Little Bits of History

Daredevil Success

Posted in History by patriciahysell on January 18, 2011

Eugene B. Ely lands his Curtiss pusher biplane on USS Pennsylvania.

January 18, 1911: Eugene B. Ely lands his plane on a 199-foot wooden platform attached to the deck of the USS Pennsylvania. This first plane landing on a ship at sea occurred in San Francisco Harbor. Ely was flying a 50 horsepower Curtis pusher biplane specially equipped with hooks on the landing gear. These hooks were designed to catch ropes tied to sandbags and stretched across the landing platform. They were intended to slow the plane to a stop and the tailhook method based on this system is still in use today.

The USS Pennsylvania was also called ACR-4 or Armored Cruiser No.4 and the ship was later named Pittsburgh and numbered CA-4. The ship was laid down on August 7, 1901 and launched on August 22, 1903. She received her commission on March 9, 1905 and was decommissioned on July 10, 1931. This day marks the ship’s claim to history books although the ship served well in World War I and in the inter-war period. The bow ornament from the ship was presented to the Carnegie Institute of Technology after she was decommissioned.

Eugene Ely was born in Williamsburg, Iowa. After graduating from college in 1904, he moved to San Francisco and was active in the sale and racing of cars, something new at the time. He married in 1907 and he moved to Oregon where he went to work for E. Henry Wemme. Wemme purchased one of the Glenn Curtiss’s first four-cylinder biplanes. Wemme could not fly the plane, but Ely believed it couldn’t be harder than driving a car, so he offered to fly it. He crashed and felt so bad, he purchased the wreck from Wemme. Ely repaired the plane and learned to fly. He flew in his first exhibition in Winnipeg. He moved to Minnesota and met Curtiss and was soon working for him. Ely got his federal pilot’s license [#17] on October 5, 1910.

In October, Ely met Captain Washington Chambers of the US Navy. Chambers was tasked with investigating uses of aviation within the Navy. Ely and Chambers began to experiment and on November 14, 1910 Ely became the first pilot to take off from a ship at sea, the USS Birmingham. It wasn’t picture perfect, but did prove the possibility of this maneuver. Ely loved to fly dangerously and never used a parachute. On October 19, 1911 while flying at an exhibition in Macon, Georgia, he was late pulling out of a dive and crashed. He jumped clear of the wrecked aircraft, but his neck was broken. He died only a few minutes later.

“It was easy enough. I think the trick could be successfully turned nine times out of ten.” – Eugene Ely after landing on the USS Pennsylvania

“I guess I will be like the rest of them, keep at it until I am killed.” – Eugene Ely, when asked if he would retire from flying

“The desire to fly is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who, in their grueling travels across trackless lands in prehistoric times, looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space, at full speed, above all obstacles, on the infinite highway of the air.” – Wilbur Wright

“My soul is in the sky.” – William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Also on this day:
Rudyard Kipling – In 1936, Rudyard Kipling died.
Botany Bay – In 1788, the First Fleet landed at Botany Bay.


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