The First Aeroplane Take Off from a Ship, November 14, 1910, Part II

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

This is the second of two blog posts about John Barry Ryan, Capt. Washington I. Chambers, USN, Eugene B. Ely, and the USS Birmingham, November 14, 1910.


While arrangements were being made for the flight off the scout cruiser Birmingham, aviator Eugene B. Ely was still involved in the aviation meet at Halethorpe, just outside Baltimore. Ely’s aeroplane was not ready to fly until November 7. The wind was blowing and the air was crisp, but the sky was clear. Mabel Ely kept her husband from flying, thinking it was too windy. Aviator Charles F. Willard also did not go up. But that day, to the tumultuous applause of more than 600,000 persons, Hubert Latham flew in an Antoinette monoplane over the city of Baltimore. He traveled about 25 miles and remained in the air for 47 minutes 31 seconds. For following a prescribed course above the city he was awarded a prize of $5,000, offered by The Baltimore Sun and the Baltimore Evening Sun. [60]     

British Royal Navy Lieutenant Gerald Harmer, who attended the meets at Belmont Park and Halethorpe, and who had studied aviation and its possible application to warfare since its first successes, said:

“The Baltimore aviation meet at Halethorpe proved unquestionably the important role aeroplanes are to play in the wars of the future. The rough weather showed the frailty of the present-day aeroplane, and the necessity that every aviator be not only a driver of a machine, but also a constructional mechanic of such ability as to be able to repair any or all parts of a machine under adverse conditions. On account of the modern ‘open method’ of fighting on land, the aeroplane will then serve best as a scout and its attack will be against the bases of supplies and laying waste of cities. The maneuvering of Latham in his magnificent flight over Baltimore demonstrated with what ease any particular section of a city could be destroyed. The greatest value of aeroplanes from a military standpoint will be in naval warfare by the dropping of bombs upon ships….”[61]

On November 8, the wind was too strong for most of the aviators, but four of them, but not Ely, took their chances and made flights. On November 9, at Halethorpe, it was unlike any of the previous days in that the weather was ideal and in consequence a series of flights, including Ely’s, gave the largest crowd of the meet an abundance of thrills. Ely had some mechanical problems while in the air but landed safely. [62] 

Probably at this point Ely, who apparently did not have much faith in the aeroplane he was flying, and having flown previously the Hudson Flyer, obtained permission from Glenn H.Curtiss to fly it. The Hudson Flyer was still at the Jamestown Racetrack, located north of Norfolk, on the Sewell Point peninsula between Hampton Roads and Willoughby Bay, now part of the Norfolk Naval Station. Bud Mars had been flying that aeroplane since August. It had been damaged in the early November rainstorm and Mars left it at the racetrack when he was called away to Hoboken.[63]

November 10 was “Army and Navy Day” at Halethorpe, which brought out 10,000 persons, including Secretary of War Jacob M. Dickinson and other high officials from Washington, D.C. Postmaster General Hitchcock went up for a short flight with Comte Jacques de Lesseps in his Blériot. He was followed by Brig. Gen. James Allen, who flew with the count for three and half minutes.[64]    

Dickinson was quoted on November 10, by the Baltimore Sun as follows:

“There are great possibilities in the use of aero planes in war, both for observation purposes and for bomb-dropping. They have never been sufficiently investigated by the War Department. At the present time we have but one officer who can guide an aeroplane. I shall recommend an appropriation to cover the purchase of at least five, and probably ten, at the next session of Congress. Of course, I can’t predict what will be done, but I have hopes for the appropriation. The United States must not be out stripped by other nations, and the only way to determine whether flying machines in time of war will be serviceable or not is to experiment. If we get the appropriation a training school for officers to run the aeroplanes will be established. In that way constant experiment can be made and the War Department can arrive at some definite conclusion as to their practicability…” [65]

Little flying was done on November 11, and 12 (the last day of the meet) by a few aviators, but the wind and an icy gale on the latter day kept most aviators, including Ely, on the ground. This gave reporters a chance to talk to the aviators and Mabel Ely. On November 11, when asked about the Birmingham flight, Mabel said “I can’t say just exactly when he will go up, for at this time of year there are many different weather conditions that are unfavorable for flying. Mr. Ely will take his machine on the cruiser Birmingham, and will put to sea on Monday afternoon. I will go along on another government vessel, and we will try to keep up with Gene as he flies over the water.” She said she had no fear for his safety. “I have personally seen to it that he will be properly equipped with life buoys, and he will wear them! The machine will have pontoons attached, so that in case anything should happen to it, it will float until it and Mr. Ely can be rescued. I have the greatest confidence in Mr. Ely and am sure that he will complete the flight all right.” When reporters asked Ely if his wife spoke for him, he said she did most of the family talking. “What she says is all right, so there you are.” [66]   

On November 12, The New York Times ran a front page story entitled “Ely’s Flight From Cruiser.” Also that day, the Navy’s Capt. Washington Irving Chambers was ordered to direct the experiment in aerial flight from the Birmingham; including recommendations concerning the study and development of aviation in the Navy. [67] 

At the Hoboken docks on November 12, another attempt at a ship-to-shore was being attempted. When the news was received that the Navy would be the first to attempt a ship-board take off, it was suggested to Glenn Curtiss by the New York World to beat the Navy, to launch an aeroplane from the deck of a ship at sea and have it fly back to shore. The Hamburg American Line offered their ocean liner Pennsylvania for this test, and Curtiss sent a Curtiss biplane to be operated by aviator J. A. D. McCurdy, whose southern flights were being hampered by strong winds. The ship was hurriedly fitted with a large platform, erected on the stern, a platform sloping downward, and wide enough to allow an aeroplane set up on it to run down so that it could gather headway for its flight. The plan was to take McCurdy and the aeroplane fifty miles out to sea on the outward voyage, and then launch it from the platform. Just for insurance Curtiss ordered Bud Mars to leave the Norfolk exhibition and come to New Jersey where he might have to take McCurdy’s place if he was unavailable. Newspaper men sailed ahead, and waited for several hours for the liner and the aviator to appear. However, with Mars replacing McCurdy, a mishap at the last moment upset things. In trying out the motor just as the Pennsylvania was about to leave her dock, an oil can, carelessly left on one of the planes by a mechanic, was knocked off and fell into the whirling propeller. The result was a broken propeller, and as the ship could not delay its sailing long enough for Curtiss to get another aeroplane, the attempt was abandoned. The aeroplane was taken off the ship and the Pennsylvania sailed away, delayed somewhat by the accident.[68]   

