Eugene Ely
Born 1886, Davenport IA. Died Oct 11, 1911.

Raised on the family farm, Eugene Ely graduated from Iowa State University with a strong interest in things mechanical. He learned early on to drive an automobile and initially became a chauffeur, then one of the first racing car drivers in America. In 1909 he moved to San Francisco to sell cars, married Mabel Hall, and the two bought a home in Portland, Oregon.

There he met auto dealer Harry Wemme, who had a newfound interest in aviation, and who had just bought a Curtiss in preparation for becoming the Northwest's first airplane dealer. Wemme had no knowledge of flight and was reluctant to teach himself to fly, so with no pilots available to help, Ely offered his hand, assuming flying couldn't be all that more difficult than racing cars. He learned otherwise on his first try when the Curtiss became briefly airborne before crashing. As apology for his accident, Ely bought the remains and repaired the pusher, becoming familiar with its workings, and finally did teach himself to fly in early 1910.

In performing exhibition flights around Portland, he realized he could earn more money than by selling cars, so he and his wife headed north to Canada for a flying tour, ending up in Minneapolis, where he met Glenn Curtiss at an aviation meet. Curtiss was impressed with Ely's abilities and convinced him to become a member of his exhibition team scheduled for a tour of the Great Lakes and Eastern cities. In Chicago in early October, Ely received his Aero Club of America pilot's license, number 17, to become one of the aeronautical elite.

Attracted by an $25,000 prize offered jointly by the New York Timesand Chicago Post for the first person to fly between the two cities, Ely tried, but gave up after making barely 30 miles in two days his old pusher just wasn't rugged enough for cross-county flying. However, he did meet Capt Washington Chambers, the USN's first designated Director of Aviation, in Belmont Park, who spoke of his interest in having aerial service to and from ships at sea. He said he did not have enough in his budget to pay Ely to try, but could provide a ship. When Ely agreed, Chambers arranged for the cruiser USS Birmingham to have a wooden platform built on its deck at the Norfolk Navy Yard.

However, it became a race against the clock when New York newspaper articles told of the Hamburg-American Line planning the same attempt, to be flown by J A D McCurdy, on November 5, 1910, as their liner, Kaiserine Auguste Victoria, left New York Harbour. Chambers spurred his yard workers to a greater effort, and Ely headed for Norfolk by train with the celebrated Curtiss Hudson Flyer, but their clock was running out. Although McCurdy and his airplane were aboard Victoria when it left port, weather turned foul and he was unable to fly. His plane was offloaded so that the liner could remain on its schedule, but Hamburg-American workers were already outfitting another ship, Amerika, scheduled to sail November 12, while Navy Yarders were still struggling with technical problems.

Fortune smiled again for Ely as misfortune beset McCurdy. His fragile plane was damaged in lading onto Amerika, and the ship sailed off, leaving a frustrated McCurdy and his broken machine on the dock. Finally, Birmingham's80' by 24' wooden deck was finished and the Hudson Flyer brought aboard by crane. The gloomy Monday morning of November 14 saw an entourage of Navy officials and Norfolk onlookers awaiting the big show, but weather appeared to be deteriorating. With about an hour of light left, at 3:00 pm, clouds lifted enough to see the target, Willoughby Spit, so Ely cranked up his motor. At 3:17, a restraining line was cut, and the plane trundled down the gently sloping deck. Barely gaining necessary speed, Ely broke free from the deck, briefly sank low enough to shatter his propeller tips on the waves, then flew to the spit with the entire plane vibrating badly and made a credible landing on the sandy beach. The observers were elated, and Commodore John Ryan even gave Ely $500 to pay for his propeller! The feat not only demonstrated the practicality of aviation in Navy service, but it put Ely on the front pages.

He continued with the Curtiss exhibition team through the South and Midwest, arriving at Curtiss' San Diego camp in December for a Christmas break. Capt Chambers had arranged for a similar, larger deck to be built on the cruiser USS Pennsylvania at Mare Island Navy Yard near San Francisco. Across this 119' by 31' deck were strung 22 manila lines three feet apart with 50-lb sandbags tied to each ends. These were propped up to about one foot as a prehistoric arresting gear. At San Diego, Ely and Curtiss rigged three pairs of steel hooks on an extended skid to snag those lines.


Eugene B. Ely's Curtiss pusher biplane nears the landing platform on USS Pennsylvania (Armoured Cruiser # 4),  during the morning of 18 January 1911. The ship was then anchored in San Francisco Bay, California.

By train, Ely and his airplane moved to Tanforan Racetrack below San Francisco in early January 1911, and Pennsylvania anchored in place on the Bay at dawn on January 18. With two other cruisers floating nearby as viewing stands for onlookers, Ely left Tanforan that morning and flew the 10 miles to his "aircraft carrier," making a straight-in approach from 1,500' with a tailwind of almost 15 knots. At about 40 mph, he missed the first 11 arresting lines, but caught the rest to make the first landing on a ship at 11:01 am. Then, turning his plane around while a deck crew cleared away the lines, he took off at 11:58 and flew back to Tanforan.

He continued his tour of the nation during 1911, then with star billing. At the Georgia State Fairgrounds in Macon on October 11, Ely was flying his routine when something went wrong. He was seen fighting to maintain control while diving from several hundred feet, but the plane crashed near the grandstand. At 25, in a notable flying career lasting only 18 months, Ely died of a broken neck when he was thrown from his seat. More tragically, the crowd was unruly and rushed to the wreckage to strip souvenirs from the airplane and pieces of clothing from his body. ( K O Eckland)