main story image for facebook sharing

Around The Fleet

Happy Birthday, Naval Aviation

Four Key Moments in the Early History of Naval Flight

A hastily constructed 120-foot platform stretched off the hulking cruiser USS Pennsylvania (ACR 4), forming a crude runway high above the choppy waters of the San Francisco Bay.

Crowds lined the shore and boats bobbed in the water all around the Pennsylvania, every eye turned skyward, waiting for the historic moment when a plane would break through the clouds and approach the ship for landing, Jan. 18, 1911.

It would be a seminal moment in the history of not only naval aviation, but flight in general, the event that would decide the future of planes in the Navy. It was a success, and some four months later, May 8, 1911, the Navy would requisition its first airplane, a date commemorated as the birthday of naval aviation. After a slow start, the technology hit its stride during the Great War, and the face of warfare would change forever.

First Landing on a Ship

After spending several years attending flight tests and air shows, Navy planners knew that for airplanes to be useful to the service, pilots had to be able to take off from and land on ships. Capt. Washington Chambers, who oversaw the development of naval aviation, had an 85-foot platform constructed on the cruiser USS Birmingham (CL 2) in 1910, according to the National Naval Aviation Museum.

When one of Glenn Curtiss' exhibition pilots, Eugene Ely, taxied off the ship, Nov. 14, his airplane, which had been equipped with floats under the wings, rolled off the platform and skipped over the water. Despite a damaged propeller, Ely managed to stay airborne for some 2 and a half miles, demonstrating that planes could indeed take off from ships.
Three photo collage of early aircraft carrier landings and takeoffs.

"The aeroplane must be taken seriously in the naval warfare of the future," wrote the Associated Press, according to Virginia's Daily Press.

Chambers then had the extension built on the Pennsylvania, complete with a series of cables strung across the deck, according to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Wearing a padded helmet and bicycle inner tubes around his body for protection, Ely approached the Pennsylvania at a speed of about 40 mph, Jan. 18, 1911, his plane outfitted with steel hooks to catch the lines. He landed safely to the cheers of the crowd, ate lunch, posed for photographs, then took off from the ship.

"It was easy enough," the Daily Press reported him saying. "I think the trick could be successfully turned nine times out of ten."
Two photo collage of Eugene Ely.

Ely died in a plane crash in October 1911, and was posthumously awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross in the 1930s.

The Navy commissioned its first aircraft carrier, USS Langley (CV 1), in the 1920s.

First Navy Aviator

January 1911 boasted another naval aviation milestone when Lt. Theodore "Spuds" Ellyson reported for Curtiss' flight school, making him the first official Navy pilot, one who would make a career out of flight breakthroughs. Indeed, according to the Naval Aviation Hall of Fame, his own wife said he "liked being first" and constantly pushed himself to do "something somebody else hadn't done."

Ellyson was the first naval pilot to fly at night and the first to land on the water in the dark. He and Curtiss collaborated on a pontoon design for airplanes, and Ellyson also helped demonstrate the use of floatplanes on ships when his aircraft was hoisted to and subsequently lowered from USS Pennsylvania in February 1911.
Two photo collage of Lt. Theodore “Spuds” Ellyson.

That October, he and Lt. J.H. Towers made what was then the longest over-water flight, following the Chesapeake Bay from Annapolis, Maryland, to just outside of Fort Monroe, Virginia. Ellyson also flew the first airplanes successfully launched from both wire cables and catapults.

The Hall of Fame said Ellyson was also instrumental in developing requirements for special flight clothing: "a light helmet with detachable goggles or visor, with covering for the ears and yet holes so that the engine could be heard; a leather coat lined with fur or wool; leather trousers; high rubber galoshes and gauntlets; and a life preserver. He also prepared the first check-off lists for inspecting an aircraft after its assembly and prior to each flight."

During World War I, Ellyson returned to sea duty, serving in a submarine chaser squadron out of Plymouth, England, for which he received the Navy Cross. After a stint as a military advisor in Brazil in the 1920s, Ellyson helped outfit USS Lexington (CV 2), one of the Navy's early aircraft carriers, eventually becoming the ship's executive officer.