Meanwhile, the Birmingham had arrived at Norfolk Navy Yard, in Portsmouth, located on the Elizabeth River, just a short distance upriver from its mouth at Hampton Roads, on November 8. Beginning on November 9, Naval Constructor William McEntee worked the yard personnel and sailors night and day to construct a temporary wooden platform built on the forecastle of the Birmingham. By November 11, the platform was almost constructed. It was 83 feet in length and 24 feet wide. It sloped at five degrees from the bridge rail to the main deck at the bow. The forward edge was 37 feet above the water. The aeroplane would have a distance of 57 feet to travel before it reached the ship’s bow. Perhaps knowing of the planned flight off the Pennsylvania and wanting the Navy to have the honor of having an aeroplane fly off an American warship, McEntee sent a telegram to Chambers “IT WILL BE READY, and if Ely can get his machine here Friday, everything will be ready for a flight on Saturday, provided of course that the weather permits.” When MeEntee learned that the earliest Ely could fly would be Monday, it gave him a chance to go home and spend the weekend with his family.[69]   

As Eugene and Mabel Ely were checking out of the hotel on November 12, Hubert Latham asked “What is this I hear about you flying on a battleship? “Why, yes, it is true” Ely said. Ely added “I am going to try next Monday, off the coast near Norfolk.” Latham said that would be a wonderful achievement. “I have only 50 feet to start in,” Ely said. “But the question is,” Latham said with a laugh, “us how much of a drop?” Ely said it would be about 48 feet above the water when he started. When he reached the end of the ship, he would swoop downward, and just before hitting the water, he would turn back up. Latham said “Are you not afraid of getting a dunking? I suppose you can float?” “Yes,” Ely said, “and so does my machine.” [70]

On November 12 in the early evening, in Baltimore, Ely, his wife, and two mechanics prepared to take a steamship to Norfolk. Except for Ely’s favorite 4-cylinder motor, which was sent that night to Norfolk, his biplane and other equipment was put on a train for Raleigh, North Carolina, where after completing the Birmingham experiment he would fly an exhibition with McCurdy. The Chesapeake Line steamship departed Baltimore at 630pm and began its180 statute mile trip to Norfolk, where it arrived at 7am on November 13. [71] 

During the morning of November 13, Ely and his mechanics ignored the foul weather, and immediately began preparations for the trial the next day. They worked on the Hudson Flyer at the Jamestown racetrack. Once repaired, aluminum pontoons were attached under the wings so that it would float for some time in case he was forced to land on the water. They also added a splash-board on the landing gear. What they did not do, probably forgetting to do so, was to adjust the control lever. It had been more than a month since Ely had flown the aeroplane, and in the interim the control lever had to be lengthened for Bud Mars when he flew the aeroplane at Norfolk. As Ely would later learn, it had not been readjusted to fit for him. Later in the day, Ely saw the aeroplane, without its engine, loaded aboard the Navy tug Alice, that headed on the Elizabeth River for the Navy Yard. The engine had been shipped; and no one knew when it might arrive.[72]

Besides the Birmingham, the Navy assigned four other ships to the project. These included the torpedo boats USS Bailey (TB-21) and the USS Stringham (TB-19), they both had a speed of 30 knots and crew of 59; and two new destroyers, the USS Roe (Destroyer No. 24) and USS Terry (Destroy No. 25), both with a top speed of 30 knots and a crew of 91. The Roe had been commissioned on September 17, 1910, and the Terry on October 18, 1910. The two destroyers were selected to accompany the Birmingham and to follow the course of the aeroplane and render service if necessary. The two torpedo boats were also ordered to render what aid they could in case of need. [73]

USS Terry (from NAID 55174946, Local ID 111-SC-7061)

In the evening of November 13, at the old Monticello Hotel in Norfolk, Ely told reporters “everything is ready. If the weather is favorable, I expect to make the flight tomorrow without difficulty.” His wife was not so certain about things. She knew that he had not seen the platform, that the aeroplane was untested, and his engine had not arrived. Nevertheless, she enjoyed a seafood dinner and untroubled sleep. Ely ate little, turned in early and slept poorly.[74]

Readers of The New York Times on November 14 were greeted with the news that Ely was about to fly from a warship. That morning he skipped breakfast and took the Portsmouth ferry to the Navy Yard. His two mechanics assisted in hoisting the aeroplane aboard the Birmingham, pushed it to the aft end of the platform, and secured it with its tail nearly over the ship’s wheel. Only 57 feet of ramp remained in front of the aeroplane. Then Ely’s chief mechanic, Orson Harrington arrived with Ely’s 4-cylinder motor. The three were getting it out of the crate when Ely and Chambers boarded the ship. There was no time to test the engine. [75]   

Photo #: NH 77550. A floating crane places Eugene B. Ely’s Curtiss pusher airplane on board USS Birmingham (Scout Cruiser # 2). Photographed at the Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia, shortly before the flight.Photograph from the Eugene B. Ely scrapbooks. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Retrieved from https://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/OnlineLibrary/photos/images/h77000/h77550.jpg

That morning John Barry Ryan sent a telegram to Richard Sinclair, the United States Aeronautical Reserve (USAR) secretary, to read at Columbia University, where Harmon and Sinclair would be speaking about aviation and the USAR, before a large gathering that day. The telegram read: “I regret very much that my orders from Washington to witness the attempt of Ely to fly from the deck of a government vessel prevent my addressing the Columbia men this evening. Tell them I expect to see every man in the audience a member of the U. S. A. R. before the end of the year. John Barry Ryan.” The telegram was read that day.[76] Of course the orders referred to, were issued by Ryan himself.

Photo #: NH 77554. USS Birmingham (Scout Cruiser # 2) steams downriver from the Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia, with Eugene B. Ely’s Curtiss pusher airplane on board, at about midday on 14 November 1910. Ely and his plane made their historic flight later that afternoon. Photograph from the Eugene B. Ely scrapbooks. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.
Retrieved from: https://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/OnlineLibrary/photos/images/h77000/h77554.jpg

At 1130 am, the Birmingham backed clear of the dock and headed down river. The weather was unsettled, with low clouds and occasional light showers of rain and hail, but the wind was not blowing more than 10 miles per hour. The original intention was to steam out into Chesapeake Bay, head the ship to the wind at about 10 knots and then attempt a flight. Ely wanted to fly 20 to 30 miles and then fly up the Elizabeth River to the Norfolk Navy Yard, where he would land at the parade grounds of the Marine Barracks. The Roe and Terry cleared the next dock. The Terry followed the cruiser; the Roe headed for Norfolk to pick up Mabel Ely, other naval officers, and a corps of newspapermen from Washington to cover the flight, as well as Brig. Gen. Allen (who may have been aboard the Birmingham). Going down river, Ely helped his men mount and install the engine, without any previous tuning up. In spite of squalls, they had the aeroplane ready before the ship rounded the last buoy before entering Hampton Roads. As the Birmingham passed through the Elizabeth River into Hampton Roads and had almost reached the Bailey and Stringham, waiting with Assistant Secretary Winthrop and other Washington officials, when another squall, with the wind driving the rain in sheets, closed in. At 12:30pm, with the thickness of the weather rendering landmarks obscure, a quarter mile off Old Point Comfort, in Hampton Roads, about opposite the Hotel Chamberlain, Captain Fletcher anchored the Birmingham. There the ship lay at anchor as everyone waited for better weather conditions.[77]    

Ely tinkered with the plane, tested the motor, waiting for the orders to hoist the anchor. Then wind and rain that temporarily abated started again with renewed force. It was nearly 2pm when that squall moved off to the north. Ely climbed to his pilot’s seat. One mechanic spun the propeller. When the warm-up came to an end, nobody liked the looks of the weather. The armored cruiser Washington, that just had arrived that day, at Hampton Roads from the West Indies, radioed that it was thick up the bay, and the Weather Bureau reported it would be worse the next day. It was determined to proceed with the experiment that day, in the rain if necessary. Ely was determined to risk a start even though there was a strong wind coming off shore carrying a heavy mist that made it almost impossible to see more than half a mile.[78]

By 230pm the sky looked lighter to the south. Fletcher decided to get under way and ordered the anchor raised. Ely paced the bridge then the launching platform. Then about 240 pm he climbed into his seat, pulled on his pneumatic life-preserver, and tried the controls. Sixty fathoms of chain were still out. A mechanic spun the propeller and Ely opened the throttle and listened approvingly. The ship’s wireless operator tapped out a message for the escort ships “2:43 pm-Engine of Ely’s airship, Hudson Flyer, making so much noise that it is almost impossible to send wireless messages. The engine is going rapidly, apparently being tested out. Actual start not yet been made, but Ely is likely to fly away at any minute.” Indeed he was. “I was anxious to complete the test without waiting any longer for more auspicious conditions,” Ely said later. He idled the engine and impatiently waited. Then he gunned the engine to clear it and looked back at Fletcher and Chambers on the bridge wing. They looked completely unhurried. Then Ely noticed the horizon darkening with another squall and he began to wonder why the Birmingham did not start. Ely looked at Chambers, pointed at the approaching blackness. Chambers nodded. The ship could not move as thirty fathoms of chain were still in the water. Meanwhile, lifeboats had been gotten ready on board the attending vessels. All the while it was getting darker and foggier and the chances for a flight looked poor.[79]

Ely checked everything again, and stared at the squall ahead. At 316 pm, while 20 fathoms of chain were still out, he decided he would wait no longer for the ship to start steaming into the wind. He would take off from a standstill, not waiting for the ship’s movement which would have added to his momentum and thus have aided him greatly. Without previous warning to Fletcher and Chambers, he throttled the engine to full speed and gave his chief mechanic, Orson  Harrington, the thumbs up. Harrington hesitated and Ely pushed his thumb even higher into the air and shook his fist. Harrington shouted to the bluejackets who were holding the machine on the launching platform to let go their hold, and all at once they let go. The aeroplane rolled down the ramp, following accurately the middle line mark on the platform, and its tail cleared the forward end by about 20 feet, and then the aeroplane dropped out of sight, causing the greatest apprehension on the part of the onlookers. Water splashed high in front of the ship and the crews of the lifeboat made an involuntary movement forward. Then the aeroplane came into sight, climbing slowly toward the dark clouds.The sailors aboard the Birmingham cheered and the ship’s whistle announced the take off to the nearby ships, as did the ship’s wireless operator: “Ely just gone…Ely off at 3:17:21 p.m.”

Eugene B. Ely flies his Curtiss pusher airplane from USS Birmingham (Scout Cruiser # 2), in Hampton Roads, Virginia, during the afternoon of 14 November 1910. USS Roe (Destroyer # 24), serving as plane guard, is visible in the background. Photograph from the Eugene B. Ely scrapbooks.U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Retrieved from https://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/OnlineLibrary/photos/images/h77000/h77601.jpg

Off the bow, Ely made a miscalculation in moving the rod of the front control or elevator. His rod had been lengthened, since his previous use of it, to suit Bud Mars, and when he pulled it towards him to raise the elevator he did not give quite enough angle to the planes to prevent too deep a dive. The aeroplane swooped down 37 feet to the water. Some yards in the front of the cruiser Ely felt a sudden drag, as the lower part of his machine, the skid framing and the pontoons, struck the water. Also, on striking the water, the propeller tips and both driving edges were splintered. All of this contact with the water sent up a volume of spray in front of the cruiser. These difficulties were not, however, sufficient to interfere with the performance of the aeroplane. He rapidly swung the machine upward into the air to about 150 feet. When the aeroplane had touched the water, salt water whipped his face. He tried to wipe the spray from his goggles but his glove hand only smeared them, so he was blinded. He snatched off his goggles, as the aeroplane climbed and then disappeared from sight. There was nothing to follow by the destroyers and torpedo boats.

At this point Ely, in the continuous rain that obscured landmarks, lost his sense of direction. For a short time he headed directly out into the Chesapeake Bay. But he soon turned the aeroplane around. There were no landmarks by which he intended to guide his flight over Norfolk to the Navy Yard, only shadows in the mist, and the water below. In the biting rain and wind, he swung toward the darkest misty shadow. He had to land quickly and find out where he was. On the ground he might take off again and find the Navy Yard. 

A broad strip of beach land lay ahead in the mist. He had been in the air for about five minutes at this point, and had flown about 2 ½ miles from where he had started. Ely landed on the beach on the north side of Willoughby Spit, about half a mile from the Hampton Roads Yacht Club, 10 miles north of Norfolk. When he asked a woman who had come rushing up to the aeroplane where he was she told him. He thought he might try to take off and continue the flight but he found that a blade of his propeller had been damaged by the collision with the water. He knew he could not fly on to the Navy Yard. He felt he had failed. 

In the meantime, a navy launch with Chambers and other officers from the Birmingham was lowered and steamed off in the direction the aeroplane had taken. It returned later with Ely. Chambers was pleased to learn that he had not continued on towards Norfolk, as he had begun to have grave doubts about his ability to get his bearings in thick weather, over a landscape with which he was unfamiliar. The launch took Ely and the officers to the Roe, where, gathered in the mess room, they were photographed by cameramen. Everyone congratulated Ely and they talked about the flight as they returned to Norfolk.

“The spray got on my goggles,” Ely explained, “so that I could not see or tell which direction I was going for a time. When I got my goggles clear I saw I was heading for a beach that looked like a convenient landing place, so I kept on.” “The splash in the water was my own fault. “The front push rod was a little longer than the one I am used to and I didn’t handle it quite right. Then of course the fact that the ship was not under way was a great disadvantage to me.” The naval officers agreed. They were unanimous in declaring that the flight was rendered much more difficult by the fact that the ship had not gotten underway when the aeroplane left her deck. They observed that Ely had lost all the advantage of the head-on breeze. If the ship had been going ten knots the aeroplane would have arisen much easier. “Had it been necessary I think I could have started right back and landed on the Birmingham” he said. “I think the next test along this line might be that of landing on a ship in motion. There should be no difficulty in accomplishing this. This would mean that an aeroplane could leave the deck of a ship, fly around and then return to the starting point.” While discussing the flight someone brought it to his attention that Ryan had offered a prize of $500 for the first flight made by a USAR member from the deck of a warship more than one mile out at sea to shore. Ely said he had not heard of the prize.[80] 

That evening Chambers and Ryan continually told Ely he had not failed. It made no difference where he had landed. The fact was he had flown off a ship. Chambers cheered him up by promising him another chance to take off from a ship. “I could land aboard, too” Ely responded.[81]

Also that evening Ely told reporters and naval officials “I am confident that I could have flown back to the ship and landed on the runway with the same ease and safety as I experienced leaving.” He also said “It will be an interesting experiment and I should like to try it.” [82]

Chambers wrote to Secretary of the Navy George von Lengerke Meyer on November 14, reporting on the success of the flight and asking to purchase aeroplanes for the Navy. [83]

At some point on November 14, Ryan told Ely that he wanted the broken propeller to display it at USAR headquarters. The next morning, after receiving the broken propeller, Ryan gave Ely a check in the amount of $500 and at the same time made him a lieutenant in the USAR. Ryan put the propeller in the back of his automobile, drove to Washington, D.C., and after meeting with government officials, carried his trophy to New York on the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Congressional Limited Express. Ely used the money on a diamond for his wife.[84]

On the morning of November 15, news of the flight filled front pages all over the United States and Europe. Foreign editors speculated that the United States would probably acquire special aviation ships immediately. American editors thought the flight should at least lead Secretary Meyer to ask for appropriations for aviation.The front page of the Washington Post greeted its readers with the observation that “Aerial navigation proved today [November 14] that it is a factor for which must be dealt with in the naval tactics of the world’s future.”The New York Times would observe that Ely “accomplished one of the most remarkable feats of the year when he flew from decks of the cruiser Birmingham and made a safe landing on the beach six miles away.” The Chicago Daily Tribune opined that Ely “proved that the airplane will be a great factor in naval warfare of the future.” The New York Times on the front page reported that the navy officers said that although he failed to return to the navy yard, the test demonstrated the practicability of the biplane for scouting purposes from the deck of a warship or for hurried communication from sea to land. Capt. Chambers “declared that the flight was more than he had anticipated and he is confident that the time is near when all scout cruisers will be equipped with a number of aeroplanes.” They would not be for battleship use, he explained, but for scout duty in connection with the work of the scout cruisers of the navy.[85] 

