While Theodore G. “Spuds” Ellyson worked with Glenn H. Curtiss, the Wright brothers mentored others. In June 1913, Towers was a passenger in a Wright seaplane being piloted by Ensign William Billingsley. Over the Chesapeake Bay, they hit severe turbulence. Without warning, Billingsley was hurled out of the seat and fell 1,600 feet to his death on the water far below. He was the first Navy pilot to lose his life in flight. Towers caught and clung to a wing strut and rode the plummeting unpiloted plane down, surviving the crash. He persuaded the Navy to order safety belts for all the aircraft.
Although there was confusion over terminology for years afterward, in 1915 the Navy formally accorded “naval aviator” status to its first seven pilots. Ellyson officially became Naval Aviator No. 1.
After years in naval aviation, he moved on to command several ships. When the United States entered the Great War in 1917, much of the world knew Ellyson as “the naval aviator,” but he was no longer aviating. Ellyson believed that to succeed as a naval officer he needed more fleet experience. Others have hinted at a darker reason – some kind of “falling out” from the rewards of flying.
Shooting down German aircraft in World War I was only one of many achievements by David S. Ingalls, a naval aviation pioneer who followed Ellyson. Born in 1899, Ingalls was a premedical student who began flying as a civilian and as an ensign shipped off to war-torn Europe.
Charles Kilbourne, a scholar on the World War I era, said in an interview for this article that “when Ingalls flew a Sopwith Camel in 1918, there were no U.S. naval squadrons or naval aircraft. So Ingalls was attached to the British No. 213 Squadron (Naval).”
Ingalls was a rugged sort. The Camel was right for him. It was an open-cockpit, fabric-covered biplane powered by a 130-horsepower rotary engine and armed with two .303-caliber machine guns. The pilot was exposed to the elements and knew that his aircraft could be a flaming deathtrap. Ingalls used one on Aug. 11, 1918, to shoot down a German Albatros.
That was the first of a total of six aerial victories by Ingalls, all while flying the Camel. Ingalls shot down four more German airplanes and one German balloon, achieving his final kill on Sept. 24, 1918. He knocked down his final enemy plane after pouring 200 rounds into it. Thus, he made his mark as the Navy’s only air ace of World War I.
This article first appeared in Air Power at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation.