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This Day in History: The first U.S. Navy aviator

On this day in 1885, Theodore “Spuds” Ellyson is born. Exactly 43 years later, he would be tragically killed—on his birthday. He was the very first aviator in the United States Navy. His designation was Naval Aviator No. 1.

He loved it!

“Some people make their way into history through hard work and perseverance,” the editors at Air & Space Magazine have written. “Others show up by accident. Theodore Gordon ‘Spuds’ Ellyson, the Navy’s first aviator, made history both ways.”

Ellyson left home when he was only a teenager. He wanted to attend the U.S. Naval Academy. (His father wasn’t too keen on that.) Ellyson was too young at first, but he did eventually attend, graduating when he was only 19 years old. He continued on, earning promotions and serving on battleships and submarines until a landmark event in 1910: A civilian pilot, Eugene Ely, became the first to take off from a naval vessel.

The world of aviation beckoned! Ellyson submitted a request for flight training. Could he fly for the Navy? At the time, he was slated to command a submarine, but that vessel kept running into delays and wasn’t complete yet.

Ellyson’s timing was perfect. Aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss had just written the Navy, offering to “instruct an officer of the navy in the operation and construction of the Curtiss aeroplane.” He would do it for free. The military, he believed, would soon “find an aeroplane equipment absolutely essential.” Curtiss wanted to be a part of it.

And that’s when Ellyson benefited from just a tad bit of luck. It was almost Christmas. The officer in charge of picking a pilot for Curtiss was in a hurry; he simply grabbed the first available name from his pile. It was Ellyson. Thus, on December 23, 1910, Ellyson was ordered to report to the Glenn H. Curtiss Aviation Camp in San Diego.

Less than two weeks into his new gig, Ellyson accidentally took off in—then wrecked—a biplane at an airshow. (Oops?) Another accident the following year left him recovering for five weeks. Nevertheless, Ellyson was doing everything he could to take advantage of his opportunity to work with Curtiss. He persevered—and he achieved milestones that laid the groundwork for today’s aviators.

He worked on various methods for planes to launch from Navy ships—and even land in the water. He was the first Navy pilot to fly and land an aircraft on water at night. He contributed to the development of special flight clothing. He prepared check lists for pilots to use before and after each flight. He experimented and worked on wireless transmissions from airplanes.

Ellyson quit flying after a few years, and he resumed his more traditional Navy service. But in 1928, everything came to an abrupt end.

On February 27—his 43rd birthday—Ellyson received word that his young daughter was very ill. He borrowed a small amphibious aircraft and took off from Norfolk with two crew members. Unfortunately, his plane disappeared over Chesapeake Bay. He never made it home.

Ellyson had lived a life of grit and determination, and he made many important contributions to aviation during his lifetime. Today, then, is a good day to remember pioneers such as Ellyson: Those who have dreamed, invented, experimented, overcome failure—and achieved.

It’s a pioneering, entrepreneurial spirit that has always made America great!

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