On this day in 1911, an airplane lands aboard an American warship for the first time. Eugene B. Ely was the pilot who accomplished this feat—and USS Pennsylvania was the vessel that welcomed him. Interestingly, Ely had made the attempt despite the fact that he couldn’t swim, hated the water, and sometimes suffered from seasickness.
“It was easy enough,” Ely reportedly said when the landing was done. “I think the trick could be successfully turned nine times out of ten.”
Hmm. Not a comforting statistic for the tenth plane?
It was still quite an accomplishment. Remember, Ely’s landing would have occurred less than eight years after the Wright Brothers’ famous flight at Kitty Hawk. And it occurred less than two years after Glenn L. Martin launched his homemade plane into the air.
So many entrepreneurs and aviators in those years, putting so much on the line and learning so much about flight so quickly.
Ely himself had made one other advance mere months before his dramatic landing on USS Pennsylvania. In November 1910, he’d been the first to take off from a naval vessel. The plane plunged downwards almost as soon as he took off. The wheels of the plane scraped the water, and Ely couldn’t see anything at first because his goggles became splattered with ocean spray. Nevertheless, Ely regained his footing and landed on the beach, a mere 3 miles away.
His January attempt would include another take-off—but also a landing.
USS Pennsylvania was waiting that day with a special 120-foot platform in place. A canvas awning had been attached to the far side of the ship, just in case Ely’s plane overshot its target. Ely himself wore a football helmet and bicycle inner tubes around his body. At 11:00 a.m., he took off from the San Francisco peninsula, headed toward USS Pennsylvania. He landed safely with the help of a tailhook system, similar to the ones in use today. Ely ate lunch with the captain, then took off in his plane again. He landed safely on the peninsula, back where he’d started.
He’d done it! Sadly, the feat would prove to be not only his most memorable, but also among his last. Later that year, Ely was killed while performing a stunt at an air show.
“[Eugene Ely] wanted to settle down and do some serious research concerning the future of aviation,” historian John Hammond Moore concluded. “But in America in 1911, that was impossible since neither private nor public money was much interested in flying machines. . . . . [S]ince the United States government had no money for aviation and the public generally still thought air travel much too dangerous, the only way Eugene Ely could continue to fly was as a member of the Curtiss exhibition team, thrilling gawking throngs in town after town as he looped and dove toward the ground.”
Such a state of affairs would cost Ely his life.
Alvin Townley, Fly Navy: Discovering the Extraordinary People and Enduring Spirit of Naval Aviation (2011)
Christopher Woody, 107 years ago, the Navy launched a plane from a ship for the first time (Business Insider; Nov. 14, 2017)
Jim Silverman, On This Day in California History (2017)
John Hammond Moore, The Short, Eventful Life of Eugene B. Ely (Proceedings Magazine; Jan. 1981) (reprinted HERE)
Peter Jakab, Eugene Ely and the Birth of Naval Aviation—January 18, 1911 (Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum; January 18, 2011)
Philip Kaplan, Naval Aviation in the Second World War (2013)