Born in Williamsburg, Iowa but raised in Davenport, IA., his early years are rather unspectacular, but he did have a fondness for cars.
In Portland, Oregon in the early parts of 1910, Ely worked for Henry Wemme selling cars. It was at this time that Wemme decided he would purchase an airplane – a four-cylinder job that was one of the fist such planes built by Glenn Curtiss. Even though Wemme was unable to fly it, he decided he would purchase an airplane franchise for the Northwest.
Ely – he figured it would just be like driving a car – and offered to fly Wemme’s plane and promptly crashed it and then offered to purchase the wreck from Wemme.
A few months later, Ely had fixed the plane and had taught himself to fly, and by June 1910 he flew the plane to Minneapolis, Minnesota to take part in an aviation expedition – and met Curtiss and began working for him.
Gaining his Aero Club of America pilot’s license (#17) on October 5, 1910, Ely and Curtiss had a meeting with United States Navy Captain Washington Chambers. Chambers had been asked to determine possible airplane uses for the Navy.
So… to show the versatility of the Curtiss bi-plane… on November 15, 1910, Ely and Curtiss arranged to perform a little demonstration.
Taking off in his 50-horsepower Curtiss pusher biplane (the engine and propeller was situated behind the pilot), Ely ran the plane up and over a temporary wooden 83-foot runway and ramp placed on the bow of the USS Birmingham that was at anchor at Hampton Roads, Virginia.
Ely must have been one of the bravest early pilots ever, or the dumbest, but sometimes it’s better to just be lucky.
As soon as the plane cleared the ramp on the deck, the plane began to nose downward (see for yourself in the photo at the very top)… going down… down.. down… and just as the wheels hit the water causing Ely’s goggles to become wet with spray, he pulled that bird up… up… and away.
Ely created every single last-second flight ‘saves’ ever seen in the cartoons and movies for the next one hundred years. Totally awesome.
While the plan was for Ely to fly and circle the Norfolk Navy Yard and land, Ely instead quickly flew to a close-by beach and put down. So… brave-dumb but not stupid.
This made Ely the first person to use an airplane to take-off from a ship.
Granted, this ship was moored and not sailing, and Ely did not land back on the ship… but still, he made his point… and still had one more point to prove to the Navy that would show that airplanes could indeed be a bright part of naval expeditions … coming up in my next blog.