Written by Todd DePastino
On November 14, 1910, daredevil Eugene Burton Ely chugged his Curtiss Model D “Pusher” airplane off the bow of the light cruiser USS Birmingham and into history. It was the inauspicious beginning of Naval Aviation.
History makers are often a little crazy. That was certainly the case for Eugene Burton Ely, the first pilot to take off from (and also to land on) a Navy ship.
The take-off came first. He’d just learned to fly and was doing exhibitions for the Pacific Northwest franchise of Glenn Curtiss’s Aeroplane Company.
Curtiss and Ely met Navy Captain Washington Chambers, who was in charge of Navy aviation experiments. Ely claimed with confidence that he could take off from a Navy ship in Hampton Roads, Virginia, circle the Norfolk Navy Yard, and land safely. Chambers arranged to have a wooden platform erected over the bow of the light cruiser USS Birmingham.
On November 14, 1910, Ely climbed into his Curtiss Model D “Pusher,” a four-cylinder flying tricycle with wings of spruce, ash, bamboo, and doped linen. He warmed up the engine and opened the throttle. The Pusher roared down the 83-foot platform, got to the edge of the bow, and plunged wheels down toward the water. Ely fought with the controls as his plane hit the waves. His rear propeller (the reason for the name “Pusher”) sprayed him with water and wood pulp from the shredded propeller tips. Somehow, Ely kept the plane aloft long enough to make it to shore. There was no triumphant flyover, but Ely had survived.
Now the Navy wanted to see if the trick could be done in reverse: could an airplane land on a cruiser deck? Ely, of course, eagerly volunteered for the test.
That feat was more difficult, and its story will wait until its anniversary on January 18.
To read more about Ely and his historic flights, see the California Military History Museum website.