Simanaitis Says

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SAMUEL PIERPONT Langley demonstrated that his 1896 Aërodrome No. 5, an unpiloted model aircraft, could be spring-catapulted aloft from a boat. Two later attempts with a larger version tossed both the pilot and craft into the Potomac River.

These were on October 7 and December 8, 1903, the second only nine days before the Wright Brothers achieved success 240 miles south of Washington, D.C., on the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. (The Langley tale doesn’t end in the Potomac; for more details, see “The Wright Bros. vs Glenn Curtiss.”)


The Langley Aërodrome and its catapult launch on the Potomac; all for naught, 1903.

Water-based aviation developed quickly. In late 1910 and early 1911, respectively, Eugene Ely proved that an anchored naval vessel could be used for aircraft takeoff and landing. In 1912, a Naval aviator performed the first successful catapult launch, also from an anchored vessel. In 1915 an aircraft was launched from a moving ship. In 1918, the British HMS Argus became the world’s first aircraft carrier. And, in 1922, less than two decades after the Wrights’ first flight, another Naval aviator touched down on the flight deck of the USS Langley, the first U.S. aircraft carrier. Each of these events calls for celebration here.


Eugene Ely and his Curtiss approach arrestor ropes on the USS Pennsylvania, January 18, 1911.

Ely’s flights from the USS Birmingham, November 14, 1910, and onto the USS Pennsylvania, January 18, 1911, used temporary pine platforms built onto the bows of the vessels. After the Pennsylvania achievement, Ely said, “It was easy enough. I think the trick could be successfully turned nine times out of ten.”


Theodore Gordon Ellyson, 1885 – 1928, U.S. Navy Air Pilot No. 1.

Naval officer Theodore Ellyson had his flight training at Glenn Curtiss’s North Island, San Diego, facility. He earned the distinction of being U.S. Navy Air Pilot No. 1, and Naval Aviator No. 1 as well (oddly, two different classifications). His first attempt with a compressed-air catapult off an Annapolis Santee Dock put him and his craft in the drink. On Nov 12, 1912, Ellyson successfully catapulted into the air from a moored coal barge.


The first catapult launch from a moving ship, 1915.

On November 5, 1915, Lieutenant Commander Henry C. Mustin and his Curtiss AB-2 flying boat were catapulted from a moving ship, the USS North Carolina. This operation became standard practice for non-carrier opps: catapult launching and, on return, setting down on the water and being hoisted back on deck.


Henry C. “Rum” Mustin, 1874 – 1923, U.S. Navy Air Pilot No. 3.

During the Spanish American War in the Philippines, “Rum” Mustin was court-martialed after a night of carousing in the Philippines. He was later restored to grade by President Theodore Roosevelt (who learned Rum had punched out a British naval officer insulting the U.S. Navy).

Mustin became Navy Air Pilot No. 3; John H. Tower (later to command carrier forces in World War II) edged him out as No. 2. Rum established what evolved into the Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. He was outspoken in his promoting naval air power, a view that didn’t sit well with traditional admirals. On a personal note, he married a first cousin and confidente of Wallis Simpson, destined to be the Duchess of Windsor.


HMS Argus, the world’s first aircraft carrier, shown in its dazzle camouflage, 1918.

In 1918, the British HMS Argus went into service as an aircraft carrier, though her construction had begun as a passenger liner. She remained in service into WWII, the Argus providing air cover during Operation Torch, the allied invasion of French North Africa in November 1942.


Godfrey De Courcelles Chevalier, 1889 – 1922, U.S. Navy Air Pilot No. 7.

Lieutenant Commander Godfrey Chevalier, U.S. Navy Air Pilot No. 7, commanded the first naval air station in France during World War I. In 1922, he played a role in outfitting America’s first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley, named to honor the aviation pioneer.


Godfrey Chevalier and his Aeromarine 39B approach the flight deck of the USS Langley, 1922.

On October 26, 1922, Chevalier was the first U.S. pilot to set down on the Langley. His aircraft, an Aeromarine 39B, had a hook fixture pivoting aft from the fuselage midsection. Its engine was a Curtiss OXX-6, derived from the OX-5.


Aeromarine 39B, A-606, the first to set down on a U.S. aircraft carrier, 1922. Image from Paul Matt Scale Airplane Drawings, Volume 1.

Like the British Argus, the USS Langley was converted into her role as an aircraft carrier. She had originally served as the USS Jupiter, a collier, a coal-carrying cargo ship.


USS Langley, CV-1, Carrier Vessel 1, 1922.

There’s good trivia concerning the Jupiter: She was the first vessel to travel the Panama Canal from west to east. Paradoxically, because of Panama geography, this goes from the Atlantic to the Pacific. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015

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