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IT WAS less than a decade after the Wright Bros. first flew that an aeroplane took off from and landed on a ship. These aviation firsts were accomplished by the same pioneer flyer, Eugene Ely, in late 1910 and early 1911.
Though a member of the Curtiss Exhibition Team, Ely was more akin to a modern test pilot, not simply a daredevil. Alas, he was ahead of his time, with a demise that better fit the daredevil image.
Ely’s interest in aviation arose from his job in automotive sales. His boss expanded the business with a franchise for Curtiss aeroplanes, and Ely figured that flying a Curtiss pusher was no more complicated than driving a car. He crashed the Curtiss, rebuilt it and learned to fly it, all in a month.
In June 1910, Ely got a job with Glenn Curtiss. Within a month, he was flying in the company exhibition team, a publicity effort promoting the Curtiss side of on-going legal battles with the Wrights. (See www.wp.me/p2ETap-zA for details of these squabbles.)
On October 5, 1910, Ely received Aero Club of America pilot’s license #17. Among those preceding him were Curtiss (#1), Louis Paulan (#3) and Orville and Wilber Wright (#4 and #5, respectively).
Later that month, the U.S. Navy began investigating potential military uses of aviation. With this in mind, an 83-ft. ramp, sloping 5 degrees downward toward the bow, was fitted to the light cruiser USS Birmingham.
Ely’s takeoff from the USS Birmingham was not without drama. The wheels of the Curtiss dipped briefly into the waters of Hampton Roads, Virginia. Ely’s goggles were covered with spray. Once he could see again, he opted for a quick landing on a nearby beach in lieu of a scheduled circling of the harbor and landing at the Norfolk Navy Yard.
To make shipboard landings a reality, Ely turned to circus performer and early aviator Hugh Robinson, who also served as chief engineer at Curtiss Aviation in North Island (San Diego), California. Robinson had devised a scheme of abruptly stopping an automobile (in a loop-the-loop fairground trick!) with an assembly of ropes and hooks. It can be noted that after a lifetime of 15 major crashes and a train wreck, Robinson died of natural causes in 1963, two months’ short of his 81st birthday.
For the proto-carrier deck, a pine platform 32 ft. wide by 130 ft. long was fitted to the stern of the armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania. The arresting gear consisted of 21 ropes, each suspended 8 in. above the deck and attached to 50-lb. sandbags at either end. Three hooks were affixed to the undercarriage of Ely’s Curtiss.
This first shipboard landing proved less dramatic than the takeoff two months before. Ely told reporters afterward, “It was easy enough. I think the trick could be successfully turned nine times out of ten.”
The skipper of the Pennsylvania, Captain C. F. Pond said the feat was “the most important landing of a bird since the dove flew back to the ark.”
Ely attempted to parlay the achievement into a consulting role with the U.S. Navy. Unlike its European counterparts, however, the U.S. government showed apathy toward aviation. Military aviation authority Dr. John Hammond Moore gives details of this quandary at http://goo.gl/UKzvcP.
Ely continued with the Curtiss Exhibition Team and, like so many other pioneer aviators, he perished in this profession. His fatal crash in Macon, Georgia, on October 19, 1911, was just short of his 25th birthday.
Noted the British Aero magazine, “The crowd was uncontrolled and fought about his machine for several minutes after the fall. During the struggle, Ely’s tie, cap, and other articles of clothing disappeared.”
As Dr. Moore, observed, “The man who pioneered flattop aviation deserved better than that, much better.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013