Monday, November 08, 2010

First Flight

Eugene Ely takes off from the USS Birmingham on 14 November 1910. It was the first successful flight from a ship, marking the birth of naval aviation (U.S. Navy photo via Wikipedia).

One hundred years ago this week, the cruiser USS Birmingham slipped her moorings at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, and headed out into the Elizabeth River.

But the voyage would be short; the Birmingham wasn't departing for a 'round-the-world cruise, or an extended training deployment. In fact, the cruiser's destination was a corner of the nearby Chesapeake Bay, off Fort Monroe. On that November morning in 1910, the Birmingham was about to make history, thanks to recent modifications at the shipyard, a Curtiss "pusher" aircraft hoisted onboard a few days earlier, and a fearless young man named Eugene Ely.

His assignment? Become the first man to fly an aircraft from the deck of a ship, and (hopefully) live to tell about it.

History recounts that Ely was successful that day. Bad weather threatened to cancel the flight, but around 2 pm the clouds parted. Ely gunned his engine, gave the signal to release the aircraft and thundered down the ramp. He was supposed to wait for the Birmingham to get underway again but with a squall line closing in, Ely couldn't wait any longer.

Seconds into the flight, Ely and his aircraft were headed for disaster. Clearing the edge of the deck, the fragile craft plunged toward the water, propeller tips splintering as they touched the tops of the waves. Ely's plans for a 25 or 30 mile flight, capped by a landing on the naval base's parade ground, quickly changed. With the props damaged and his goggles covered in sea spray, Ely landed his aircraft on the sand at Willoughby Spit, less than three miles away.

Ely's flight in Hampton Roads--and a subsequent takeoff and landing from the USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay in 1911--cemented his place in the pantheon of naval aviation. While other nations would move ahead of the U.S. in developing naval air forces and aircraft carriers over the next decade, the honor of the first flight belonged to the U.S. Navy and Eugene Ely.

But much of the remarkable story behind that flight has been forgotten, except among naval historians. In a feature story for the Sunday Virginian-Pilot, writer Bill Sizemore did a fine job of resurrecting long-forgotten details, from the five-degree slant of the Birmingham's improvised flight deck (to assist aircraft acceleration), to the man at the controls of the Curtiss pusher, Eugene Ely.

Given the military's role in the flight, it is often assumed that Ely was a naval officer, assigned to the task by his superiors. But Eugene Ely was a civilian (and newly-licensed pilot), recruited a few months earlier for an aerial barnstorming team by aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss, chief rival of the Wright Brothers.

At exhibitions in the fall of 2010, Curtiss and Ely met a Navy officer, Captain Washington Irving Chambers. Given the daunting task of exploring the potential of naval aviation, Chambers had few resources and little support from his superiors. But he was determined to conduct a demonstration flight, so he arranged to install a temporary flight deck on the Birmingham; secured financial backing from a wealthy investor, and the acquired the services of Ely and his aircraft.

Eugene Ely was just the 17th American to receive his pilot's license from the federal government, making him one of the nation's earliest aviation pioneers. But when he boarded the Birmingham, Ely had been flying for less than a year. He became interested in aviation while working for a car dealer in Portland, Oregon. Ely's boss had acquired an early aircraft from Curtiss, but had no idea how to fly it. Fascinated with all things mechanical, Ely gave it a try and promptly crashed. He bought the wreck, repaired it and taught himself by to fly. A quick study, Ely soon became a skilled pilot and signed on with Glenn Curtis. That set the stage for the meeting with Captain Chambers, and the historic flight off Hampton Roads.

Ely was young (just 29) and laconic. He preferred to let his wife, Mabel, do most of the talking. Asked by local reporters if the flight had any chance for success, Mrs. Ely said that she had "every confidence" in her husband. "What she says is all right," Eugene Ely replied, "so there you have it."

For his achievement, Ely received a $500 check from the event's sponsor, and the opportunity to make a takeoff and landing from the deck of the Pennsylvania just two months later. Ely hoped the flights might land him a naval commission or a position as a civilian pilot. But the Navy brass was unconvinced that airplanes had a future in their service. Captain Chambers couldn't afford to hire a full-time pilot, so Ely returned to barnstorming. His "career" in naval aviation ended with that landing on the Pennsylvania in early 1911.

And, as fate would have it, Eugene Ely didn't live to see the era of aircraft carriers and the fleet air arm. Barnstorming was an especially dangerous business in those days, and Ely had no illusions about his prospects for long-term survival. A paper in his home state of Iowa asked how long he planned to pursue that career. "I guess I will be like the rest of them. Keep at it until I am killed."

The odds caught up with Ely on 19 October 1911. Performing at a flying exhibition in Macon, Georgia, Ely was late pulling out of a dive and crashed. He jumped clear of the wreckage, not realizing he had suffered a broken neck in the impact. Ely died a few minutes later. He was laid to rest in Williamsburg, Iowa, eleven years before the first American carrier, the USS Langley, joined the fleet.

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