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Those Magnificent Men: 100 Years Of Naval Aviation
A century ago, a skilled and fearless stunt pilot landed a wire-and-wood aircraft on a ship's deck -- and introduced the era of naval aviation
Winter 2011 | Volume 60, Issue 4
On November 4 and 5, however, extraordinarily bad weather struck the New York area, grounding McCurdy’s aircraft. Although passengers had been promised the chance to “airmail” specially franked envelopes, the Kaiserin Auguste Victoria’s schedule forced it to depart without McCurdy or his plane. Undaunted, Curtiss and Hamburg America rescheduled the trial for November 24 on another ship.
The bad weather had bought Chambers a little time. Fortuitously, Secretary Meyer was traveling abroad and had left the department in the care of Assistant Secretary Beekman Winthrop, an imaginative, young, but experienced official who, unlike his chief, grasped the possibilities of naval aviation. When Chambers proposed co-opting the steamship plan by using a Navy vessel for the test flight, Winthrop readily agreed; now Chambers needed only a warship, a takeoff surface, an airplane, and a pilot.
Chambers approached Wilbur Wright about furnishing a plane and pilot, but the great pioneer refused even to meet him, calling the attempt too dangerous. Chambers then contacted Ely. The Navy could pay him nothing, Chambers pointed out, even if the flight succeeded. “But if you’ll fly, I’ll prepare and provide the ship.”
Confident as ever, Ely replied, “I’ll fly.”
Chambers next turned to finding a launching surface, a task made easier by his associate, naval constructor William McEntee, who had already designed a platform specifically for the purpose: a rectangular floor with a five-degree slope ending 37 feet above water. Ely inspected McEntee’s plans and felt certain that he could get aloft safely with a gravity-assisted run down the ramp and a dive from its end.
Chambers and Ely traveled to Washington to lobby Meyer, just back from his tour of foreign naval installations and intent on trimming $300,000 from the budget. Whether still economizing or out of enduring scorn for airplanes, he declined to offset construction of the platform by even $500.
Just then an angel appeared: John Barry Ryan, millionaire publisher and New York politician, who two months earlier had founded the paramilitary U.S. Aeronautical Reserve, “with a view of advancing the aeronautical science as a means of supplementing the national defense.” The reserve was offering a $1,000 prize to its first member who completed a ship-to-shore flight of a mile or more. Ely was not a member, but Barry proposed to withdraw the prize and use half of the cash prize to fund construction of the platform.
After consulting President William Howard Taft, Meyer, who was perhaps softened by Ryan’s political standing, agreed to furnish a Navy ship but no additional funds. He then went home to Massachusetts for the November 8 elections. Winthrop, once again in charge, ordered the Birmingham, which featured a flat main deck forward of an open bridge, to the Norfolk Navy Yard so that it could be outfitted with McEntee’s ramp.
But Curtiss and McCurdy were not waiting for November 24, instead arranging for the latter to fly from the Hamburg America’s Pennsylvania on November 12 under the eyes of unidentified “government officials.” Fifteen minutes before sailing, Curtiss’s “mechanicians” started the engine perfectly; a little later, McCurdy’s replacement, Bud Mars, came aboard and threw the starter switch for a final test, only to set off a loud bang and violent vibrations that shook the entire aircraft. An object, carelessly left on the wing by a mechanic, had been sucked into the propeller, shattering it and leaving the steering mechanism seriously damaged. Curtiss aborted the trial upon learning that replacement parts were not available before the Pennsylvania’s imminent departure.
That same day, Chambers received orders to conduct the Birmingham trial, and he traveled with Ely to Norfolk on November 13. Two of Ely’s mechanics accompanied them, having assembled a plane from scrounged pieces and parts sent from the Curtiss plant in Hammondsport, New York. Knowing he would be flying over—if not into—the water, Ely added aluminum floats under the wings and a splashboard to the landing gear.
Time remained crucial, even though New York would not see a launch before the next available liner date on November 24. Ely was booked to fly in North Carolina on November 16. He had to take off from the Birmingham on November 14 or not at all.
Chambers wanted the Birmingham and the escorts to steam 50 miles up the Chesapeake Bay before the launch, but worsening weather forced them to anchor at Hampton Roads, near the site where the early ironclads Monitor and Merrimac had famously battled in 1862. As conditions improved, the captain ordered up anchor, while Ely sat aboard the aircraft on the flight deck fiddling with the controls. Concerned that the storm might return, Ely reached a quick decision. He signaled his crew and started the engine. The plane began rolling down the platform, then passed over the bow. Unfortunately, he was a few seconds late in shifting his controls, and the aircraft plunged, its wheels and propeller tips striking the water, drenching Ely and temporarily blinding him. Still he managed to pull up and reach 200 feet. At that point he needed to land immediately; the aircraft was violently shaking from the damaged propeller. Clearing his goggles, he spotted a beach that “looked like a convenient landing place” and touched down safely about two miles from the Birmingham.
The delighted Ryan paid Ely the remaining $500 of the prize money and received the damaged propeller as a souvenir. Already contemplating the future, Ely told Chambers, “I could land aboard, too,” publicly adding later that “I think the next test along this line might be that of landing on a ship in motion.”