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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
The Birmingham flight attracted worldwide attention and piqued the Navy’s interest in aviation, despite its lack of funds. Meyer wrote a letter, drafted by Chambers, effusively praising Ely for “demonstrating the possibility of using an aeroplane [what he earlier had called a ‘carnival toy’], from a ship, in connection with the problem of naval scouting.” Curtiss offered to train a naval officer to fly for free, well aware that the Navy needed pilots if it was to purchase Curtiss airplanes.
Chambers quickly secured Ely’s agreement to conduct the new trial in San Francisco, the site of a large meet scheduled for January 1911. Then he arranged for the heavy cruiser Pennsylvania, commanded by his Annapolis contemporary, Charles F. “Frog” Pond, to report to the Mare Island Naval Shipyard near San Francisco, where shipyard workers installed a platform on its fantail that was considerably longer and wider than the Birmingham’s.
Such a landing would present larger problems than the takeoff: the plane lacked brakes or any ground-steering mechanism, and its normal landing run far exceeded the platform’s length. Collective brainstorming among Ely, other Curtiss pilots, and two Pennsylvania officers produced an intricate solution: To prevent the incoming aircraft from hurtling overboard, two-foot-high wooden bulwarks two inches thick were placed along the platform’s edges, backed by canvas awnings. A solid plank and two tall canvas screens were designed to stop the aircraft from crashing into the ship’s superstructure. Twenty-two ropes were stretched across the deck at three-foot intervals. The ropes were draped across two parallel lines of two-by-fours spaced 12 feet apart, which served to keep the rope off the deck and define the runway’s narrow path. Fifty-pound sandbags kept the ropes taut and anchored. Hooks welded to the aircraft’s landing gear would engage the ropes and arrest the plane—a system that, suitably modernized, is what the Navy still uses today.
Although Ely and Chambers wanted the Pennsylvania to steam to windward, maritime traffic restricted its deepwater maneuvering, forcing Captain Pond to anchor in midbay. After a week’s weather-induced delay, Ely took off from the Tanforan Racetrack south of San Francisco at 10:45 a.m. on January 18, a football helmet on his head and two bicycle inner tubes crossed over his chest for emergency flotation. He aimed to arrive at 11, when the tide, flooding in through the Golden Gate, would keep the Pennsylvania headed into the normal westerly breeze.
Meanwhile, the crews of nearby warships, spectators on private boats, and people in San Francisco’s natural amphitheater onshore waited expectantly. Right on time, Ely flew into sight, passing down the line of ships, rounded the Pennsylvania’s bow, circled to 100 yards aft of its stern, and began his approach. Suddenly the headwind shifted, now coming from slightly behind him. Without anyone on deck to guide him, Ely would have to attempt the first shipboard landing by coming in crosswind, or perhaps even downwind.
He cut his engine 50 feet away and began his final descent, his plane perfectly aligned to the track. An updraft abruptly pushed him 10 feet off the deck. Born airman that he was, Ely executed a brief dive, passing over the first 10 lines. Then wheels touched squarely amidships, the hooks caught, and the plane stopped, comfortably short of the forward barrier. To Curtiss, looking at the photographs, it was “probably one of the greatest feats in accurate landing ever performed by an aviator.” Another witness recalled years later, after watching thousands of such landings, that Ely’s was “as beautiful a precision landing . . . as has ever been witnessed.”
Wild applause, cheers, and ship’s whistles broke out. Ely’s wife, Mabel, onboard as Pond’s guest, embraced her husband: “Oh, boy! I knew you could do it.” Captain Pond called it “the most important landing of a bird since the dove flew back to the ark.” Deeply impressed by Ely’s achievement and the viability of the airplane in future naval warfare, Pond would later recommend the construction of “floating airfields.”
The captain took Ely and Mabel to lunch, telling the officer of the deck, “Let me know when the plane is respotted and ready for takeoff.” Like Ely’s arresting gear, Pond’s phrase retains a place in naval aviation today.
After his brief repast, Ely climbed aboard the plane, took off smoothly, and returned to a tumultuous welcome at Tanforan. Newspapers nationwide hailed the triumph. His picture appeared on the cover of The Air-Scout, the U.S. Aeronautical Reserve’s magazine. Emboldened, he predicted a future “experimental station” and told Chambers that, as “someone who is competent will be needed to carry on the work . . . I shall try to be the one selected.”
Chambers replied encouragingly but urged Ely to cease the “risky flights” and “sensational features.” Ely told a friend, “I’ll do like the rest of them—keep it up until I am killed,” and resumed his sensational stunts until just nine months later at a Macon, Georgia, exhibition two days before his 25th birthday. He failed to pull out of a dive, jumped free, and was killed. Not until 1933 did the government officially recognize Ely, posthumously awarding him the Distinguished Flying Cross “for his extraordinary achievement as a pioneer civilian aviator and for his significant contribution to the development of aviation in the United States Navy.”
Although Ely had emphatically shown the compatibility of planes and warships, the Navy did not immediately embrace the idea. Even when World War I airpower proved potent, the Navy remained lukewarm, its highest-ranking officer commenting that he could not “conceive of any use that the fleet will ever have for aircraft.” Captain Pond’s “floating airfields” also had to wait: the Navy obtained its first operational carrier only in 1922.