”This flight,” Curtiss later wrote,” attracted world-wide attention, especially among the officers of the navies of the world. It was the first demonstration of the claims of the aeronautical enthusiasts of the navy that an aeroplane could be made that would be adaptable to the uses of the service, and it appeared to substantiate some of the things claimed for it.” The journal Aeronautics stated that Ely proved that it was possible to fly safely from a ship, and after having done this, Ely had asserted that it would be an easy matter for an aeroplane to alight on a vessel, either while the latter was moving or standing still. [86]  

Early on November 15 Ely told reporters “What we want to do was to show that the machine could be launched from the deck of a battleship. I feel confident that I demonstrated to the Navy the practicability of aeroplanes as auxiliaries in war times. I feel proud also of having the distinction of being the first aviator to accomplish such a feat.” [87] Later that day, Ely and Mabel took the train to Raleigh where he and McCurdy were scheduled to fly at the state fair.  Then it was off to Birmingham, Alabama, to perform.[88]

Secretary Meyer on November 17 sent Ely a letter of congratulations, perhaps drafted by Chambers:

“Sir: On behalf of the Navy I desire to thank you for the services you have performed gratuitously in demonstrating the possibility of using an aeroplane from a ship in connection with the problem of naval scouting. So far as is now known at this department you are the first aviator in the world to have accomplished this feat, and I congratulate you on your successful flight from the U. S. S. Birmingham on November 14, 1910…. The fact that you made this flight under adverse conditions of weather with a comparatively old aero plane and while the ship was not under way increases the information sought and the satisfaction of the department with your effort. Your achievement, which was actuated by purely zealous and patriotic motives, is much appreciated. A copy of this letter will be sent to the headquarters of the United States Aeronautical Reserve.”[89]

Apparently in a separate letter, also dated November 17, Meyer wrote Ely, “When you show me that it is feasible for an aeroplane to alight on the water alongside a battleship and be hoisted aboard without any false deck to receive it, I shall believe the airship of practical benefit to the Navy.” [90]

On November 23, at Birmingham Alabama, Ely received the letter from Meyer congratulating him on his recent flight from the deck of the Birmingham and asking him, according to a reporter, if he would attempt a flight from the deck of a war vessel and return, landing again on the deck. Ely announced that he would make the trial at San Diego in about two months.[91]

Photo #: NH 77491, Eugene B. Ely Seated in a Curtiss pusher biplane, with his wife, Mabel (Hall) Ely standing beside him. Photographed at Birmingham, Alabama, circa 21-22 November 1910. Photograph from the Eugene B. Ely scrapbooks. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Retreived from https://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/OnlineLibrary/photos/images/h77000/h77491.jpg

The New York Times on November 24 noted that Ely’s flight had aroused the interest of the Navy Department in aviation. Now, it stated, navy officials were trying to get someone to attempt a flight from the shore to the deck of a moving craft. Ely himself, it stated, had declared the feat perfectly feasible, and that naval experts were of the same opinion. The article observed that the Navy Department was chiefly embarrassed in its aviation experiments by the lack of funds and that the department had not one cent which it could spend in experimental or practical aeronautics. Any aviator who performed the proposed test, it added, would have to do so out of patriotism, or else depend on some private interest to offer a prize.[92]  

Indeed, naval officials the world-over were aroused about the possibilities of aeroplanes in naval warfare. Although Chambers found a little greater support in the Navy Department for more experiments and for a real program in aeronautics there were no appropriated funds to proceed. [93] 

Secretary Meyer in submitting his annual fiscal year report on November 30, 1910, reviewed the Ely-Birmingham flight and reported that:

“This experiment and the advances which have been made in aviation seem to demonstrate that it is destined to perform some part in the naval warfare of the future. It appears likely that this will be limited to scouting. A scout which is not strong enough to pierce the enemy’s line can get as near as possible and then send an aeroplane 30 or 40 miles, obtain valuable information and then return to the Scout [cruiser]. Even if the aviator did not land on the scout he could be brought on board and deliver his information. The loss of an aeroplane would be of no moment, as the ship may easily carry others. The distinct value of service of this kind is easily seen. The department contemplates further experiments along these lines, with the belief that it will be necessary in the near future to equip all scouts with one or more aeroplanes to increase the distance at which information can be secured. For the purpose of carrying on such experiments the department recommends that $25,000 be authorized.”[94] 

Curtiss later wrote that in November he believed the time had come when the Government would “be interested in any phase of aviation that promised to increase the usefulness of the aeroplane for military service.” Of course he was thinking of Curtiss aeroplanes, including those that could take off and land on the water. So, on November 29, he sent letters to both Secretary Dickinson of the War Department and to Secretary Meyer of the Navy Department, inviting them to send one or more officers of their respective departments to Southern California, where “I would undertake to instruct them in aviation. I made no conditions. I asked for and received no remuneration whatsoever for this service. I consider it an honour to be able to tender my services in this connection.”[95] By February 1911 both Army and Navy officers would be learning to fly at the Curtiss school in California.

With trouble brewing on the Mexican border early in 1911, Robert F. Collier, owner of Collier’s magazine and a member of the USAR General Board who bought one of the new 1910 Wright Brothers Type B airplanes, through John Barry Ryan and USAR, tendered the aeroplane and an aviator to the government for military flying at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. The War Department accepted the offer, and agreed to pay him a nominal rental of $1.00 per month.

And on March 3, 1911, in the annual War Department appropriation for the fiscal year 1912 Congress made its first appropriation for Army aeronautics—$125,000 for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1912 for the purchase, maintenance, operation, and repair of aeroplanes and other aerial machines, $25,000 of which was rendered immediately available. On the same day, the U.S. Navy received its first appropriation for aeronautics, $25,000, which enabled it to purchase its first three planes.

