A daring takeoff from a Hampton Roads ship paved the way for the aircraft carrier
By Mark St. John Erickson | Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) | Published: November 13, 2013
One hundred and three years before the Navy christened its newest aircraft carrier in Newport News this week, the pioneering flight that proved shipboard takeoffs possible lifted off from a cruiser anchored in Hampton Roads.
Eugene Ely barely survived his hair-raising plunge into the tops of the waves, which damaged his propeller and drenched his struggling Curtiss pusher biplane with spray. But within seconds he began to climb, signaling the momentous first step toward the creation of the aircraft carrier and the revolution that changed the face of naval warfare.
"Daring man-bird makes first flight," an Associated Press writer reported in the Daily Press, describing the historic test that took place on Nov. 14, 1910 just a quarter mile from the Hotel Chamberlin at Old Point Comfort.
Eugene Ely with his Curtiss pusher biplane, circa 1911
"The aeroplane must be taken seriously in the naval warfare of the future."
The roots of Ely's feat reach back to October 1910, when the flying skills the former chauffeur and automobile racer demonstrated at the International Air Meet in New York caught the eye of Navy Capt. Washington I. Chambers.
A couple of weeks later they met again at an air show in Baltimore, at which time Ely -- hearing that Chambers had been charged with exploring the concept of taking off from a ship -- volunteered to pilot an attempt.
Fitted out with an 83-foot-long ramp, the USS Birmingham left the Norfolk navy yard on a blustery Monday morning, encountering fog, intermittent rain and even occasional small hail as it steamed across Hampton Roads in the company of two destroyers, two torpedo boats and a flotilla of other smaller vessels.
Nearly 4 hours passed as Ely readied his machine and waited for a break in the weather.
Then, at about 3:16 p.m., he seized an opportunity between rain showers, getting into his plane and gunning his engine while the cruiser was still motionless.
Releasing his brakes, he roared down the wooden incline, plunging nearly 40 feet to the surface of the water before -- at the last second -- he wrestled his vibrating aircraft into a climb.
Observers watching from a dozen boats gave out "an involuntary sigh" as the plane's wheels and propeller splashed through the waves, the AP writer reported.
Flying spray drenched Ely's googles, making it impossible to see as he wrenched his struggling airplane from the grip of Hampton Roads and into a long slow climb.
After his flight, Ely "said he was not fond of the water," the writer reported, not knowing at the time that the pilot could not swim.
"But he conquered his fears long enough to remain over it in the fog and accomplished his purpose."
Dogged by a broken propeller, Ely changed his flight plan immediately, circling back over the Chesapeake Bay at an altitude of about 500 feet and landing at Willoughby Spit after only 5 minutes in the air.
But every observer knew that -- as with the first battle of the ironclads nearly 50 years earlier -- the waters of Hampton Roads had provided the setting for a landmark moment.
"When Mr. Ely flew with such ease from a standing ship, it showed beyond doubt that his task would have been much simpler if the Birmingham had been moving," Chambers said.
In fact, the flight was much more successful than he had anticipated, the Navy officer added.
Just over 2 months later, Ely added to his resume of landmark feats by making the first shipboard landing on a second specially outfitted Navy cruiser anchored in San Francisco Bay.
"It was easy enough," he said after his plane touched down and came to a stop in the grip of the Navy's first tailhook arresting system.
"I think the trick could be successfully turned nine times out of ten."
Still, the courageous young man who took some of the most important first steps in naval aviation failed to live out the year.
Crashing into the ground during an October air show in Macon, Ga., he managed to step out of his wrecked plane.
But he died a few minutes later of a broken neck.
Nearly 25 years later, Congress recognized his achievements with a posthumous Distinguished Flying Cross.
The citation singled him out for both his "extraordinary achievement as a pioneer civilian aviator and his significant contribution to the development of aviation in the United States Navy."