Seven years after the Wright Flyer had made history above the sands south of Kitty Hawk, N.C., the U.S. Navy remained squarely among the American majority who saw few practical uses for the airplane. For all its promise, the invention was still viewed as something of a death trap, a frail machine with wings of linen stretched over a wood-and-bamboo frame. Aviation was not yet really a profession, but primarily a form of entertainment, executed by circus performers and barnstorming “birdmen.”
Nevertheless, the Navy was beset by letter-writers and visionaries eager to profit from the airplane, who lobbied for the advancement of their schemes. One of these was aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss, who had publicly issued the bold prediction that “the battles of the future will be fought in the air. The aeroplane will decide the destiny of nations.” To get the Navy’s attention, Curtiss flew over and dropped mock bombs on battleship-shaped targets.
At the urging of the civilian U.S. Aeronautic Reserve, an unofficial organization of inventors, engineers, pilots, journalists, and nonprofessionals, the Navy appointed an officer to serve as a liaison with these enthusiasts and keep himself informed generally about progress in the developing field of aviation. The Navy’s choice for the job – Capt. Washington Irving Chambers, an engineer and accomplished veteran whose career involved several technical innovations – demonstrated that the Navy’s skepticism wasn’t unanimous. While the Navy’s technical bureaus, such as the Bureau of Steam Engineering and the Bureau of Construction and Repair, were generally keen on exploring the use of aircraft at sea, the final decider – the Office of the Secretary of the Navy – denied any funding for flight experiments.
Chambers believed aviation could improve the Navy’s fighting ability, and when he began work in September 1910, he was eager for answers: Could planes accompany ships at sea? Could they take off and land at sea – perhaps on the deck of a ship? Affirmative proof would be essential to piquing the Navy’s interest, and the task was lent some urgency by the rumor that the German-owned Hamburg-American Steamship Company, as a publicity stunt, was planning to launch a plane from one of its ships. Chambers, suspecting the German navy was behind the effort, was appalled by the idea that a foreign power would make such an advance with an American invention. He was determined that the Navy would be the first to fly a plane from ship to shore.
Chambers began to search for willing pilots at the only places pilots could be found in those days – at regional air meets and demonstrations. It was in November, after just a few weeks on the job, that Chambers met the Wright brothers at an aerial meet in Halethorpe, Md., and asked if they would be willing to attempt the first takeoff from a ship. The Wrights scoffed at the idea, declaring it too dangerous.
Chambers promptly turned to the Wrights’ main rival, Curtiss, who had a talented young aviator in mind: 24-year-old Eugene B. Ely. Ely immediately offered to make the attempt, even after Chambers informed him that the Navy wouldn’t pay him a dime. Chambers would, however – thanks to the support of a wealthy aviation enthusiast named John Barry Ryan – be able to modify a warship with a platform from which Ely could launch his plane.
Within two weeks, workers at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth had built a temporary wooden ramp on the deck of a coal-fired cruiser, the USS Birmingham. At 83 feet long, 24 feet wide, and sloping downward to increase takeoff speed, the ramp ended at a point 37 feet above the waterline.
Chambers had just met Ely and knew nothing about him; he was relying solely on Curtiss’ good opinion. Ely was an unlikely choice: a civilian, something of a drifter, he had been born on a farm in Williamsburg, Iowa, and somehow ended up racing, tinkering, and selling cars in San Francisco, where he met and married his beloved wife, Mabel. The two moved to Portland, Ore., in 1909, where Ely went to work as a salesman, driver, and mechanic for a local auto dealer who, fascinated by flying machines, became a franchisee for Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company by purchasing one of Curtiss’ first four-cylinder biplanes.
His boss had no idea how to fly the thing, so Ely – figuring it couldn’t be much harder than driving a car – gave it a try and promptly crashed it. He felt terrible about ruining his boss’ machine, and after buying the wreck from him, Ely spent weeks repairing the biplane and teaching himself to fly. By June 1910, he had joined the ranks of the daredevil birdmen and was entertaining crowds at events around the country, with the shrewd and charismatic Mabel as his manager and booking agent. It was at one of these events that he came to the attention of Curtiss, who hired Ely for his own barnstorming team.
Shortly after getting his plan under way, Chambers learned that his German competitors were on to him, and had moved the date of their attempt up to Nov. 5. The German flight, however – to be attempted by former Curtiss pilot J.A.D. McCurdy, the first Canadian to pilot an aircraft – was hampered first by weather and then by damage to McCurdy’s plane while offloading it from the Hamburg-American ship. On Nov. 14, less than two weeks after Chambers’ first meeting with Ely, there was still a chance to achieve an historic first.
The weather was bad that morning in Norfolk, but not bad enough to deter a throng of curious onlookers and rabid journalists. Visibility had dropped to less than a mile, and it was raining as the Birmingham made its way to anchorage a quarter-mile off Old Point Comfort, near Hampton Roads.
At around 2:00 p.m., the rain moved off to the north. Ely climbed into the seat of his 700-pound Curtiss “pusher” biplane – so named because the engine and propeller were mounted behind him – and warmed up the engine. The plan was for the captain of the Birmingham to pull up anchor and steam into the wind to give Ely added lift, but when Ely saw another storm approaching from the north, he knew his chance was disappearing. Without waiting for the anchor to come up, he took off.
Spectators on nearby ships were shocked when the biplane, as soon as it had cleared the ramp, plunged toward the water – but this was intentional. Without a headwind, Ely wanted to increase his airspeed, and the move was later described by Chambers as a “graceful, bird-like swoop or volplane.”
