Eugene Ely

Pioneer of Naval Aviation

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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 makeshift 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.

About the Author

Editorial Reviews

"Naval aviation owes a lasting debt to Eugene Ely and his employer, Glenn Curtiss. And history owes a debt to John H. Zobel for his tremendous biography of the first airman to take off from and land aboard a ship. The product of meticulous research, it unravels more than a century of myths and mysteries and provides the definitive biography of Eugene Ely amid his era." —Barrett Tillman, author, On Wave and Wing: The 100-Year Quest to Perfect the Aircraft Carrier
"One of naval aviation’s earliest pioneers, Eugene B. Ely is best known for making the first shipboard aircraft takeoff and landing. Recognizing that Ely’s contribution could only be appreciated in the context of aviation's growing pains prior to World War I, Zobel developed a two-part story: Ely’s all-too-short but hugely impactful aviation career, and an in-depth study of his contemporary flying pioneers. Exhaustively researched, well written, and historically accurate." —Robert O. Harder, author, The Three Musketeers of the Army Air Forces: From Hitler’s Fortress Europa to Hiroshima and Nagasaki
"Through meticulous research and enthralling prose, Zobel captures the earliest moments of naval aviation and the competition to master flight on the eve of world war. Must-read for aviation enthusiasts and anyone looking for an authentic immersion into Eugene Ely’s all-too-brief life and the “heavier-than-air” machines that transformed aviation, the U.S. Navy, and America — forever." —Lt. Paul M. Donofrio, USN (Ret.), Vice Chair, Bank of America
“This is an outstanding and pathbreaking biography, and a notable contribution to the historiography of early flight and the birth of naval aviation. Eugene Ely, one of the most significant of early aviators and the first aviator to fly from a ship, and then land upon one, has not previously had his life and accomplishments placed in a well-sourced and proper context. The result is a fitting tribute both to Ely and the late Mr. Zobel.” —Dr. Richard P Hallion, aerospace historian
"One of the most skilled and experienced fliers in Glenn Curtiss’s exhibition squad, Eugene Ely was the first to take off from and land on two U.S. Navy warships in 1910 and 1911. John Zobel chronicles those remarkable achievements, among many during Ely's brief flying career, in this outstanding biography, which will stand the test of time as the definitive treatment of the man who has earned everlasting fame as a pioneer of naval aviation." —Dr. William F. Trimble, professor emeritus at Auburn University, author of Hero of the Air: Glenn Curtiss and the Birth of Naval Aviation
"Ely's successful takeoff from USS Birmingham required extraordinary courage and planning. Just two months later, he finished the job with his amazing landing on USS Pennsylvania. This book, which describes these feats so well, proves that split-second decision-making and determination were the keys to his success—although if he hadn't also shown remarkable insightfulness and concern for safety of flight, he might never have made history!" —Capt. Julie E. Clark (Ret.), professional international air show flier, pioneering woman airline pilot, ISA+21 charter member, and civilian naval flight instructor
"Many, if they know Eugene Ely’s name at all, only associate him with his flights from and then to Navy ships. Zobel’s biography fleshes out this man, putting his life in context with his time (and the technology of his time), his colleagues and competitors, and his various employers. Zobel shows us the turbulent beginnings of the U.S. aircraft industry through Ely’s experiences with it." —Dr. Laurence M. Burke II, aviation curator, National Museum of the Marine Corps, and author of At the Dawn of Airpower: The U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps' Approach to the Airplane, 1907-1917
"From Father Thomas Smyth, the car-racing priest, to Buffalo Bill Cody, a superb set of stories within the story, soaring to one of the greatest flights in history. We celebrate Eugene’s incredible feat and John H. Zobel’s storytelling. A definite read!" —Anna Jane Durr, great-granddaughter of Eugene Ely’s sister Maidie
"This work is narrative-driven, but the thoroughness of the research contextualizes a great deal that might otherwise have been lost. Zobel ably makes connections between technology, people, forces, concepts, and ideas that guided the development of early aviation. Through Ely’s history, we see the influence of the press and their pursuit of revenue, the public’s appetite for the carnival-like atmosphere of aviation exhibitions, and the compulsions of those who delivered the spectacle and regularly redefined the cutting edge. There is also an excellent elucidation of the battle between American aviation pioneers and how they measured success in a cottage industry run by the visionaries who designed, built, and flew some of the first powered aircraft. Zobel’s book not only honors Ely, but it is also a fitting tribute to the author himself. An adventurer in the same vein, Zobel passed away while mountain climbing before he could complete the project. His wife, LaVerne Woods, assumed the work of winnowing down an expansive manuscript that focused on the revolution in transportation. At the heart of the story was Ely. With the help of family, Woods edited the manuscript to present the life of the aviation pioneer. She has done a superb job. Placing such a character in the center of the transportation revolution gives this work greater utility than a straightforward biography. The deeply researched book relies heavily on contemporary newspaper reporting, which at times was twisted into fanciful fabrications. The narrative cuts through the sensationalism to set facts straight and uncover finer nuances. That attention to detail makes Ely a dynamic character, despite his reserved temperament. Students of transportation technology and aviation in general, as well as casual readers, will find much of value here."—H-NET