Eugene Ely performed the first shipboard aircraft take-off and landing.Image sourced from Ancient US-Navy saylor (uploaded by W.wolny) (US Navy Photo #: NH 77601) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A keen salesman, racing driver and mechanic, Eugene Ely also had natural skills as an aviator that were to fame him as one of the greatest aviation pioneers in history.
Young and ambitious, in the early months of 1910 when he worked for Mr. Wemme as an auto salesman, he taught himself to fly using the Curtiss biplane Mr. Wemme had bought.
After mastering the art of flying the aircraft in only a few months, Ely never looked back.
He flew to Minnesota to attend an exhibition, and it was here he met Glenn Curtiss and became a well-known pilot within the Curtiss Exhibition Team receiving an Aero Club of America pilot’s license, No. 17 on the 5th October 1910.
In the same month, both Ely and Curtiss had made their acquaintance with Captain Washington I. Chambers who had recently been asked by the Navy to identify how the study of aviation could benefit problems in naval warfare. Chambers realised in order to prove aeroplanes could operate at sea, successful take-offs and landings from ships had to be achieved.
Naturally, Ely jumped at this challenge.
On November 14th 1910, Ely’s Curtiss aircraft was hoisted aboard the USS Birmingham at Norfolk before a temporary wooden platform and the ship readied for the experiment at Chesapeake Bay. It was an unsteady take-off where the aircraft literally plunged off the edge of the ship’s bow. The wheels dipped and skimmed the sea, breaking off one of the propeller blades. Ely managed to steady the aircraft, remain airborne for a further 2 miles, and land safely on the sandy beach at Willoughby Bay.
He became the first man to take-off from a ship and land safely afterwards at just 24 years old with only a few months of flying experience.