January 18, 2022

ON THIS DAY IN 1911: NAVAL HISTORY IS MADE: Eugene Burton Ely loved fast cars.   One of his first jobs was as a chauffeur for a Catholic priest, who is said to have been enough of a kindred spirit to enjoy Ely’s bat-out-of-hell driving.  But as much as Ely loved cars, he loved airplanes even more. When he got his first opportunity to fly one, he leapt at the chance, figuring that flying was a lot like driving. Naturally, he crashed. But to his credit, he took responsibility for the crash, purchased the wrecked plane from its owner, and got it flightworthy again. From there, he began a career as a daredevil aviator.

Ely is credited with the first shipboard take off—on November 14, 1910, from the U.S.S. Birmingham at Hampton Roads, Virginia. It wasn’t quite the success the Navy had been hoping for. Part of aircraft dipped briefly into the water before rising into the air. Ely’s goggles got covered with ocean spray, and he opted to land the damaged plane on the beach, rather than follow the plan to circle the harbor and land triumphantly at Norfolk Navy Yard.

Two months later, on January 18, 1911, he performed the opposite trick—the first successful shipboard landing—by flying from the racetrack at San Bruno onto the U.S.S. Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay.   (And yes, a tailhook was employed.)

Ely told a reporter, “It was easy enough. I think the trick could be successfully turned nine times out of ten.” That was good enough for the Navy. The first naval aircraft was requisitioned roughly four months later. The rest is naval history.

Meanwhile, Ely was asked by the Des Moines Register whether he would ever retire from his high-risk career. “I guess I will be like the rest of them,” he said, “keep at it until I am killed.” That turned out to be soon. On October 19, 1911—two days shy of his 25th birthday—he lost his life in a crash at an exhibition in Macon, Georgia.

In 1933, Congress posthumously awarded him the Distinguished Flying Cross.

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