Unfortunately, the graceful swoop was just slightly miscalculated. The skid framing and pontoons – constructed for the event of an emergency water landing – hit the water, as did the tips of the propeller, which promptly splintered.
Ely managed to pull the nose up and climb from the water, but found he couldn’t see. With salt spray obscuring his already poor visibility, his movements hampered by a bulky pneumatic life vest (he couldn’t swim and was terrified by water), he was completely lost, and knew there was no way he would be able to find his intended landing spot at Norfolk Navy Yard. He swung left and spotted, through the gloom, a stretch of sandy beach. He landed there, at Willoughby Spit, near some beach houses and a few yards from the Hampton Roads Yacht Club. He had flown about 2 ½ miles. Just after he touched down, he saw a woman running toward him through the mist. He called to her: “Where am I?”
In Ely’s mind, he had failed in not reaching the Navy Yard, but that had never been the point to Chambers, who considered the flight an unqualified success. So did his benefactor, Ryan, who awarded Ely a $500 prize. Ely used the money to buy Mabel a diamond ring, and made a gift of the fragmented propeller to Ryan.
Ely had proven that an aircraft could take off from the deck of a ship. For Chambers, there was only one thing left to prove.
When Chambers asked Ely if he would attempt a shipboard landing, Ely didn’t hesitate. Chambers sent his construction crew to San Francisco – a move the Navy Department officially supported, though it still would provide no money for the effort – where they began work on a larger deck on board the cruiser USS Pennsylvania, commanded by Capt. Charles F. Pond. In addition to its size, the deck featured other conspicuous differences: for one, a canvas backstop that would prevent the plane, another Curtiss pusher-type biplane, from overshooting the platform. The deck also featured 22 parallel lengths of manila rope, weighted at the ends by sandbags. These arresting ropes were designed to be caught by steel hooks mounted on the plane’s undercarriage, to effect the rapid deceleration necessary to keep the plane from overshooting. This “tailhook” assembly was the invention of a circus performer and Curtiss pilot named Hugh Robinson, who had used it to slow down his automobile after performing a loop-the-loop in the circus ring.
Ely’s plane took off from a temporary Army airfield in San Bruno, Calif., about 10 miles from the Pennsylvania, at 10:45 a.m. on Jan. 18. Ely – wearing a football helmet and, instead of the bulky life vest, a pair of inflated bicycle inner-tubes crisscrossed over his chest – rose over San Francisco Bay into a hazy sky at a speed of about 60 miles per hour. He soon discovered that his landing would not be as easy as expected. As he recalled later:
… there was an appreciable wind blowing diagonally across the deck of the cruiser, and I had to calculate the force of this wind and the effect it would have on my approach to the landing.
I found that it was not possible to strike squarely toward the center of the landing, so I pointed the aeroplane straight toward the landing, but on a line with the windward side of the ship. I had to take the chance that I had correctly estimated just how many feet the wind would blow me out of my course.
In Chambers’ estimation, the landing was perfect. The tailhook assembly worked flawlessly, and the waterfront promptly resounded with cheers, boat horns, and whistles. Ely and Mabel were treated to an officers’ lunch aboard the Pennsylvania, after which Ely nonchalantly reboarded his biplane and took off for a return to the airfield.
The Legacy of Chambers and Ely
Ely’s feat was appropriately hyped. Pond called it “the most important landing of a bird since the dove flew back to Noah’s Ark.” The following day, an editorial in the San Francisco Examiner was titled simply: “Eugene Ely Revises World’s Naval Tactics.”
The second claim, at least, was no exaggeration – though the acclaim was not universal. The Aero, a British magazine, sniffed that the flight “partakes rather too much of the nature of trick flying to be of much practical value,” a view that seemed to be seconded by the Navy’s cautious response: While the Secretary of the Navy soon released the sum of $25,000 for further aviation experiments, the U.S. Navy would not build its first aircraft carrier for another decade.
Sadly, a fully fledged naval aviation program came too late for Ely. While he is often remembered as the daredevil who made history just a few months after teaching himself to fly, correspondence between Ely and Chambers, just days after the Pennsylvania flight, reveals that he was actually seeking to leave the carnival atmosphere of demonstration flying behind and live a more settled life with Mabel. “There will probably be an experimental station,” Ely wrote, “and someone who is competent will be needed to carry on the work. If you will let me know how to go about it, I shall try to be the one selected.”
When Chambers replied that no specific job was available with the Navy, Ely returned to the barnstorming circuit. He was killed nine months later, on Oct. 19, 1911 – just two days shy of his 25th birthday – during a demonstration flight at the Georgia State Fairgrounds. He was thrown clear of the aircraft and his neck was broken. He had become such an American celebrity that the crowd could not leave him in peace; they overwhelmed the wreck and tore his tie, cap, and other articles of clothing from his body.
It was a sad, ignominious end for Eugene Ely, but it’s not what most people remember about him. His 18-month flying career, under the guidance of Chambers, included two of the most outstanding achievements ever made by a pioneer aviator. He proved that an airplane could fly from a ship and return to it. In doing so, he opened the Navy’s eyes to the adaptability of aircraft to shipboard operations.
In 1933, President Herbert Hoover posthumously awarded Eugene Burton Ely the Distinguished Flying Cross for his many historic aviation achievements. The role of Chambers has not been forgotten by the Navy – Chambers Field, at Naval Station Norfolk, is named after him, and on Sept. 11, 2010, a new addition to the Navy’s dry cargo fleet was christened the USNS Washington Chambers.
First published in Airpower at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation.