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Eugene Ely, first Navy pilot.

Byline: Albert B. Southwick

COLUMN: ALBERT B. SOUTHWICK

The news item about the U.S. Navy's plans to fly drone aircraft off of carriers came just 100 years after the first carrier landing and takeoff.

It was not long after the Wright brothers' epic flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903 when far-sighted people started thinking about whether airplanes might be useful in warfare. They sometimes ran into resistance from traditional military types.

One of those visionaries was Navy Captain Washington Chambers, who had been appointed in 1909 by the Secretary of the Navy to study the matter. Another was Captain C.F. Pond, skipper of the USS Pennsylvania, an armored cruiser. They foresaw that airplanes would have an important role in any future wars and that the Navy should plan accordingly.

So, on Jan. 18, 1911, Captain Pond and a cluster of dignitaries waited anxiously on board the Pennsylvania anchored in San Francisco Bay, watching a small Curtiss biplane coming in low over the water. A large wooden platform 119 feet long had been built on the afterdeck of the Pennsylvania and a rudimentary braking system had been installed.

The plane was piloted by Eugene Ely, a former barnstormer who had taught himself to fly. He held U.S. aircraft pilot license 17. He was something of a reckless type and he was undertaking an exploit that had been discouraged by some important people, including the Wright brothers. They thought it too risky and likely to set back the progress of aviation. Glenn Curtiss, the pioneer plane builder, had tried to talk him out of it. But Mr. Ely, the daredevil, would not be dissuaded.

The plane was a flimsy canvas-covered biplane with a pusher engine. The pilot sat in front in an open cockpit. As it came in for the landing, Mr. Ely cut the engine and glided silently the rest of the way. There would be no last-second abort signal to make another try. That was it.

According to an account by Rear Admiral G. Van Deurs:

"Ely sat out in front, grotesque in a crash helmet, with an inflated bicycle inner tube wrapped around his chest as a safety measure. ... Along the flight deck was primitive `retarding gear' - a series of sandbags connected by lines. On a slat between the wheels of the plane were three spring-loaded hooks. With any luck, these hooks ought to catch the lines and bring the plane to a tolerably smooth stop."

It worked. He floated over the first three lines, but the hooks snatched the next several lines and he stopped 40 feet from the end of the platform.

He was greeted like a hero. His wife, who had been watching with Captain Pond, dashed from the cheering crowd, kissed him and shouted, "Oh you boy! I knew you could do it."

At the champagne lunch, Captain Pond said that this was "the most important landing of a bird since the dove flew back to the ark," and called it "the birth of naval aviation," which it certainly was.

An hour or so later, Mr. Ely climbed into his small plane, took off from the Pennsylvania's platform and arrived back at Selfridge Field 13 minutes later. His flights that day marked an epoch. He was nonchalant about the whole affair.

"It was easy enough," he told the battalion officers. "I think the trick could be turned nine times out of 10."

It was an epochal event, although not everybody realized it.

The Navy waited nine more years before it commissioned its first carrier, the USS Langley, converted from the collier USS Jupiter in 1920. That ship, reconverted into a seaplane tender, went down in a hail of Japanese fire on Feb. 22, 1942, somewhere in the Pacific off Java.

The first real aircraft carriers, the Lexington and the Saratoga, were born out of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. That agreement limited the number of battleships that Japan, Britain and the United States could have in their fleets. The U.S. was at the limit in 1922, so it converted the two battleship frames on the way to aircraft carriers, named the Lexington and the Saratoga. They were commissioned in 1927 and saw valiant service during World War II. The Lexington was sunk at the Battle of Coral Sea, but the Saratoga survived the war despite being hit several times during raging battles off Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and other hot spots. It was sunk by the U.S. in July 1946, as a target in a test of an atomic bomb.

And Eugene Ely? He died in a crash at a barnstorming event in Georgia a few months later. He never joined the Navy. He had been enlisted for his famous feat by his friend, Captain Pond, an aviation enthusiast and visionary. He goes down in aviation history as the first carrier pilot in the world.

When I enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor, my dream was to be a carrier pilot. Low blood pressure made that impossible, and I was switched to patrol planes. I flew both seaplanes and land-based bombers and had many interesting experiences from the south Atlantic to the northern Pacific.

But in my heart of hearts, I always envied those glamorous carrier pilots.

I still do, 65 years later.

Albert B. Southwick's column appears regularly in the Telegram & Gazette.
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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Feb 24, 2011
Words:896
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