Meanwhile, Chambers arranged for Ely on January 18, 1911, to land his aeroplane on a wooden platform on the USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco harbor. On January 30, he wrote Chambers that “the value of the aeroplane to the Navy is unquestioned.” [96] On February 17 Curtiss landed his hydroaeroplane in the water near the Pennsylvania. It was hoisted aboard, refueled and returned to the water, and Curtiss took off again. Now both Chambers and Meyer had the proof they needed to begin establishing a naval aviation program.

Aviator E. B. Ely and the Flying Machine, 01/18/1911. (NAID 158884444, Local ID 181-PSX-4)
Ely at the Instant of His Landing on the Deck of the Pennsylvania in His Famous Flight, 01/18/1911. (NAID 158884438, Local ID 181-PSX-1).

Ely died in a plane crash on October 19, 1911 while flying at an exhibition in Macon, Georgia. Chambers retired in 1913 without having been promoted to admiral or given an aviation title. But he was a great help in obtaining the first congressional appropriation, actively interested in the early organization of training and of air operations of the Navy, and instrumental in establishing the first flying field and a national aeronautical laboratory. Ryan would have his financial troubles. He died in 1942, and a probate court in 1943 declared his estate insolvent, with $377,000 in assets and over $1 million in debt. Perhaps his giving so much to charity was a problem.[97]

Despite the vicissitudes of their lives, Ryan, Chambers, and Ely could all look back with some pride at the takeoff from the Birmingham on November 14, 1910, knowing that they significantly contributed to the advancement of naval aviation.

Ely was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by the Navy in 1933. His flight off the Birmingham is commemorated by historical markers on Willoughby Spit and Norfolk Naval Station. The Naval Aviation Monument at 25th Street and Atlantic Avenue in Virginia Beach includes an Ely statue. Ely Hall, a residential building at the naval station, is named for him, and Chambers Field, the airstrip there, dedicated in his honor in June 1938, to honor Capt. Chambers. The USNS Washington Chambers (T-AKE-11), a dry cargo ship launched on September 11, 2010, is named in honor of Chambers. Also, Ely Memorial Park is a small plot of land on Naval Station Norfolk that has some retired aircraft on display.


Note to readers: In writing this blog I found that many contemporary journals and newspapers as well as authors of the past seventy years have much inaccurate, incomplete, confusing, and conflicting information regarding what took place during the first two weeks of November 1910. I have tried to convey the story with what seems most plausible and whatever the sources closest to the events purport. Thus, in writing this post, I followed my own advice “that it is almost impossible to be one hundred percent certain that the story you think you know is indeed the true or most factual one.” (see Sometimes the Records Tell Different Stories).


Footnotes:

[60] Miller, Eugene Ely, Daredevil Aviator: First Shipboard Landing and Takeoff, p. 128; Captain W. Irving Chambers, U. S. Navy, “Aviation and Aeroplanes,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 37, No. 1 (March 1911), p. 167; “High Winds and Snow at Baltimore,” Automobile Topics Illustrated, Vol. XXI, No. 6 (November 12, 1910), p. 359; “Latham’s Record Flight over Baltimore,” Book of the Royal Blue, Vol. XIV, No. 3 (Baltimore, December 1910), pp. 2, 3, 4-10; “Lathan the Hero at Baltimore Meet,” Aero, Vol. 1, No. 6 (November 12, 1910), p. 7.

[61] “Latham’s Record Flight over Baltimore,” Book of the Royal Blue, Vol. XIV, No. 3 (Baltimore, December 1910), pp. 3-4..

[62] “High Winds and Snow at Baltimore,” Automobile Topics Illustrated, Vol. XXI, No. 6 (November 12, 1910), pp. 359, 360; R. F. Patterson, “Baltimore Aviation Meet,” Aeronautics, Vol. 7, No. 6 (December 1910), p. 208, p. 208; Miller, Eugene Ely, Daredevil Aviator: First Shipboard Landing and Takeoff, p. 128.

[63] Miller, Eugene Ely, Daredevil Aviator: First Shipboard Landing and Takeoff, p. 135.

[64] “Hitchcock in Air with De Lesseps,” The New York Times, November 11, 1910, p. 6; “Hitchcock in Aero,” The Washington Post, November 11, 1910, p. 1; Army and Navy Register, Vol. 48, November 12, 1910, p. 20; R. F. Patterson, “Baltimore Aviation Meet,” Aeronautics, Vol. 7, No. 6 (December 1910), p. 208, p. 208.

[65] Army and Navy Register, Vol. 48, November 12, 1910, p. 20.

[66] R. F. Patterson, “Baltimore Aviation Meet,” Aeronautics, Vol. 7, No. 6 (December 1910), p. 208, pp. 208, 213; Miller, Eugene Ely, Daredevil Aviator: First Shipboard Landing and Takeoff, p. 135.

[67] “Ely’s Flight From Cruiser,”The New York Times, November 12, 1910, p. 1; Captain W. Irving Chambers, U. S. Navy, “Aviation and Aeroplanes,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 37, No. 1 (March 1911), p. 163, note.

[68] Glenn H. Curtiss and Augustus Post with Chapters by Captain Paul W. Beck, U.S.A., Lieutenant Theodore G. Ellyson, U.S.N., and Hugh Robinson, The Curtiss Aviation Book, pp. 116-117; Polmar, Aircraft Carriers: A History of Carrier Aviation and Its Influence on World Events Vol. 1, 1909-1945, p. 3; Miller, Eugene Ely, Daredevil Aviator: First Shipboard Landing and Takeoff, p. 134; “Ely Flies From War Ship,”.Aeronautics, Vol. 7, No. 6 (December 1910), p. 195;  Trimble, Hero of the Air: Glenn Curtiss and the Birth of Naval Aviation, p. 100.

