Theodore “Spuds” Ellyson
At the age of 14 Ellyson saw a fleet of Navy ships enter the harbor at Hampton Roads, Virginia, and was so impressed by the sight that he decided Navy life was for him. Soon after, he boarded a northbound train for Annapolis, hoping to enroll in the Naval Academy. At Annapolis an official asked him why he wanted to become a Navy officer and Ellyson replied without hesitation, “I saw the Fleet come in.” “Spuds” loved the Navy so much that he once told his wife, “Even you come second.” The only thing he loved as much as the Navy was accomplishing things before anyone else. By 1911, he had successfully merged both passions, becoming the Navy’s first pilot.
- Ellyson was the first naval officer assigned to aviation duty.
- He assisted in the search for a shipboard launching device for airplanes and on September 7th, 1911 made a successful take-off from an inclined wire cable device.
- In 1912 further development led to his successful catapult launching in a seaplane and the Navy’s first flying boat.
His wife once remarked that Theodore “Spuds” Gordon Ellyson “liked being first” and he pushed himself to do “something somebody else hadn’t done.” Throughout his life, Ellyson was the first to accomplish many things of which others only dreamed.
Theodore Gordon Ellyson was born February 27th, 1885, in Richmond, Virginia, the son of Henry Theodore Ellyson and Lizzie (Walker) Ellyson. On a father-and-son trip to Hampton Roads, Virginia, Ellyson witnessed a Navy fleet enter the harbor and from that point on he knew he wanted to be a Navy man. At only 14 years of age and against his father’s wishes, Ellyson hopped a train intent on enrolling in the Naval Academy in Annapolis. He even attempted to disguise his age by secretly buying a pair of pants to replace the boyish knickers which he left in the men’s restroom on the train. Once he arrived at the Naval Academy an official asked “Why do you want to become a naval officer?” His reply, “I saw the fleet come in.”
Unable to immediately enter the Naval Academy, Ellyson attended Werntz Prep School for a year. In 1901 he finally entered the U.S. Naval Academy from the Third District of Virginia and graduated four years later at the age of 19.
Ellyson spent several years serving on battleships, armored cruisers and submarines as he advanced to lieutenant. However, when Eugene Ely’s successfully landed an airplane safely on the deck of the USS Birmingham the idea of naval aviation was born, and a new first was on the horizon for Ellyson.
In late 1910, Glenn Curtiss established a flight training school at North Island, San Diego, California and he offered the Navy a proposition it couldn’t refuse. Curtiss would “instruct an officer of the Navy in the operation and construction of the Curtiss airplane” as a means of assisting “in developing the adaptability of the airplane to military purposes.” As a result, Ellyson was ordered on December 23rd, 1910, to report to the Glenn Curtiss Aviation Camp at North Island to undergo flight training. In January 1911 he became the first naval officer assigned to aviation.
However, before his flight training started Ellyson assisted Curtiss in further demonstrating the military value of the airplane in warfare. In particular, Ellyson made suggestions regarding the use and placement of the sandbag arresting gear which was crucial to Ely’s successful landing and take-off from the USS Pennsylvania on January 18th, 1911.
In February 1911, Ellyson began serious flight training using the four cylinder machine for ground runs and then progressing through short jumps, longer jumps and straight away flights of up to a mile and a half. In March he began using the eight cylinder machine and making turns. Finally on March 31st he reported, “in my opinion and that of Mr. Curtiss, I have qualified in practical aviation under favorable weather conditions. I have had no practice in flying the hydro-airplane.”
In March 1911, the Navy’s Bureau of Navigation received an appropriation of $25,000 for experiments in aeronautics and on May 8th, 1911, two requisitions were prepared for Curtiss biplanes. The first for a Triad, an amphibian plane equipped for landing and taking off on land or water. The plane was also equipped with a metal tipped propeller designed to achieve speeds of at least 45 miles per hour, provisions for carrying a passenger, and dual controls operated by either pilot or passenger. This airplane later became the Navy’s first airplane which they dubbed the “A-1.”
The first flight of the A-1 began on July 1st, 1911 from Hammondsport, NY with Glenn Curtiss’s later landing in Lake Keuka, NY. The flight only lasted five minutes but reached an altitude of 25 feet. That same evening, Ellyson made two solo flights for which he was granted pilot certificate No. 28 and expert aviator certificate No. 26 and years later, Ellyson was designated Naval Aviator No. 1. On July, 3rd, 1911, Ellyson achieved another first, landing on water in the dark.
Determined to display the capability of launching planes from Navy ships, Curtiss and Ellyson worked on a launching system which they tested September 7th, 1911. Lt. Ellyson successfully took off from an inclined three-wire cable runway rigged from a 16 foot high platform on the beach, 250 feet into the water of Lake Keuka. The crude system used the power of two men who pulled ropes attached to the wings, launching the plane in the air and thus, proving the possibility of launching airplanes from ships and landing them on water.
More than just improving planes and working on launching systems, Ellyson also was the first to advocate for special flight clothing in a letter dated September 16th, 1911. Outlining the requirements Ellyson list included: a light helmet with detachable goggles or visor, with covering for the ears and yet holes so that the engine could be heard; a leather coat lined with fur or wool; leather trousers; high rubber galoshes and gauntlets; and a life preserver. He also prepared the first check-off lists for inspecting an aircraft after its assembly and prior to each flight.
On July 31st, 1912, Ellyson became the first person to be launched from the experimental catapult system. They Navy spent time and money perfecting an air-compressed catapult system and mounted it on the Santee Dock in Annapolis. The first attempt almost killed Ellyson when the plane left the ramp with its nose pointing upward and caught a crosswind pushing the plane straight into the water. Ellyson was able to escape from the wreckage unhurt and still pining to make the first successful catapult launching.
The second attempt was scheduled for November 12th, 1912. This time, Ellyson had found his lucky charm: Helen. Ellyson and Helen had met at a wedding reception two weeks before the second attempt and he knew instantly that she was a good luck charm. Not only did the marriage work, but the catapult launch did as well.
As with many test pilots, when Ellyson received the call to return to combat, he answered it and returned to the sea. Spending some time in Europe and stateside during World War I, Ellyson held many different duties and was promoted to commander in July 1918. Not be until January 10th, 1921 would Ellyson return to aviation duty, where he was assigned to the newly formed Bureau of Aeronautics with the Department of the Navy. On June 23rd, 1926, Ellyson was assigned to outfit the USS Lexington, the Navy’s second aircraft carrier.
Tragedy struck on February 27th, 1928, Ellyson 43rd birthday, when he received a dispatch from Annapolis with word that one of his daughters was ill. Granted a leave, he immediately left the carrier aboard an amphibian plane to make a two hour flight to Annapolis. He never made it to Annapolis. For over a month the Navy searched for the missing plane, but to no avail. Ellyson’s body washed ashore on April 11th, 1928.
In a career which spanned thirty years, Ellyson was the first to accomplish many things. He was the first to be assigned as a Naval aviator, the first to fly a Naval plane, the first to land at night on water, the first to be catapulted unsuccessfully and successfully in an airplane, and he was designated Naval Aviator No. 1.
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