The makeshift deck on the Pennsylvania had been built at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in San Francisco Bay at no cost to the Navy. The modifications were paid for by the Curtiss Airplane Company. The landing platform, constructed of pine planks, was 130 feet long by 32 feet wide. Ten feet of it hung at an angle—with a drop of four feet—over the stern of the ship. The arresting gear comprised 21 ropes—each with 50-pound sandbags attached to either end—laid across the runway. Each rope was suspended 8 inches above the deck. Three hooks had been affixed to the underside of the aircraft to catch on the ropes when the landing was made. The sandbags were then to act as drag to slow the plane. A heavy canvas awning was stretched across the sides and the end of the landing strip—“a sort of hammock to catch Ely in case he should be thrown out [of the plane] by a too-sudden stopping of the machine.”
The plane itself had two pontoons fastened on either side, and a small hydroplane was mounted behind the front wheel—precautions, according to Ely, “so that if I should take a header into the water the machine would not dive like a duck.” Additionally he “wound [about his torso] an inflated innertube of a bicycle tire, so that if I fell in the water it would sustain me at least until I was picked up.”
‘A Conclusive Demonstration’
Ely approached at 60 mph with a tailwind. “Just as I came over the overhang at the stern,” he said, “I felt a sudden lift to the machine as I shut down the motor.” That gust of air carried him “a trifle further” than intended. Ely said the plane’s hooks “caught the fourth [rope] . . . up to the eleventh.” Other accounts—and photographs—indicate that the hooks missed far more than the first three ropes. In any case it was, Ely wrote, “a conclusive demonstration of the adaptability of the aeroplane to military purposes.”
Ely then mingled with a crowd of dignitaries and the officers and crew of the cruiser. He and his wife, Mabel, were hosted by the ship’s commanding officer, Captain Charles F. Pond, at a luncheon. “I didn’t feel hungry but did content myself with a couple of glasses of punch—not alcoholic,” wrote Ely. Pond pronounced that it was a certainty that airplanes “will figure in the battles of the future.” He speculated that future navies would have “one ship connected with every fleet” that would be equipped with aircraft. Rear Admiral E. B. Barry, Pacific Fleet Commander, believed the future of aircraft in the Navy was a bit “overdrawn.” He thought that the only useful purpose of airplanes would be to “obtain maps and other data, while flying from a great altitude—say over fortifications and land defenses.” But he continued that “as a means of attack against the modern ship of war, it seems improbable that as much can be said.” The admiral argued that “every warship has hundreds of marines”—all trained marksmen—“and it seems unreasonable that the bird men could get close enough to become effective . . . and the man and airplane would topple into the depths below.”
Ely took off an hour later for his flight back to San Bruno. As he climbed to 2,000 feet, he “heard a terrific screeching of the sirens of the bay craft” honoring his feat. A crowd estimated at 75,000—a good portion of San Francisco’s population at the time—was along the waterfront. One local newspaper reported the shoreline “presented one compact mass of humanity” with “every wharf, shed and pier crowded to overflow.” Spectators “perched themselves upon ships decks and superstructures and even climbed up far into the ship rigging.”
When he landed at the makeshift airfield next to Tanforan Race Track, a squad of Soldiers “deployed and quickly surrounded me,” he wrote. “They picked me up and raised me on their shoulders,” carrying him across the field to a tent were the Army major in charge “had luncheon” prepared in his honor. He noticed “one of the plates was turned down.” An officer explained they hadn’t expected Ely to come back. “I was good and hungry and the Army fare looked good to me,” he commented.
First Among the Firsts
Ely’s feat was one of several “firsts” that occurred in San Francisco during a ten-day air meet held there. Crowds estimated at 200,000 had come by car, train, and bus to witness one of the nation’s first air shows. Aviators competed for $50,000 in prize money—$1.5 million in current values. Four companies of infantry were encamped at the meet, which was designed to prove to the Army and Navy that “the aeroplane can be used as an aggressive” weapon. “A machine gun detachment and field guns will make mimic warfare upon the birdmen,” promised Frederick Scotford, chairman of the air show.
The event marked the first time that the War Department had ever permitted federal troops to participate in a civil-aviation meet. Pioneer aviator Hubert Latham became the first man to fly through the Golden Gate, where no bridge had yet been built. The Army flew “great kites in representation of airships” with Soldiers shooting live rounds in order that the “figurative damage” done to the attacking “airships” could be gauged
Another barnstorming aviator, Charlie Willard, went aloft with a 100-foot length of fine aluminum wire trailing his plane. He then became the first man to receive a wireless message from an Army ground station. In another communications first, Captain Paul Beck of the Army Signal Corps went aloft with civilian pilot Philip Parmalee, and at 500 feet sent the first wireless message from an airplane to a ground station—while traveling at the unheard of speed of 60 mph. Wilbur Wright proclaimed, “It is perfectly feasible to build an aeroplane which will fly 100, 200 or even 300 miles an hour.” The Wright Brothers’ first flight, eight years earlier, had reached a speed of 6.8 mph.
Navy Ensign Roy Stover of the armored cruiser West Virginia became the first naval officer to fly when he was taken aloft by Walter Brookins, a pioneer in his own right: He was the first pilot to have been trained under Wilbur and Orville Wright. The press coverage of the event included a notice that a “mysterious Lieutenant Foster of the U. S. Aeronautic Corps” had gone up in a plane with a rifle “for a target shooting test.” Foster, who reportedly scored a couple of hits on silhouette targets, was generally believed to have been Ely using an alias. Another first was the dropping of explosive devices at targets on the ground. Reporting on the resultant bomb craters, one newspaper commented, “the naval office at Washington must turn to the huge task of assuring there is some protection from the soaring death.”
In the end, though, it was Ely’s daredevil flights onto and off of the Pennsylvania that captured the world’s attention. It was epoch-making—as one newspaper editorial concluded: “It changed in an instant the whole theory of naval warfare.”
Eugene Ely was killed in an airplane crash in Macon, Georgia, in October 1911—a mere ten months after his historic feat. In 1932 Congress posthumously honored Ely, awarding him the Distinguished Flying Cross, and in 1961 the U.S. Post Office issued a naval aviation commemorative stamp marking the 50th anniversary of his achievement. An exhibit honoring him is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Excerpted material in this story comes from articles published in the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Morning Call between 3 January and 22 January 1911, and from CW2 Mark Denger, “Californians and the Military: Eugene Burton Ely, The California National Guard’s First (Naval) Aviator,” http://www.militarymuseum.org/Ely1.html .