[69] Turnbull and Lord, History of United States Naval Aviation, pp. 10-11; Rear Admiral George van Deurs, U. S. Navy (Retired), Wings for the Fleet: A Narrative of Naval Aviation’s Early Development, 1910-1916, p. 18; Captain W. Irving Chambers, U. S. Navy, “Aviation and Aeroplanes,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 37, No. 1 (March 1911), pp. 174-175; Albert Whiting Fox, “Ely’s Flight from the ‘Birmingham,’” The Air-Scout, Vol. 1, No. 2 (December 1910), pp. 12-13; Miller, Eugene Ely, Daredevil Aviator: First Shipboard Landing and Takeoff, pp. 134-135; Trimble, Hero of the Air: Glenn Curtiss and the Birth of Naval Aviation, p. 100. One source indicates that the platform was twenty-five feet wide and eighty-five feet long. “Ely Flies From War Ship,”.Aeronautics, Vol. 7, No. 6 (December 1910), p. 195.

[70] Miller, Eugene Ely, Daredevil Aviator: First Shipboard Landing and Takeoff, p. 129.

[71] The Official Guide if the Railways and Steam Navigation Lines of the United States, Porto Rico, Canada, Mexico and Cuba (September 1910 edition), p. 1122; Alexander Crosby Brown, The Old Bay Line (Richmond, Virginia: The Dietz Press, Publishers, 1940), Appendix, p. 157; Miller, Eugene Ely, Daredevil Aviator: First Shipboard Landing and Takeoff, p. 135; Captain W. Irving Chambers, U. S. Navy, “Aviation and Aeroplanes,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 37, No. 1 (March 1911), pp. 174-175.

[72] “Ely Ready to Fly From Battleship,” The New York Times, November 14, 1910, p. 2; Glenn H. Curtiss and Augustus Post with Chapters by Captain Paul W. Beck, U.S.A., Lieutenant Theodore G. Ellyson, U.S.N., and Hugh Robinson, The Curtiss Aviation Book, p. 117; Rear Admiral George van Deurs, U. S. Navy (Retired), Wings for the Fleet: A Narrative of Naval Aviation’s Early Development, 1910-1916, p. 18; “Ely Flies From War Ship,”.Aeronautics, Vol. 7, No. 6 (December 1910), p. 195; Captain W. Irving Chambers, U. S. Navy, “Aviation and Aeroplanes,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 37, No. 1 (March 1911), pp. 174-175, 176, 177; Miller, Eugene Ely, Daredevil Aviator: First Shipboard Landing and Takeoff, pp. 135-136, 137.

[73] Albert Whiting Fox, “Ely’s Flight from the ‘Birmingham,’” The Air-Scout, Vol. 1, No. 2 (December 1910), pp. 12, 13.

[74] Rear Admiral George van Deurs, U. S. Navy (Retired), Wings for the Fleet: A Narrative of Naval Aviation’s Early Development, 1910-1916, p. 19.

[75] “Ely Ready to Fly From Battleship,” The New York Times, November 14, 1910, p. 2; Rear Admiral George van Deurs, U. S. Navy (Retired), Wings for the Fleet: A Narrative of Naval Aviation’s Early Development, 1910-1916, p. 19; Captain W. Irving Chambers, U. S. Navy, “Aviation and Aeroplanes,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 37, No. 1 (March 1911), p. 174; Miller, Eugene Ely, Daredevil Aviator: First Shipboard Landing and Takeoff, p. 136.

[76] Columbia Daily Spectator, Vol. LIV, No. 41, (November 15, 1910), p. 1.

[77] Rear Admiral George van Deurs, U. S. Navy (Retired), Wings for the Fleet: A Narrative of Naval Aviation’s Early Development, 1910-1916, p. 19; Captain W. Irving Chambers, U. S. Navy, “Aviation and Aeroplanes,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 37, No. 1 (March 1911), pp. 174-175;  “Ely Flies in Fog From Ship to Land,” The New York Times, November 15, 1910, p. 1; “He Flies from Ship,” The Washington Post, November 15, 1910, p. 1; “Ely Flies From War Ship,”. Aeronautics, Vol. 7, No. 6 (December 1910), p. 195; Albert Whiting Fox, “Ely’s Flight from the ‘Birmingham,’” The Air-Scout, Vol. 1, No. 2 (December 1910), p. 13; Army and Navy Register, Vol. 48 (November 19, 1910), p. 13; Mortimer, Chasing Icarus: The Seventeen Days in 1910 That Forever Changed American Aviation, p. 253.

[78] Rear Admiral George van Deurs, U. S. Navy (Retired), Wings for the Fleet: A Narrative of Naval Aviation’s Early Development, 1910-1916, p. 19; Captain W. Irving Chambers, U. S. Navy, “Aviation and Aeroplanes,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 37, No. 1 (March 1911), p. 175; Albert Whiting Fox, “Ely’s Flight from the ‘Birmingham,’” The Air-Scout, Vol. 1, No. 2 (December 1910), p. 13; Glenn H. Curtiss and Augustus Post with Chapters by Captain Paul W. Beck, U.S.A., Lieutenant Theodore G. Ellyson, U.S.N., and Hugh Robinson, The Curtiss Aviation Book (New York, Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1912), pp. 117-118. Regarding the Washington’s movements see Annual Reports of the Navy Department for the Fiscal Year 1911 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1912), p. 129

[79] Rear Admiral George van Deurs, U. S. Navy (Retired), Wings for the Fleet: A Narrative of Naval Aviation’s Early Development, 1910-1916, pp.19, 20; Albert Whiting Fox, “Ely’s Flight from the ‘Birmingham,’” The Air-Scout, Vol. 1, No. 2 (December 1910), p. 13; Captain W. Irving Chambers, U. S. Navy, “Aviation and Aeroplanes,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 37, No. 1 (March 1911), p. 177; Army and Navy Register, Vol. 48 (November 19, 1910), p. 13.

