Wings at Sea

In Uncategorized on January 5, 2011 by hillermuseum

Eugene Ely

Eugene Ely and the Centennial of Naval Aviation
By Jon Welte

A century ago, the world’s navies relied on battleships to rule the seas. These giant floating fortresses of steel were built with great effort and expense by leading seafaring nations. Their size and power captivated the imaginations of millions and often influenced events ashore without firing a shot.

Against this backdrop, few would have expected the newly-invented flying machine—still a frail-looking contraption of wood and fabric—to play any role in a future victory at sea, much less prove to be utterly decisive. Yet one of the first steps towards the ultimate ascendancy of airplanes at sea occurred in San Francisco Bay on January 18th, 1911.

In the fall of 1910 the United States Navy appointed Captain Washington Chambers as the first head of “Naval Aviation”. Despite a lack of official support and a career that was nearing retirement, Chambers perceived the possibilities offered by the new technology of aviation and sought to demonstrate them to the fleet. He developed a relationship with aircraft designer Glenn Curtiss and one of Curtiss’ contract pilots, young Eugene Ely. Together they conceived a plan to operate a conventional airplane from a deck placed upon a Navy ship.

Spurred by reports of a similar project underway in German, the Navy authorized a demonstration in Hampton Roads near the base at Norfolk, Virginia. A short wooden deck was built over the bow of the cruiser Birmingham, and on November 14th, 1910, Ely flew a Curtiss Model D pusher off the deck and into the air. The 57-foot takeoff run from the anchored cruiser was inadequate for even the light Curtiss airplane, and Ely’s departure included a disconcerting dive to the wavetops—the landing gear and propeller struck the water before the Model D reached flying speed. Damage to the propeller prompted Ely to make an immediate emergency landing at the closest beach, but the first shipboard launch of an airplane had been a success.

Buoyed by this outcome and by considerable public interest, Captain Chambers succeeded in securing permission for a second, more challenging demonstration: a landing aboard the cruiser Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay. Construction of a larger platform for installation aboard the Pennsylvania began at Mare Island Shipyard in the North Bay, and the same Curtiss Model D flown by Ely for the original demonstration was brought to California for the newest feat.

The expanded “flight deck” installed aboard the Pennsylvania was still just 120’ long, a fraction of the distance normally needed to halt the brakeless Curtiss. Although Ely’s airplane was modified with extended wings to reduce the landing speed, the landing roll seemed far too likely to end up in the canvas barrier erected between the flight deck and the cruiser’s superstructure. Ultimately, a new system for arresting the landing roll of the airplane was developed. Three large hooks were installed on the undercarriage of the Model D, and 22 ropes weighted with 50 lb sandbags at each end were stretched across the flight deck. The hooks would catch on the ropes upon landing, and the weight of the sandbags would provide a swift and certain stop.

Ely practiced this landing method repeatedly at the Tanforan flying field, near modern-day SFO. Soon he was able to regularly hook a practice rope placed in a rectangle the size of Pennsylvania’s flight deck. Wearing a leather football helmet and bicycle inner tubes for safety, Ely launched from Tanforan on the morning of January 18th, 1911, bound for the Pennsylvania.

Conditions aboard the cruiser were far from ideal. Her captain insisted on remaining at anchor in the narrow confines of San Francisco Bay, and tides through the Bay swung her until the wind blew up onto her landing deck. The tailwind would increase the landing speed, but Ely persisted. A single flyby of the Pennsylvania showed that the landing deck and its 22 lines were in readiness. A clutch of spectator boats and rescue vessels swarmed the waters around the Navy cruiser. Ely turned his plane onto final approach.

Almost immediately Ely noticed that a crosswind had developed. Crosswind landings were unheard of in 1911—in a world without runways, pilots simply landed straight into the wind upon reaching a large, open field. Ely adjusted his flight path to adjust for the wind and pulled off all engine power 50 feet from the deck, as the looming superstructure of the cruiser dead ahead made a go-around impossible. Committed to the landing and quietly drifting aboard, Ely clearly heard commands shouted by officers to the silently assembled sailors. Upon reaching Pennsylvania’s fantail, turbulent airflow bucked the Model D upwards, eliciting a gasp from the observers. Ely forced the pusher down onto the deck, halfway along, engaging the arresting lines and bringing the plane to a halt with 50’ to spare. The wheels stopped at 10:59 AM Pacific Time, and naval aviation was born.

After a moment of silent disbelief, the crew of the Pennsylvania broke into cheers, accompanied by sirens and horns from the escorting flotilla. Ely’s wife was aboard the ship and was the first to greet him, followed by a warm welcome from the ship’s commander. Within an hour, The Model D was turned around and Ely was in the air again, bound once more for Tanforan and another hero’s welcome.

Eugene Ely’s demonstrations opened the way for the development of true aircraft carriers during the first half of the 20th century, and today naval aviation remains a crucial part of the national defense. Modern carrier aircraft weigh up to 60 times as much as Ely’s Model D and operate at speeds unimaginable in 1911. Yet even the highest performance naval aircraft in use today use the same tailhook arresting technology first used by Ely aboard the Pennsylvania.

On Saturday, January 15th, 2011, the Hiller Aviation Museum joins the naval aviation community in commemorating the 100th anniversary of Eugene Ely’s landing in San Francisco Bay. Join us as the Museum highlights its full-scale replica of Ely’s airplane with a panel of distinguished speakers, a fly-in of vintage naval aircraft, special flight simulations and (weather permitting) a dramatic flyby by a modern US Navy fighter—a fitting tribute to a milestone aviation achievement attained on the waters of San Francisco Bay.


Johnson, Brian. Fly Navy—The History of Naval Aviation (New York, 1981)., downloaded 29 October 2010., downloaded 29 October 2010.


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