By Ann Holtgren Pellegreno
Despite banner headlines proclaiming that 2011 is the 100th anniversary of naval aviation, sufficient evidence exists to challenge that concept. In my opinion, the first naval aviation flight occurred in November 1910 when Eugene Fly flew from the deck of the U.S.S. Birmingham, anchored in Chesapeake Bay, and landed on a nearby shore.
Far before that, however, as revealed in Scot MacDonald’s article, “The Aeroplane Goes to Sea” published in Naval Aviation News in 1926 many “sketches, plans, and ideas for aeroplanes” had crossed the desk of Capt. W. Irving Chambers earlier in 1910. Assigned on Sept. 26, 1910, as assistant to the Secretary’s Aid for Material, he had the “collateral duty of liaison between the Navy and the swelling number of letter-writers who were eager to advance their own schemes or designs involving aviation.” Further, 12 years before Chambers received that appointment, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, then the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, advocated forming the “Joint Army Navy Board to Examine Langley’s Flying Machine.” Although a Navy Board member gave a favorable report, Roosevelt declared that the “apparatus as (it) is referred to pertains strictly to the land service and not to the Navy.”
MacDonald’s article continued, “On at least two important occasions between then and 1910, the Navy participated in or observed a fledgling ‘apparatus’ in flight — at the 1907 Jamestown Exposition and at the 1908 tests by the Wright Brothers at Fort Myer, Virginia. Following Roosevelt’s earlier decision, however, the “Navy Board held to the attitude that ‘aeronautics’ had ‘not yet achieved sufficient importance in its relation to naval warfare’ to warrant Navy support.”
After Glenn Curtiss flew between Albany and New York, he felt that future battles would be fought in and from the air. He supported his concept by hitting targets as large as and shaped like battleships with 15 of 22 bombs.
After hearing a rumor that France was building an aircraft carrier, enthusiasts in the U. S. Aeronautic Reserve, a semi-civilian group, asked for a naval representative for aviation matters. Thus, Captain Chambers started an office of aviation. In October 1910, he and two other officers attended an aviation meet at Halethorpe, Maryland, where they met Glenn Curtiss. Chamber’s dilemma was that there was no proof that launching and landing aircraft at sea was feasible. A demonstration was needed. Pushing the experiment was news that the Germans were planning to launch a plane from a ship to expedite mail service. That a foreign nation would receive the accolades for such an action prodded Chambers to demand permission to make a similar attempt from the cruiser U.S.S. Birmingham. Because the Wrights had declined participation, a Curtiss pusher was used for the experiment.
The pilot was Eugene Ely, born in 1886 on a farm near Williamsburg, Iowa. By 1910, he was an auto mechanic in Oregon. Early that year he crashed a Curtiss pusher, rebuilt it, taught himself to fly, and flew exhibitions in Washington, Montana, and Canada. At Minneapolis in June, Glenn Curtiss recruited him for his exhibition team, whereupon Ely flew at various meets beginning in July and ending in November back in Virginia, where he embarked on the first of his two most famous flights.
At the Norfolk Navy Yard, a wooden platform approximately 85 by 25 feet was built on the foredeck of the U.S.S. Birmingham. The Curtiss was hoisted aboard. On Nov. 14, 1910, Chambers and other high-ranking naval officers who would witness the attempt boarded the ship, which steamed to the waters off Hampton Roads and dropped anchor. At first low clouds and showers precluded the attempt, but by mid-afternoon some abatement was noted. Ely roared off the platform, his plane plunging down until the skid framing, wing pontoons, and propeller struck the water. His vision momentarily gone, he instinctively pulled up, spotted the beach at Willoughby Spit two and a half miles distant, and landed safely.
With the Navy involved in preparation and naval officers in uniform aboard, this 1910 flight would appear to be the first official naval flight. Chambers commented that even with the old design and moderate power of the biplane, Ely had proved that a successful takeoff could be made from a stationary ship.
After this flight, Ely continued doing exhibitions for Curtiss until the time of his second record flight when he was competing in an air meet at Selfridge Field near San Francisco. A wooden ramp 120 feet long by 25 feet wide was built on the cruiser U.S.S. Pennsylvania. The arresting gear was a series of ropes, with sandbags at each end, stretched across the deck above two rails.
On Jan. 17, 1912, the cruiser was anchored in San Francisco Bay with distinguished naval officers aboard. Ely, then in the Navy, made a perfect landing on the inclined platform, hooks on his biplane catching the ropes and being halted swiftly. Both his wife Mabel and Captain Charles F. Pond congratulated him. One hour later, having been an honored guest at lunch, Ely made a perfect takeoff and returned to the aviation meet, where he received a thundering ovation.
Naval personnel, funds, equipment, and ships were involved in Ely’s 1910 and 1911 flights. To Eugene Ely goes the credit for successfully demonstrating the feasibility of carrier operations. A skilled aviator, he was at the right place at the right time to take off from the U.S.S. Birmingham and land on Willoughby Spit. Thus, considering the information presented in this article, I believe that 2010 should be considered the 100th Anniversary of Naval Aviation.
The Navy says 2011 was the 100th anniversary. What do you think? Weigh in in the comments section below.