Ely, Eugene Burton
InnovatorEnshrined 1965 1886-1911
When Ely made his historic flight from the USS Birmingham, landing between a house and the Hampton Roads Yacht Club, he thought he had failed because he had not reached his goal, the Norfolk Navy Yard. He was bitterly disappointed even though he knew his splintered propeller would not have lasted the flight. He couldn’t understand why crowds of people at the Yacht Club dock were cheering him. The Navy also delighted at this successful flight, which proved the feasibility of the aircraft carrier concept.
- Ely joined the Curtiss Exhibition Team and performed successful exhibition flights at numerous events.
- In 1910, made the first successful unassisted airplane takeoff from the wooden deck of the USS Birmingham.
- In 1911 he made the first successful airplane landing on the USS Pennsylvania, the first ship to be equipped with a landing deck and arresting system.
Born on a farm in Iowa in 1886, Ely’s interest in aviation began when he attempted to fly an early airplane. He damaged the plane so badly that he bought it from the owner, repaired it and taught himself to fly. In 1910 he first appeared in aviation meets and performed so well that he was engaged to fly with the Curtiss Exhibition Team. Soon he was one of the team’s star performers and was awarded the Aero Club of America’s Pilots Certificate No. 17.
He came into real prominence when he attempted a thousand mile flight from Chicago to New York for a $25,000 prize, being the only one foolhardy enough to attempt the flight. He took off from Chicago and jauntily headed for New York. Ten minutes later Ely made his first forced landing. The next morning at take off he careened into a ditch. By mid-afternoon he had almost reached the outer limits of Chicago where the motor sputtered and he landed in a marsh twenty miles from his starting point. At dawn of the third day he took off again. Suddenly, the motor died and Ely had to crash land again, 19 miles beyond East Chicago. In despair, Ely quit and went back to exhibition flying. He flew in various events such as the Belmont Park International Meet. At the Halethorpe Maryland Meet he met the Navy captain in charge of nascent naval aviation, who was convinced that an airplane could land and take off from a ship. Ely eagerly volunteered to attempt a take-off and the Navy outfitted the cruiser Birmingham with a sloping wooden platform. His airplane was hoisted aboard and on November 14th, 1910, the Birmingham proceeded to Hampton Roads, followed by four destroyers. The weather grew unsettled and low clouds were accompanied by rain and hail showers so the Birmingham dropped anchor to await clearing weather. In mid-afternoon the weather improved and Ely slipped into the pilot’s seat. After the engine warmed up, he opened the throttle and began his take-off. The plane roared down the platform, and Ely fought the controls as the plane dipped dangerously toward the water. The wheels struck the water, nearly aborting the flight, and the propeller tips splintered as sea water sprayed Ely’s goggles, obscuring his vision. He flew blindly forward until he saw a sandy beach ahead and landed. Ely had completed the first flight from ship to shore and he was jubilant. His feat received wide acclaim for “demonstrating the possibility of using an airplane from a ship.”
Now the Navy’s interest in aviation was sharpened and on May 8th, now considered the birthday of naval aviation, it requisitioned its first airplanes. Ely had scarcely completed his famous flight when he headed south for more flight exhibitions. Meanwhile the Navy began plans to prove the full capability of the airplane to land and take off from a ship. A special platform was erected on the stern of the USS Pennsylvania. To stop the airplane’s forward motion upon landing, cables were stretched across the platform, fastened at each end to a sand bag. The airplane had hooks attached to a board between the wheels designed to catch the cables when the plane landed. On January 18th, 1911, Ely took off from an airfield and headed out over San Francisco Bay. Below he saw the ship and dropped down to 100 feet. As Ely began his final turn, hundreds of sailors crowded the superstructure of the ship and the betting odds were heavy against him. He made a slight course adjustment just astern as he carefully flew the plane downward at about 40 knots. When he was directly over the end of the platform he cut the engine. The airplane’s wheels touched down and the hooks caught the arresting cables, stopping the plane within 30 feet with hardly a jar. His skill and accuracy of judgment and quickness of response had made the difference between success and failure. A deafening roar of cheers broke out and the ships in the Bay let go with all their sirens and whistles. As he climbed safely out of the airplane, still with his bicycle tube life preserver and padded helmet, the ship’s captain came forward to welcome him aboard. A little later, the airplane was turned around and he took off easily from the ship and flew over the city on his way back to the airfield, completing the final convincing proof of the adaptability of airplanes to sea based operations.
After this historic accomplishment, Ely continued his exhibition flights and in the 1911 Chicago International Air Meet won $4,600 in prizes. He flew his plane by instinct, for most of what he knew about flying was learned in the pilot’s seat. Ely’s flights were without a parachute and often reckless, daring, and foolhardy to thrill the public. Death rode with him in grinning anticipation as he looped and rolled and spiraled. Ely’s risky flying finally caught up with him at Macon, Georgia, where his plane went out of control and he died quickly. Despite his tragic end, Ely’s legacy lives on every time that aircraft take off and land on ships. For this achievement, the world will forever remember this great man.
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