[80] Rear Admiral George van Deurs, U. S. Navy (Retired), Wings for the Fleet: A Narrative of Naval Aviation’s Early Development, 1910-1916, pp. 20, 21; Glenn H. Curtiss and Augustus Post with Chapters by Captain Paul W. Beck, U.S.A., Lieutenant Theodore G. Ellyson, U.S.N., and Hugh Robinson, The Curtiss Aviation Book, p. 118; Captain W. Irving Chambers, U. S. Navy, “Aviation and Aeroplanes,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 37, No. 1 (March 1911), pp. 175-176; “Ely Flies in Fog From Ship to Land,” The New York Times, November 15, 1910, p. 1; “He Flies from Ship,” The Washington Post, November 15, 1910, p. 1; “Ely Flies From War Ship,”.Aeronautics, Vol. 7, No. 6 (December 1910), p. 195; Albert Whiting Fox, “Ely’s Flight from the ‘Birmingham,’” The Air-Scout, Vol. 1, No. 2 (December 1910), pp. 13, 45; Army and Navy Register, Vol. 48 (November 19, 1910), p. 13; Polmar, Aircraft Carriers: A History of Carrier Aviation and Its Influence on World Events Vol. 1, 1909-1945, p. 5; Miller, Eugene Ely, Daredevil Aviator: First Shipboard Landing and Takeoff, pp. 136, 137, 138; Trimble, Hero of the Air: Glenn Curtiss and the Birth of Naval Aviation, p. 101.  “The United States Aeronautical Reserve will present an award of Five Hundred Dollars to the first aviator, who as a member of the United States Aeronautical Reserve makes a successful get-a-way from any vessel of the merchant marine and makes a safe landing on shore, provided said vessel be one mile or more from shore.” The Air-Scout, Vol. 1, No. 2 (December 1910), p. 37.

[81] Rear Admiral George van Deurs, U. S. Navy (Retired), Wings for the Fleet: A Narrative of Naval Aviation’s Early Development, 1910-1916, p. 21.

[82] Miller, Eugene Ely, Daredevil Aviator: First Shipboard Landing and Takeoff, pp. 138, 139.

[83] Stein, From Torpedoes to Aviation: Washington Irving Chambers and Technological Innovation in the New Navy, 1876-1913, p. 162.

[84] Miller, Eugene Ely, Daredevil Aviator: First Shipboard Landing and Takeoff, p. 138; Rear Admiral George van Deurs, U. S. Navy (Retired), Wings for the Fleet: A Narrative of Naval Aviation’s Early Development, 1910-1916, pp. 20, 21; Captain W. Irving Chambers, U. S. Navy, “Aviation and Aeroplanes,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 37, No. 1 (March 1911), pp. 175-176; “Ely Flies in Fog From Ship to Land,” The New York Times, November 15, 1910, p. 1; “He Flies from Ship,” The Washington Post, November 15, 1910, p. 1; “Ely Flies From War Ship,”.Aeronautics, Vol. 7, No. 6 (December 1910), p. 195; Albert Whiting Fox, “Ely’s Flight from the ‘Birmingham,’” The Air-Scout, Vol. 1, No. 2 (December 1910), pp. 13, 45.

[85] Rear Admiral George van Deurs, U. S. Navy (Retired), Wings for the Fleet: A Narrative of Naval Aviation’s Early Development, 1910-1916, p. 21; “He Flies from Ship,” The Washington Post, November 15, 1910, p. 1; “Aeroplanes for Army Purposes,” The New York Times, January 15, 1911, p. C8; Mortimer, Chasing Icarus: The Seventeen Days in 1910 That Forever Changed American Aviation, p. 253;  “Ely Flies in Fog From Ship to Land,” The New York Times, November 15, 1910, p. 1.

[86] Glenn H. Curtiss and Augustus Post with Chapters by Captain Paul W. Beck, U.S.A., Lieutenant Theodore G. Ellyson, U.S.N., and Hugh Robinson, The Curtiss Aviation Book, p. 118; “Ely Flies From War Ship,”.Aeronautics, Vol. 7, No. 6 (December 1910), p. 195.

[87] Miller, Eugene Ely, Daredevil Aviator: First Shipboard Landing and Takeoff, p. 138.

[88] Miller, Eugene Ely, Daredevil Aviator: First Shipboard Landing and Takeoff, pp. 140, 141.

[89] Army and Navy Register, Vol. 48, November 19, 1910, p. 12; Albert Whiting Fox, “Ely’s Flight from the ‘Birmingham,’” The Air-Scout, Vol. 1, No. 2 (December 1910), p. 45; The Air-Scout, Vol. 1, No. 2 (December 1910), p. 37/

[90] Stein, From Torpedoes to Aviation: Washington Irving Chambers and Technological Innovation in the New Navy, 1876-1913, p. 162.

[91] “Ely to Fly to Ship,” The New York Times, November 24, 1910, p. 1.

[92] “Navy Wants Aviation Funds,” The New York Times, November 24, 1910, p. 18.

[93] Turnbull and Lord, History of United States Naval Aviation, p. 11;Albert Whiting Fox, “Ely’s Flight from the ‘Birmingham,’” The Air-Scout, Vol. 1, No. 2 (December 1910), p. 45.

[94] Annual Reports of the Navy Department for the Fiscal Year 1910, House of Representatives, 61st Congress, 3rd Session, Document No. 1005 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1910), p. 23.

[95] Glenn H. Curtiss and Augustus Post with Chapters by Captain Paul W. Beck, U.S.A., Lieutenant Theodore G. Ellyson, U.S.N., and Hugh Robinson, The Curtiss Aviation Book, pp. 118-119.

[96] Stein, From Torpedoes to Aviation: Washington Irving Chambers and Technological Innovation in the New Navy, 1876-1913, p. 163.

[97] “John Barry Ryan, Ex-Banker Dead,” The New York Times, February 10, 1942, p. 20.

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