It was 101 years ago, in January, in San Francisco when a pilot named Eugene Ely invented naval aviation. The Internet provides us with this interesting story about our San Francisco aviation history.
101 years ago is a very long time. Yet in the very hierarchy of these modern marvels, the ability to recover and launch aircraft from the deck of a moving ship stands out as one of our most signature of his accomplishments—which just goes to show you that some tricks never grow old.
US Naval aviation was invented 101 years ago on January 18, 1911 when a 24-year-old barnstormer pilot named Eugene B. Ely had just completed the world's first successful landing on a ship. It happened in San Francisco Bay aboard the cruiser USS Pennsylvania, which had a temporary, 133-foot wooden landing strip built just above her afterdeck and gun turret as part of the experiment.
But back then, innovation was afoot. Ely's Curtis Pusher had been fitted with a clever new invention called a tailhook. The idea was to quickly halt the aircraft after landing by using the tailhook to catch one or two of 22 rope lines—each propped up a foot above the deck and weighted by the 50-pound sandbags tied to each end—strung three-feet apart along the Pennsylvania's temporary flight deck.
Mark J. Denger of the California Center for Military History has now written a tidy biography of Eugene Ely which narrates this historic day: "On the morning of January 18, 1911, Eugene Ely, in a Curtiss pusher biplane specially equipped with arresting hooks on its axle, took off from Selfridge Field (Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, California) and headed for the San Francisco Bay.
"After about 10 minutes flying north toward Goat Island (now Yerba Buena), Eugene spotted his target through the gray haze—the PENNSYLVANIA.
"Ely's plane was first sighted one-half mile from the Pennsylvania’s bridge at an altitude of about 1,500 feet, and cruising at a speed of approximately 60 mph. Now ten miles out from Tanforan, he circled the several vessels of the Pacific Fleet at anchor in San Francisco Bay. The airplane dipped to 400 feet as it passed directly over the MARYLAND and, still dropping, flew over the West Virginia’s bow at a height of only 100 feet. With a crosswind of almost 15 knots, he flew passed the cruiser and then banked some 500 yards from the Pennsylvania’s starboard quarter to set up his landing approach.
"Ely now headed straight for the ship, cutting his engine when he was only 75 feet from the fantail, and then allowed the wind to glide the aircraft onto the landing deck. At a speed of 40 mph Ely landed on the centerline of the Pennsylvania’s deck at 11:01 a.m.
"The forward momentum of his plane was quickly retarded by all the ropes stretched between the large movable bags of sand that had just been placed along the entire length of the runway. And as the plane landed, the hooks on the undercarriage caught the ropes exactly as planned, which brought the plane to a complete stop.
"Once on board the PENNSYLVANIA, sheer pandemonium brook loose as Ely was greeted with a bombardment of cheers, boat horns and whistles, both aboard the PENNSYLVANIA and from the surrounding vessels.
"Ely was immediately greeted by his wife, Mabel, who had greeted him with an enthusiastic, "I knew you could do it," and then by Captain Pond, Commanding Officer of the PENNSYLVANIA. Then it was time for interviews and a few photographs for the reporters.
"Everything had gone exactly as planned. Pond called it "the most important landing of a bird since the dove flew back to Noah's ark." Pond would later report, "Nothing damaged, and not a bolt or brace startled, and Ely the coolest man on board." (Note: Safety first! Check out Ely's inner-tube life preserver!)
"After completing several interviews, Ely was then escorted to the Captain's cabin where he and his wife were the honored guests at an officer’s lunch. While they dined, the landing platform was cleared and the plane turned around in preparation for his takeoff. Then the Elys, Pond and the others posed for photographs. Fifty-seven minutes later, he made a perfect take-off from the platform, returning to Selfridge Field at the Tanforan racetrack where another tremendous ovation awaited him.
"Both the landing and take off were also witnessed by several of the distinguished members of both U.S. Army and Navy, as well as state military officials. Ely had successfully demonstrated the possibility of the aircraft carrier."
Indeed. The US Navy's first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley, was commissioned in 1922, 11 years later. But Ely didn't live to witness the milestone; he died just a few months after his historic flight on October 11, 1911 when he was thrown from his aircraft during a crash at an air show.
But 101 yearsago, Ely merged the power of naval warships and aviation in ways that remain cutting-edge, even today.