Sunday, November 14, 2010

This Day in History: Eugene Ely Makes First Shipboard Takeoff

Eugene Ely heads down before heading up
 On November 14, 1910, Eugene Ely flew a Curtiss pusher aircraft off of a platform that had been built over the deck of the light cruiser U.S.S. Birmingham. It was the first time anyone had done that, and, I suppose if you were a philosophical sort of person, you could say that the occasion marked the beginning of the Battle of Midway. But that would be stretching history a little too far, probably.

In any case, we are lucky that Ely, or the Navy, had someone with a camera positioned off the port side of the ship. Whoever it was had great timing, because the photo taken that day shows Ely's plane just as it plunged off the ship's bow and headed down toward the water. Apparently, the plane's wheels actually dipped into the water of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard before starting to climb. Ely shortly thereafter landed his flying machine on a nearby beach.

Because of the picture that was taken, the moment has become a piece of our collective memory, another piece of evidence of man's intrepid nature. And Ely was certainly intrepid. Perhaps a bit too much so.

Ely the intrepid
He'd only been flying for about seven months before his experiment on the Birmingham, which took place at the suggestion of the Navy. He was an enthusiast of fast cars and thought flying would be pretty much like driving. He was proven wrong when he crashed during his first flight. A couple of months after his historic takeoff, he performed the world's first shipboard landing, putting his Curtiss airplane down on a platform laid over the deck of the U.S.S. Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay on January 18. 1911. The picture below show's Ely wearing a state-of-the-art life preserver—some inner tubes—slung around his neck.

Note life preserver
Ely wouldn't enjoy his fame for long. On October 19, 1911, while flying in an exhibition in Macon, Georgia, he crashed and died sometime later from a broken neck. Naturally, there was a photographer on hand to document the scene.

The fatal crash
Epilogue: In 1933 President Franklin Roosevelt awarded Ely the Distinguished Flying Cross posthumously. There are probably some intrepid sorts around who will mark Ely's feat by trying to duplicate it. Good luck to them.

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