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Those Magnificent Men: 100 Years Of Naval Aviation

May 2024
10min read

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

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.

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.”

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.

Curtiss called his young pilot “the highest type of American aviator, as good as the best.” And so he was. Yet Ely’s name today evokes scant recognition, mostly perhaps at Hampton Roads, which saw a replica of his plane fly to celebrate the centennial, and at the Naval Aviation Monument in Virginia Beach, where his statue stands not far from the waters he crossed when giving the Navy its first wings.


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