed, it was Curtiss who had supplied the aircraft now sitting on the Birmingham’s jury-rigged, 83-foot-long flight deck, the same model he had flown five months earlier to win the World’s award.

Next to innate flying skill and confidence, single-minded resolution was the hallmark of his new young recruit’s character. The son of a Davenport, Iowa, lawyer, Ely had graduated from Iowa State University, then became a skilled auto technician and driver. His ambitions took him in early 1910 to Portland, Oregon, where he taught himself to fly and immediately began stunt flying. By October 5, roughly six months after his first flight, he had received the Aero Club’s license no. 17.

Although Curtiss himself was not aboard the Birmingham, the spectators included the individual most responsible for the impending experiment: Capt. Washington Irving Chambers, USN, Annapolis, 1876. Expert in ship design and ordnance, particularly in the field of torpedoes, Chambers had served as assistant to Capt. Frank Fletcher, aide for material to Secretary of the Navy George von Lengerke Meyer for nearly a year. At Meyer’s direction, Fletcher assigned Chambers to handle whatever incoming mail dealt with aviation, a subject Chambers found fascinating. Most colleagues did not share Chambers’s enthusiasm, believing that naval aviation was a mere sideshow, especially frivolous in light of the recent British Royal Navy launch of the revolutionary new, big-gun warship, the Dreadnought, which had set off a naval arms race among the world’s industrial powers. Secretary Meyer left no doubt as to the official Navy position when he referred to airplanes as “carnival toys.” Chambers received neither office, staff, authority, nor title.

Undeterred, the creative and inquisitive Chambers began educating himself in aeronautics, devouring everything available on the subject. In October he traveled to the International Air Meet at Belmont Park racetrack on Long Island, where he met Curtiss and Ely. (Racetracks were popular sites for air shows because of their spacious grounds, flat straightaways, and fences that excluded gatecrashers.) Chambers came away impressed and hopeful that they could help give the Navy wings.

After Belmont, Chambers followed Ely to an air meet in Halethorpe, Maryland, where he learned to his surprise that Curtiss was courting other clients. Under Curtiss’s direct supervision and with the World’s enthusiastic support, Canadian aviator J. A. D. McCurdy was planning to fly a standard Curtiss biplane off the Hamburg America Line’s Kaiserin Auguste Victoria as it steamed out of New York Harbor.

It’s not clear why Curtiss, who had tried for months to interest Washington officials in the airplane’s military uses, would now turn to a steamship company—and a foreign one, at that—without even suggesting the project to the Navy. Perhaps, because the World had already made the arrangements with Hamburg America, Curtiss may have been content with mere involvement. Besides, the Navy had made painfully clear its skepticism about aviation’s place afloat.

The project was by now raising serious national defense issues. Hamburg America was, after all, not merely a commercial steamship company eager for publicity and a potential competitive advantage in transatlantic mail delivery, but an auxiliary of the German navy, installed as such by the Kaiser. The whole experiment seemed a thinly veiled military exercise by a European power in American waters, an affront to the recently expanded spirit of the Monroe Doctrine.