(WHTM) — On Jan. 18, 1911, naval aviation history was made when, for the first time, an airplane landed on a ship. The ship was the USS Pennsylvania; the pilot was Eugene Burton Ely, who had a stellar reputation as a flier — with barely a year’s experience.
Ely started flying a Curtiss biplane early in 1910, and by June was making a name for himself at flying meets. He caught the eye of none other than Glenn Curtiss, who signed him to his exhibition team. (He got his Federal Pilot’s License in October 1910.)
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In November, Curtiss and Ely were contacted by Capt. Washington Irving Chambers, who would become known as the father of naval aviation. Ely was willing to try flying an airplane off the deck of a ship. On Nov. 14, 1910, he successfully took off from an 83-foot-long platform on the cruiser Birmingham in Hampton Roads, Virginia.
It was a success that almost ended in disaster. The plane dropped as soon as it cleared Birmingham’s bow, and the wheels actually dipped into the water before Ely could make altitude. He decided to cut the flight short and land at the nearest beach. Still, it was successful enough to proceed to the next step.
At the Mare Island Navy Yard in California, the stern of the USS Pennsylvania (the second Navy ship to be named after the state) was fitted out with a landing platform measuring 127 feet long by 32 feet wide. To help Ely’s Curtiss biplane come to a halt, the first aircraft arresting system was devised, consisting of a series of ropes stretched across the deck and held in place by sandbags. A hook on Ely’s plane would catch the ropes and bring it to a stop. The same basic principle — with a lot of beefing up — is used to stop planes on aircraft carriers to this day.
On Jan. 18, 1911, Ely took off from land and flew 13 miles out into San Francisco Bay. He reached a group of warships and made a perfect landing on the Pennsylvania to the cheers of hundreds of sailors. Pennsylvania’s Captain, Charles Pond, called it “the most important landing of a bird since the dove flew back to the ark.”
And then, after some celebrating, Ely got back into his plane, took off from the Pennsylvania, and flew back to land.
The USS Pennsylvania would not keep its name much longer. In 1912, it was renamed USS Pittsburgh so that a new battleship could be named after the commonwealth. The battleship Pennsylvania BB-38 would be launched in 1915, survive the Pearl Harbor attack, and serve through World War II. The Pittsburgh would serve through World War I and be scrapped in 1931.
On Oct. 19, 1911, while flying at the Georgia State Fair Grounds, Eugene Ely put his plane into a dive and couldn’t pull up. He managed to jump from his plane before it crashed, but broke his neck and died. It was a tragic end to a distinguished flying career that had lasted only 18 months.
In 1933, Eugene Burton Ely was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by Congress “for extraordinary achievement as a pioneer civilian aviator and for his significant contribution to the development of aviation in the United States Navy.”