When Eugene Ely took off from a makeshift flight deck in November 1910, he became the first person in history to fly an airplane off a ship. Two months later he set another first when he landed on another make-shift deck.
Ely came of age during a breathtaking surge in the evolution of transportation technology. The modern bicycle was invented shortly before he was born. By the time he was in his teens he was racing automobiles, and at the age of twenty-four he proved it was possible to land a fragile biplane on the deck of a ship—only seven years after the Wright Brothers made the first heavier-than-air powered flight at Kitty Hawk.
Ely’s story is tied to the intense rivalry between the Wright Brothers and Glenn Curtiss to dominate production of the world’s first airplanes, and to the brief, electrifying era of flying exhibitions, when Americans witnessed the miracle of human flight for the first time. He captured the public’s imagination as one of America’s original “birdmen.” He was a civilian aviator; military aviation did not yet exist. Opinions among the Navy’s leadership were divided as to whether the airplane could have practical military applications. When Capt. Washington I. Chambers took bold steps to demonstrate the airplane’s potential, he tapped Ely to attempt the first shipboard launch off USS Birmingham. Ely’s success in that experiment led soon afterward to his landing on USS Pennsylvania, securing his place in history.
But his demonstrations for the Navy were just the beginning. They unfolded against the backdrop of increasing tensions between the U.S. and Germany in the years preceding World War I and ignited debate over the ethics of using airpower offensively in warfare—a debate that would be settled by the coming war.
The story of Eugene Ely’s life is the stuff of myth and legend. Much of what has been written about him relies on sensationalized newspaper accounts from an era when early twentieth-century reporters unabashedly fabricated stories to increase newspaper circulation. Those accounts portray Ely as a reckless daredevil and are essentially historical fiction. Eugene Ely: Pioneer of Naval Aviation cuts through the sensationalism by relying on primary sources and photographic records and triangulating multiple sources to arrive at an honest portrait of the man and his legacy. The result is the story of a quiet, self-effacing Iowan who did extraordinary things. Ely’s measured approach and calculated demonstrations of the potential of military aviation ultimately pointed the way to today’s modern aircraft carriers, more than a century later.