Artifact Spotlight: Photographs of the Birth of Naval Aviation, 1911

---Joshua Howard, Curatorial Volunteer

Eugene Ely's Curtiss Biplane takes off from USS Pennsylvania
 This week’s post is about a collection of photographs commemorating the first aircraft landing on a warship. On January 18, 1911, aviator Eugene Burton Ely (1886-1911) landed his Curtiss pusher biplane on the deck of the armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania (ARC-4) and ushered in the first one hundred years of naval aviation.

Eugene Ely lands on USS Pennsylvania
The previous November, Ely performed the first flight from a moving vessel to land, when he took off from the cruiser USS Birmingham at Hampton Roads. Ely’s aircraft for the Pennsylvania landing was a biplane made of bamboo, fabric, and wire with a 26-foot-long body and a 30-foot-long wingspan. The aircraft sported a 50 horsepower “pusher” engine and was strapped with a pair of aluminum floats and hooks on the landing gear. Pennsylvania was fitted with a temporary wooden landing platform over her aft deck, canvas awnings, and twenty-two ropes held down by sandbags for the hooks on Ely’s plane to catch.  Protected only by a football helmet and a pair of bicycle inner tubes crossing his body, the twenty-four-year-old pilot took off from Tanforan Racetrack south of San Francisco and headed for the cruiser anchored in San Francisco Bay. At 11 AM, fighting strong unfavorable crosswinds, Ely landed on the Pennsylvania's deck in front of hundreds of spectators. After taking a short lunch with his wife and the ship's captain, Ely took off and landed back at the racetrack.

Ely and his Curtiss Biplane
Ely’s flight helped solidify the bond between the Navy and the field of aviation. Prior to this event,  most naval officials and members of Congress  were more interested in "big gun" battleships than in the possibilities of aviation. Captain Washington Irving Chambers, appointed to handle correspondence on aviation-related matters, fought diligently to prove the concept and importance of naval aviation.  It was Chambers who worked with both Ely and Glenn Curtiss, the maker of Ely’s airplane, to organize both of these historic flights.  Unfortunately, Ely was killed on October 19, 1911 when his airplane crashed at an exhibition in Georgia. It took more than a decade for the Navy to commission its first aircraft carrier, USS Langley (CV-1) in 1922 but this historic flight laid the groundwork for all that followed during a century of naval aviation.  In 1933 he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross “for his extraordinary achievement as a pioneer civilian aviator and for his significant contribution to the development of aviation in the United States Navy.”

Ely returns to shore
 These photographs, produced and sold to commemorate the event were acquired by Seaman Joseph Collins of Troy, Illinois. During his naval service from 1909-1911, Collins served on USS Pennsylvania, USS California, and USS Oregon.

A Starboard Profile of USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay

 Images courtesy of the Naval War College Museum


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