The third week of March marks the 100th anniversary of America’s first aircraft carrier. He ushered in a new era in warfare and forever changed the way an enemy could be defeated. What does that have to do with Iowa, 1,500 miles from the nearest ocean?
See, he’s an unassuming farm boy from the Hawkeye State who proved it’s possible to get off the deck of a ship and successfully stay aloft over water. . It seems so routine today in warplanes powered by twin jets delivering 50,000 pounds of thrust, but back in the days of cloth wings and a four-lung gasoline engine generating only 40 horsepower, that was not the case. was not so easy.
Eugene Ely was born on October 21, 1886 on a farm near Williamsburg. He excelled in things mechanical, repairing and improving all forms of tools and the few internal combustion engines that existed in rural Iowa at the time. Recognized as a brilliant “fixer,” Ely enrolled at Iowa State University as a teenager and earned an engineering degree in 1904. He sold “bulked” motorcycles and automobiles and eventually learned to fly planes.
Glenn Curtiss, generally credited as the second American to build and fly a heavier-than-air flying machine, hired Ely to join Curtiss on his nationwide tour flying in major cities and small airfields across the country. .
It was while piloting one of the first “Pusher” biplanes made by Curtiss at an exhibition in late 1910 in Belmont Park, New York, that Captain Washington Chambers, president of the United States Navy Aeronautical Bureau, saw firsthand Ely’s mastery of the aircraft and asked the young Iowa aviator to serve as a test pilot for the Navy.
Ely agreed, and Chambers convinced the War Department (the predecessor of the current Department of Defense) to allocate $25,000 for aviation under the command of the Bureau of Navigation. Wanting to immediately prove the concept of an aircraft taking off from a ship, on November 14, two weeks after meeting Chambers, Ely’s Curtiss aircraft was loaded onto an eighty-foot wooden deck built over from the bow of the Navy cruiser, USS Birmingham, and, amid threatening gray skies, raced down the makeshift platform at full speed.
Once short of the runway, the aircraft fell out of sight, unable to be seen from the deck of the ship, until Ely finally gained enough air under its wings to rise above- over the bay of Hampton Roads, and banked his plane to a safe landing. on a flat beach within three miles of the vessel.
Along the way, her plane had plunged so low that her propeller broke at the end when she hit a wave on the surface of the water and the jet of it covered her goggles until until they are covered with an impenetrable vapor film. Because of this, as he detached himself from his seat on the lower wing and was greeted by naval officials, he considered the flight a failure.
Fortunately for him, and the evolution of modern warfare, the Navy did not. The event was heralded by the Bureau of Navigation as proof that an airplane could take off from a ship at sea, and the accomplishment was touted as the start of a new era in aeronautics.
The victory was only half sweet, however. Checking that the same aircraft could land on a waterborne vessel was imperative or the whole experience was moot.
As such, the Navy again contracted with Ely and outfitted the largest armored cruiser, USS Pennsylvania, with a 120-foot-long wooden deck, with ropes attached to sandbags. to grab specially designed hooks on the landing gear and bring the plane to a stop. If that didn’t work, the center section of the cruiser had padded sheets raised to cushion the blow of a crash landing. Ely wore a rubber inner tube around his chest, just to be on the safe side.
In San Francisco on the morning of January 18, 1911, Ely pushed his Pusher, modified with a new 70-horsepower engine, along the grass of Golden Gate’s Tanforan Racetrack, then took off at lightning speed from sixty miles an hour. He waved to the crowd of thousands gathered to see him off, then circled to line up for his disembarkation on the ship at anchor in the bay.
As he approached, Ely cut the plane’s engine just as he reached the leading edge of the deck, poked his nose slightly downward, and sat up like a feather. The hooks caught the ropes and within 30 feet Ely and his plane came to a stop.
The Navy, however, despite this celebrated achievement, initially balked, debating the value of the lesson Ely had taught the industry. Concerned about costs, and pending the development of more powerful engines and equipment, the military finally authorized the creation of a warship to serve as a floating air base.
In 1920, the collier USS Jupiter (which had crossed the Atlantic several times as a cargo carrier during World War I), was stripped of her upper decks, replaced by a 500-foot-long flat wooden runway . It took two years for a complete refit of the ship, and by the time it was completed it could carry 55 aircraft and a complement of 500 sailors and airmen.
On March 20, 1922, the Secretary of the Navy commissioned the one-of-a-kind ship and named it USS Langley. The world had its first aircraft carrier…and it was all made possible by a talented farm boy from the small, landlocked town of Williamsburg, Iowa.
Unfortunately, Ely never had the chance to witness this historic moment. Exactly a year after the opening of the Belmont Air Show, which had started his Navy career, he was performing at an air meet in Macon, Georgia, and lost control of his plane. He fell, crumpled, into the ground, and at age 24 the air force lost one of its pioneering heroes.
His body was taken back to Williamsburg and he was buried with full military honors. Today a small granite stone marks his grave outside Williamsburg, but in a larger sense his true memorial is the 90,000 ton floating city fleet 1,000 feet long and 250 feet wide which carry nearly 100 aircraft and 4,500 crew to defend. freedom all over the world.
David V. Wendell is a Marion historian, author, and special events coordinator specializing in American history.