November 14, 1910. For the first time in history, a flying machine left a ship at sea and landed ashore. The ship was U.S.S. Birmingham, one of three Chester-class scout cruisers operated by the U.S. Navy. The place was the open water known as Hampton Roads, near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay and Norfolk, Virginia. The pilot was a self-taught civilian aviator, Eugene Ely, who had turned 24 barely three weeks earlier and had been flying for less than seven months. The weather was atrocious.
The Birmingham flight was made at the request of Captain Washington Irving Chambers, the officer in the Department of the Navy tasked with monitoring developments in aviation — despite the fact that hardly anyone thought flying machines had any possible naval value. Ely, a member of Glenn Curtiss’s exhibition team, volunteered to make the flight after Wilbur Wright refused permission for a member of the Wrights’ exhibition team to make the attempt and called the mere idea of naval aviation “impossible.” In fact, at the time no one was certain that aeroplanes, as they were then called, could operate over open water — to say nothing of achieving take-off speed in such a confined space.
Ely had never flown this particular aeroplane before. The temporary wooden platform constructed over Birmingham’s foredeck offered him only 50+ feet of room to take off. It was angled down to provide additional speed but, as the photograph shows, he started falling almost immediately despite having his forward elevator angled up. His wheels actually made contact with the waves and the propeller, which was behind him, splintered when it made contact with the water. Incredibly, Ely was able to pull up from the dive and fly five miles to shore, half-blinded by spray, landing on the soft sand of Willoughby Spit. His brief flight represented the first practical step in naval aviation and proved that aeroplanes were more than just “carnival toys,” as some highly placed naval officers had dismissed them.
Two months later Ely would reverse the process, landing on a battleship anchored in San Francisco Bay and coming to a stop through a system of ropes and sandbags that was the direct forerunner of the tailhook arresting device used on today’s flat-top carriers.
Ely died in a flying accident in October 1911, days before his 25th birthday. His short life, which coincided with the incredible revolution in personal transportation that saw the world go from horse-drawn wagons to bicycles to automobiles to airplanes in less than a quarter century, is the focus of my forthcoming biography, Gods in Machines: Eugene Ely and the Road to the Sky.
Future posts will touch on some of the remarkable men and women who led that revolution, the pioneers who were seen at the time as nothing short of gods in machines.