(August 2011) Just after 11 o’clock on a chilly San Francisco morning, Jan. 18, 1911, a 24-year-old civilian demonstration pilot named Eugene Ely coaxed his 50 hp Curtiss pusher biplane into the sky, made a wide circle over San Francisco Bay and set down on the deck of the anchored U.S. Navy armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania. Relieved that he’d safely accomplished the never-before-attempted feat, the young man from Iowa climbed out of his airplane to greet a throng of Navy brass, civilian dignitaries and newspaper reporters assembled for the occasion. He must have seemed an odd figure amidst those adorned in crisp Navy uniforms or stylish suits and homburg hats. His leather flying cap, goggles and heavy coat made him an unusual sight, but there was something else as well: Ely had wrapped his body with bicycle inner tubes, a makeshift flotation device for a flyer who couldn’t swim.
With Ely’s landing and his subsequent takeoff from the same ship less than an hour later, the era of naval aviation was officially born. The feat might have been celebrated two months earlier, on Nov. 14, 1910, when Ely took off in a different Curtiss pusher from the deck of the USS Birmingham moored at Hampton Roads, Virginia. But as soon as the airplane’s wheels left the end of the 83-foot platform runway, the fragile craft plunged in a scene straight from Red Bull’s modern-day Flugtag, splashing into the water before miraculously rising again. A terrified Ely, his goggles covered in spray, immediately landed on a nearby beach rather than circle around to the Norfolk Navy Yard as planned.
If you’ve never heard of this courageous young pilot and protégé of aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss, it’s understandable. Ely’s career as an aviator was distinguished, but sadly it was also brief. He earned his pilot’s license from the Aero Club of America on Oct. 5, 1910 (Certificate No. 17) and was killed in a crash at a Macon, Georgia, flying exhibition a year later, on Oct. 19, 1911. That a young man a mere month removed from earning his pilot’s license would be pressed into service by the U.S. Navy to demonstrate the first aircraft carrier operations is a testament to those bygone times, and it leaves a lasting impression of the brave vanguard of aviators without whom flying could not have flourished as it has in the course of the last hundred-plus years.
The history of naval aviation after 1911 is every bit as fascinating as the chronicle of the pursuit of manned, heavier-than-air flight itself. These two stories, in fact, are interwoven in ways that inevitably shaped both. Seven years earlier, the United States military might have laid claim to the first manned, powered flight had the catapult launching system for the aircraft designed by Samuel Pierpont Langley, endowed with a $50,000 government grant, not suffered a mechanical failure on Oct. 7, 1903, and then again on Dec. 8 — abortive attempts both made on Washington, D.C.’s Potomac River immediately preceding the Wright brothers’ successful first flights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.