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Naval Aviation Through the Decades: The Beginning

100 Years of Planes, Progress, and Personal Narrative: The Beginning

With his red hair and freckled face, Theodore G. “Spuds” Ellyson could be likeable. “[He] will stop at nothing in search of a good time,” noted The Lucky Bag, the yearbook of the U.S. Naval Academy, where Ellyson graduated in the 1905 class with future Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz. But while he lusted for fun and adventure, Ellyson was serious. He told his wife, Helen, that the Navy was more important to him than she was. When duty in submarines wasn’t adventurous enough, he pressured the Navy to make him a disciple of aviation pioneer Glenn H. Curtiss.

Ellyson left a mark on naval aviation’s first decade, but he was less a visionary than a hard worker, more curious than inspired and, above all, always looking for better tools for the Navy. Born in 1885, before boys built model airplanes or dreamed of flying real ones, Ellyson was “a solid, husky man with lively eyes,” wrote biographer George van Deurs in Anchors in the Sky (San Rafael, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1978). His hands trembled when they raised a coffee cup but “were steady enough at flying,” wrote van Deurs. The biographer’s version of praise was revealing: Ellyson “shows us that genius is not the only requirement for making lasting contributions.”

May 8, 1911, is one of the dates enshrined as a landmark of U.S. naval aviation, when the sea service purchased an airplane from inventor Glenn Curtiss – a pioneer as important as Wilbur and Orville Wright. In November of the previous year, Eugene Ely, a civilian helping the Navy, had already piloted a Curtiss biplane from the cruiser USS Birmingham (CL 2). On Jan. 18, 1911, Ely made the world’s first shipboard landing on the armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania (ACR 4). In that landing, Ely used the first tailhook, designed, some say, by circus performer and aviator Hugh Robinson. Others say Ely himself designed it. Capt. Washington I. Chambers, charged with investigating military uses for aircraft, was never able to arrange to get Ely into uniform; Ely’s death in a crash Oct. 11, 1911, highlighted the dangers faced by early fliers.

Ellyson may not have been a genius, but he was a hard worker willing to take risks, sometimes in the air and sometimes with his career. Ellyson was in command of the submarine Tarantula (SS12) in Brooklyn when his best friend, Ken Whiting, asked, “Have you ever thought anything about the flying game?”

No one in the Navy was flying yet. Ellyson responded, “No, I never really did.” He had never even seen an aircraft in flight, but the conversation led him to send a telegram to the secretary of the Navy requesting “duty in connection with aeroplanes as soon as such duty becomes available.”

“Spuds” Ellyson flying an A-1 Triad, the first aircraft purchased by the U.S. Navy. Library of Congress photo

Others followed, including Lt. John Henry “Jack” Towers and Lt. John Rodgers, but Ellyson was selected to be tutored by Curtiss at a crude flying base on North Island near San Diego, Calif. – a barren stretch of terrain destined in future times to become a naval air station. Van Deurs described Ellyson as Curtiss’ “Siamese twin … for many months.” There was not yet any official term for it, but Ellyson was the first and only Navy pilot.

On Jan. 28, 1911, at an air show in San Diego, Ellyson took off in Curtiss’ aircraft. He wasn’t supposed to. The throttle was supposed to be blocked and Ellyson was demonstrating ground taxi training to the audience. But after one speed run on the ground, Ellyson began another, the block disengaged, and the plane hopped into the air. It was a pusher biplane with an early version of tricycle landing gear, and when Ellyson came down its left wing struck ground first, causing significant damage. Ellyson wasn’t injured and was now considered to have made his first flight.

Flying a Curtiss A-1 “Triad” in October 1911, Ellyson and Towers made the longest over-water flight that had yet been attempted, from Annapolis to within two miles of Fort Monroe, Va.

Ellyson worked with Curtiss on landplanes, seaplanes, and amphibians. He demonstrated that an aircraft could be loaded and unloaded from a surface ship. He introduced naval aviation to Annapolis, Md., He moved with Curtiss to Hammondsport, N.Y., at the southern tip of Lake Keuka, one of New York’s finger lakes, and piloted a number of Curtiss’ planes.

Curtiss developed a catapult launch mechanism that later helped make aircraft carriers possible. Ellyson became the first to pilot a plane launched by the catapult. His first effort was unsuccessful, resulting in one of many crashes he survived, but he persisted. Ellyson was again at the controls for the first successful catapult launch – of a Curtiss A-3 “flying boat” – from an anchored barge at the Washington Navy Yard in November 1912. This was an important early step toward the Navy’s central mission of flying airplanes from ships, and marked the way toward the development of aircraft carriers.

This article first appeared in Air Power at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...