Tucked away in a corner of the Smithsonian's vast Air and Space Museum in Washington, D. C., is a small exhibit honoring Eugene B. Ely (1886–1911), the first man to land on and take off from a naval vessel. His flying career lasted only 18 months, yet he thrilled thousands and registered several solid achievements which in 1933 won him a posthumous Distinguished Flying Cross.
Ely grew up in Davenport, Iowa, attended local schools, and was graduated from Iowa State University. Mechanically inclined, he was attracted to automobiles and soon became an expert driver. Road races and work as a chauffeur took him to San Francisco where he worked for some months as an auto salesman. After marrying a local girl named Mabel Hall, he moved to Oregon.
Data on Ely are very limited. Among the best sources are an unpublished, four-page biography filed with five scrapbooks of photos in the Photographic Section of the Naval Historical Center, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, D. C., issues of The New York Times and The Des Moines Register (1910–1911), and copies of various early aviation publications such as Aero of Sr. Louis.
See Air Scout (December 1910) for a thorough account of Ely's flight off the Birmingham. A copy of the article can be found in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Papers, Library of Congress, Box 27.
The first five pages of The San Francisco Examiner (19 January 1911) were devoted to stories and pictures of Ely's historic flight from the Pennsylvania. Ely's personal impressions were reprinted in the Marine News (October 1933). A copy of this reprint can also be found in the AIAA Papers, Box 27.