Ellyson died in a plane crash over the Chesapeake Bay, Feb. 27, 1928, and was commemorated in 1941, when the destroyer USS Ellyson (DD 454) was named in his honor.

World War I

When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the Navy boasted just 38 aviators, none of whom had been trained to fly in combat conditions. By the date of the armistice, Nov. 11, 1918, those numbers had risen to 1,650 aviators, plus about 4,000 students and 37,000 enlisted personnel, according to "A History of U.S. Naval Aviation," written by Marine Corps Capt. W.H. Sitz in the 1930s. The Navy even had its own aircraft factory.
Two photo collage of WWI aircraft and mounted machine gun.

While Navy airplanes weren't yet dogfighting with the enemy during the Great War, they still performed key duties for the Allies, particularly air patrols and submarine spotting. In fact, a detachment of naval aviators was the first American military unit to arrive in Europe for service ashore.

"This is when naval aviation comes to the fore," pointed out Dennis M. Conrad of the Navy's History and Heritage Command. "We were using planes and dirigibles and kite balloons to try and scout."

You could see the submarines just below the surface or you could see them on the surface. So they did patrolling as well ... and actually would bomb them."
-Dennis M. Conrad

For example, France-based aviators sighted 27 submarines, attacked 25, damaged 12 and probably sank 4, in addition to destroying a large number of drifting mines, according to Sitz. Pilots stationed in the British Isles damaged additional submarines and helped convoy thousands of Allied ships, while many also served with British forces. Meanwhile, Navy pilots in Italy conducted air raids against the Austrians, even shooting down an enemy plane.

About 200 naval aviators and enlisted airmen died during the war, both at home and overseas.

First Trans-Atlantic Flight

The technological improvement in the years surrounding the war was incredible, Conrad said: "Aircraft went from being very primitive to ... sophisticated," so sophisticated that Navy pilots made the first trans-Atlantic flight in May 1919, via Navy Curtiss flying boats, which were about 68 feet long and capable of flying 85 mph.

"They couldn't pull a [Charles] Lindberg and do it nonstop," he said, "but they took airplanes and went all the way from the United States over to Europe. So the technology for airplanes was significantly better."
Two photo collage of trans-Atlantic crossings.

Three flying boats departed from Long Island, New York, May 8, heading to Portugal via Newfoundland and the Azores - a route that promised the shortest stages, with ships shadowing the aircraft from below, just in case. It was foggy and stormy over the Atlantic, however, and between poor visibility and mechanical problems, one plane had to be picked up at sea and one made a water landing and eventually floated into port, leaving the third, called NC-4, to continue the historic journey.

"There were no guiding lights, the mid-Atlantic pinnacles were misty with the shrouds of fog," Cmdr. Ted Wilbur wrote of the flying boat's approach to the Azores, May 17, in a 1969 history of the trip. "Along rocky promontories, drizzle pierced low-lying clouds. A murky, thickening overcast had settled."

... Before noon, visibility on the island of Fayal was reduced to one or two miles. A west wind swept foggy blankets onto the southern shores, while turbulent air, spilling down from the mountains, created a sporadic breeze along the coast." -Cmdr. Ted Wilbur

The NC-4 made it to Lisbon, May 27. It was a breakthrough in the history of flight, but one that was overshadowed by the war that had just ended and the flying milestones that piled up after, said Wilber.
Photo of trans-Atlantic flight crew.

He quoted Charles Lindbergh, who made his solo crossing of the Atlantic eight years later, as saying, "I had a better chance of reaching Europe in the Spirit of St. Louis than the NC boats had of reaching the Azores. I had a more reliable type of engine, improved instruments and a continent instead of an island for a target. It was skill, determination and a hard-working crew that carried the NC-4 to the competition of the fast transatlantic flight."

The NC-4's commander, Lt. Cmdr. Albert C. Read, put it down to "a continuous run of unadulterated luck."

Learn more about naval aviation at Navy History and Heritage Command.