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And The Navy Got Its Wings

July 2024
4min read

Rickety flight deck, primitive plane —

U.S.S. Pennsylvania , a four-stacker armored cruiser with massive hitting power but only moderate speed, lay at anchor south of Goat Island in San Francisco Bay in the clear morning of January 18, 1911. Her afterdeck was disfigured by a temporary wooden platform, 119 feet in length; just forward of this, heavy canvas was draped from the searchlight platform. Most of the ship’s company crowded the upper works; lifeboats floated, ready, alongside. All manner of naval and civilian craft dotted the nearby water. An act of history was about to be performed.

Coming in low over the water from dead astern was a Trail-looking Curtiss biplane, piloted by a young civilian named Eugene Ely. He was about to make the first of all airplane landings on the deck of a warship. Ely and the Pennsylvania ’s skipper—a stocky, friendly officer, Captain C. F. Pond, nicknamed “Frog̵and a few other enthusiasts believed that this might be an important achievement. Actually, a complete revolution in naval warfare was riding down the wind with the flimsy crate that was coming in for its risky landing. U.S.S. Pennsylvania looked odd, with its rickety !light deck, but it was at that moment the ultimate ancestor of all the mighty carrier fleets that would rule the seas in the future.

Ely was a barnstormer. Less than twelve months earlier he had bought a badly damaged Curtiss, hail patched it up, and then (lacking an instructor) had taught himself to fly; it seems he kept taxiing around a field until finally he bounced into the air, and from then on it was more or less easy. He had made money barnstorming, he held U.S. aviator’s license number 17, and by now he was no stranger to the Navy. In the fall of 1910 he had tried a take-off from a platform built on the bow of U.S.S. Birmingham , in the Chesapeake. He got off all right, but he bounced on the water, damaged his propeller, got lost in the fog, and made an emergency landing on the first beach he saw. Today he was out to make both a landing and a take-off, and hardly anybody really thought that he could do it.

Except for a few enthusiasts, the Navy itself was rather cool to the idea. The famous Wright brothers had refused to provide either a plane or a pilot, considering the stunt too dangerous. Glenn Curtiss himself shared their feeling, and he had tried to talk Ely out of it, without success. So now Ely was coming in for his landing.

Ely sat out in front, grotesque in crash helmet, with an inflated bicycle inner tube wrapped around his chest as a safety measure. The canvas draped over the searchlight platform was meant to protect him from injury in case he could not stop in time. Along the flight deck was a primitive “retarding gear”—a series of sandbags connected by lines. On a slat between the wheels of the plane were three spring-loaded hooks. With any luck, these hooks ought to catch the lines and bring the plane to a tolerably smooth stop.

Ely had taken off from a field twelve miles to the south of the Pennsylvania ’s, anchorage. He cruised over the bay at 1,200 feet, his eight-cylinder engine purring just behind him. Then he came down to 400 feet and came up to the line of warships, steadily cutting his altitude. At topmast level he rounded the Pennsylvania ’s stern and roared up her starboard side. The air was cold and smooth as he Hew back down her port side at nearly a mile a minute. A hundred yards astern he banked steeply and headed slightly to windward of the platform. Fifty feet from the ship he cut the switch—there was no room to go round again. He did not have the wave-oil option of a modern carrier pilot. The propeller stopped in swishing quiet. He was almost there.

It looked perfect till the last moment; then Ely felt the settling plane suddenly jump up. The shipside updraft, well-known now, was unsuspected then, but Ely’s reflexes had been sharpened by nine months of flying. They took charge. Like many a latter-day flyboy he “dove for the deck” as he floated over the third line. The spring hooks snatched the next ten and stopped him with forty feet to spare.

Before Ely’s jaws relaxed men surrounded his machine. Diminutive Mabel Ely, his wife, who had been on the bridge with Captain Pond, burst through the crowd, flung herself into his arms, and kissed his cold lace. “Oh, you boy,” she shouted for the benefit of reporters. “I knew you could do it.”

Captain Pond pumped Ely’s hand, kissed Mabel’s cheek and declared, “This’s the most important landing of a bird since the dove flew back to the ark.” They posed for photographers before the skipper maneuvered his celebrity below. At the cabin hatch he turned to the officer of the deck. “Mr. Luckel,” he said, “let me know when the plane is respotted ready for takeoff.” Thus Frog Pond originated the order that carrier men still hear, “Respot the deck.”

In the Captain’s cabin, officers and guests lifted champagne glasses to toast “Ely,” next “the birth of naval aviation,” and “this landing which has opened a new chapter in naval history.” Ely quietly passed up his favorite drink to sip ginger ale. His mind was on the job still ahead.

It was a good party, but he was glad when his machine was ready. At his wave, a mechanic jerked the toggle and for the second time a plane Hew from a ship. This time it did not splash. From the end of the ramp it circled up till Ely was some 2,000 feet above his friends on deck. Then he headed straight for Selfridge Field. Thirteen minutes after take-off he rolled to a stop in front of the stands where people were gathering for the afternoon show. More champagne and more lunch were spread before him. This time he relaxed and enjoyed both. “It was easy enough,” he told the battalion officers. “I think the trick could be turned nine times out of ten.”

At about the same time the watch changed on the Pennsylvania . Midshipman Luckel signed this log entry:

8 A.M. to meridian:—

Cloudy and pleasant. Calm to light airs from the East. Barometer rising. The steamer Herald cast off at 10:25. Eugene Ely of the Curtiss team alighted upon the aviation platform of this ship at 11:01 A.M. , a feat that never before had been successfully accomplished. At 11:58 the aviator departed from the ship in his flying machine without accident and returned safely to the aviation field. Received H.M. Bogart, sea., from the U.S.S. Lawrence for further transfer to the U.S.S. California . Signals as per book.

Lt. Commander Standley, the navigator, approved the log without comment on the unique event sandwiched with the routine. Was he unimpressed then? (In 1941, as a retired admiral, the President sent him to investigate the destruction wrought by Japanese carrier planes at Pearl Harbor.)

Eugene Ely never again Hew from a ship. Nine months later he died in a crash at Macon, Georgia. He always distrusted the sea, never wore a Navy uniform, and never saw any “wings-of-gold”—they had not been designed yet—but he was the first naval aviator and first carrier pilot.

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