Hopefully you all read the first part of this blog about the First Aeroplane Take-off From a Ship – HERE – that was performed by aviation pioneer Eugene Burton Ely on November 5, 1910.
Briefly, Ely was attempting to show the United States naval offices that the airplane could indeed be an effective tool for them.
As a follow-up demonstration, Ely wanted to show naval representative Captain Washington Chambers that an airplane could also land on a floating ship.
So, on January 18, 1911, just over two months after his daring take-off from the bow of the USS Birmingham, Ely hopped back into his 50-horepower Curtiss pusher bi-plane (the engine and propeller were mounted behind the pilot seat to prove ‘push’).
As aviation was still big news everywhere in the world, thousands of spectators lines the shore to watch Ely’s historic attempt.
Taking off at 11:01 AM from Tanforan Airfield located in San Bruno, California, Ely and his plane flew around the ship before lining his plane up and successfully landing upon a wooden platform aboard the USS Pennsylvania, an armored cruiser anchored in San Francisco Bay.
The platform itself was 120-feet long and 30-feet wide, and was built across the ship’s bow.
The landing utilized the first-ever tailhook grab system that was actually designed and built by Hugh Robinson, an aviator and circus performer. You can see the hook in the photo above.
A series of ropes were spread out across the landing platform, designed to catch hold of hooks attached to the plane’s landing gear.
As well, as an added safety feature, safety awnings were placed on the either side of the platform in case the plane swerved sideways upon landing.
Says Ely of his accomplishment: “It was easy enough. I think the trick could be successfully turned nine times out of 10.”
That may be so for the era, but Ely did understate the simplicity of the landing.
As Ely was prepared to land, he was cautious of the prevailing tailwind that was blowing. Unfortunately, he was unprepared for the sudden updraft that hit the plane just as the light plane was to reach the platform.
Fortunately for all concerned, Ely was an excellent pilot, and quickly dropped the nose of the plane down so that it could catch the plan’s hook on the platform – about half-way down its length.
The ropes that helped snag the airplane were weighed down by sandbags and helped pull the plane to a nice, easy stop.
What is even more impressive, is that Ely then decided he would do a take-off from the deck of the USS Pennsylvania at 11:58 AM before landing at Selfridge Field in San Francisco.
(Ed. Note: U.S. Lt. Thomas Selfridge who had worked with American Glenn Curtiss and Canadians Alexander Graham Bell (yes, that telephone guy), J.A.D. McCurdy and Casey Baldwin as the AEA – Aerial Experiment Association – to develop Canada’s first aeroplane the Silver Dart – was the first person to die in a powered airplane when he was a passenger in the Wright Flyer flown by Orville Wright on September 17, 1908.)
After this feat, Ely asked the Navy if there might be a job for him and his plane, but since the US Navy aviation department had not yet been formerly organized, Captain Chambers said they would keep him in mind should the official orders come through.
To me, it appears as though Chambers expected the Navy to begin utilizing airplanes as part of its arsenal, when he advised Ely to stop his stunt flying for the sake of his own safety and for that of aviation… as we can assume the good Captain was duly impressed with Ely and did not want have Ely die in some pointless wreck.
Unfortunately Ely was not the type of guy to play things safe. In fact, it is safe to say that no aviator in those days could play things safe as the infancy of heavier-than-air flight was still risky business.
According to the Des Moines Register newspaper of the day, when Ely was asked about possible retirement, he offered a candid ‘aw shucks’ response: “I guess I will be like the rest of them… keep at it until I am killed.”
Self-fulfilling prophecy or not, on October 19, 1911 while performing some stunt flying at a show in Macon, Georgia, he was late in pulling his plane out of a dive and crashed.
Although on the ground, Ely was able to jump out of his wrecked aircraft – but he already had a broken neck and died a few minutes later.
And… to show you just how new and exciting the age of aviation was back then, spectators looking for anything to commemorate the great flying – even and death of the airman – rifled through the wreckage, picking it clean like hungry boll weevils in an unattended field of cotton.
They even took his gloves, tie and cap – stealing Ely’s fresh corpse of his dignity. Pretty sad…
On February 16, 1933, Ely was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for: “for extraordinary achievement as a pioneer civilian aviator and for his significant contribution to the development of aviation in the United States Navy.”