Every time the pilot of a 16-ton F/A-18 Super Hornet plants the jet on the deck of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, an unbreakable thread of history stretches from that landing back over more than a century to the first shipboard landing.
The year was 1911. The Wright brothers’ celebrated accomplishment at Kitty Hawk was barely seven years earlier. Some observers in the U.S. Navy sensed the airplane would have a military application, but for the moment that application was largely unformed.
Airplanes and automobiles defined the new century, and those who were drawn to the mechanical marvels of either machine often crossed over and embraced the other. Eugene Ely first became a road race driver, chauffeur, and automobile salesman. When a Portland, Oregon, automobile dealer began selling Curtiss Pusher biplanes, the transition for Eugene Ely came quickly.
By June of 1910, Ely was making exhibition flights in Canada. He met with pioneer aircraft manufacturer Glenn Curtiss in Minneapolis, and Curtiss figured Ely had the makings of a good demonstration pilot.
By July, Eugene Ely was flying for the Curtiss aerial demonstration team, a group of colorful early-day aviators whose nationwide exploits often were the first time thousands of Americans witnessed an airplane in flight.
Glenn Curtiss was a world-record-beating motorcycle speed racer who built his own cycles and engines. Those engines provided Curtiss’ entry into the fledgling aviation world. A savvy showman and businessman, Glenn Curtiss was attuned to ventures that might cast airplanes — especially his airplanes — in a good public light.
In 1910, the New York World newspaper came up with a feat worthy of Curtiss’ aircraft and his showmanship, as chronicled by Glenn Curtiss biographer C.R. Roseberry. The plan was to fly an aircraft from an outbound ocean liner at sea, returning to land the airplane on shore. The premise was finding a way to speed transoceanic mail delivery.
The Hamburg America steamship line was engaged in the project. Their liner, the SS Kaiserin Auguste Victoria, was chosen to be the vessel from which a Curtiss Pusher would take off. The intended date was Nov. 5, 1910.
The ship had been the largest ocean liner afloat between 1905-1907, until the Lusitania took that title.
John McCurdy was the Curtiss pilot tagged for the proposed first launch from a ship. It was to take place 50 miles out to sea. A waterproof bag of mail was the intended cargo. Curtiss and McCurdy ramrodded construction of an inclined 85′ ramp on the fore deck of the ocean liner.
On Nov. 4, an eastern seaboard gale made the flight impossible, so the effort was rescheduled for Nov. 12 when the liner SS Pennsylvania would leave port. McCurdy had another flying engagement, so Bud Mars was tapped to become — hopefully — the first pilot to fly an aircraft off a ship.
This time, an engine test for the Pusher aboard the SS Pennsylvania went awry when a piece of hose sucked into the propeller. The ensuing damage could not be repaired in time to meet the liner’s scheduled sailing date, and the fly-off had to be canceled again.
Even while the SS Pennsylvania effort was underway, the U.S. Navy approached Curtiss about conducting such a test from a warship. Eugene Ely was the Curtiss pilot assigned to the Navy quest.
Only two days after the broken Curtiss Pusher caused the ocean liner flight to be canceled, Ely made ready on Nov. 14, 1910, to fly a Curtiss Pusher off a wooden ramp built on the cruiser USS Birmingham at Norfolk, Virginia.
Between 11:30 and 3:30 that afternoon, Ely outlasted wind and rains that swept the wooden platform on the cruiser. Finally a break in the weather gave him a window of opportunity, and Eugene Ely became the first person to fly an aircraft from a ship.
The Pusher plunged off the end of the ramp, and Ely was drenched from sea spray as the open-air biplane’s propeller and wheels skimmed the water. He made landfall safely, and the concept, though a bit shaky in its first execution, was validated.
The stage was set for Eugene Ely’s bigger triumph with the Navy. On Jan. 18, 2011, Ely aimed his Curtiss Pusher for a longer plank deck constructed on the cruiser USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay. He made the first shipboard landing, complete with hooks attached to his Pusher to catch sandbagged ropes to abbreviate the landing roll. An hour later, Ely launched from the cruiser and recovered on land.
Ely’s profession as a pilot ended abruptly on Oct. 19, 1911, in Macon, Georgia. The crash of his Curtiss Pusher in a demonstration claimed the life of the first flier to land and take off from a ship.
Great Britain and Japan pioneered some attempts at aircraft carrier operations in World War I.
The U.S. Navy, initially investing in seaplanes, returned to the concept of aircraft carrier aviation with the converted USS Langley in 1922.
In the decades since, the U.S. Navy has become the world leader in aircraft carriers.
For his pioneering role, Eugene Ely posthumously received the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1933, awarded by Congress in recognition of his exploits of 1910 and 1911.