Californians and the Military
Theodore Gordon Ellyson, Commander, U.S.N.
"Submariner" and "Naval Aviator Number One"
An Adaptation from Biography provided by the National Aviation Hall of Fame
Naval Aviation officially began in January 1911 at North Island, San Diego, California, when a young submariner, Lieutenant Theodore Gordon Ellyson, reported for aviation duty.

Theodore Gordon Ellyson, the son of Henry Theodore Ellyson and Lizzie (Walker) Ellyson, was born in Richmond, Virginia, on February 27, 1885. He entered the U. S. Naval Academy from the Third District of Virginia in June 1901, and graduated with the Class of 1905.

During the five years following his graduation from the Naval Academy he served consecutively at sea aboard the Battleship USS MISSOURI, and as Watch and Division Officer of the armored cruisers USS PENNSYLVANIA, and the USS COLORADO. The submarine service was in its infancy when he reported to the submarine tender USS RAINBOW in April 1907. From there he volunteered for submarine duty and was assigned to the submarine USS SHARK in the Asiatic. He was advanced from Ensign to Lieutenant, junior grade, on January 31, 1910, and after returning to the United States in April 1910, he commanded the submarine USS TARANTULA and was advanced to Lieutenant on September 16, 1910. In November 1910, he was assigned to the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, Newport News, Virginia, were he had duty in connection with fitting out the submarine, USS SEAL, and commanded her briefly after her commissioning on December 2, 1910.

In late 1910, the Secretary of the Navy designated Captain Washington Irving Chambers as the officer to inform himself upon progress in aviation. Almost alone in his belief that aviation would be of great benefit to the Navy, Chambers decided that convincing demonstrations of the use of aircraft in conjunction with Naval vessels would bring this benefit in to sharp focus. He arranged to have Glenn Hammond Curtiss fly one of his airplanes from the deck of cruiser USS BIRMINGHAM, a task which fell upon Eugene Burton Ely (the subject of another article). The Navy was greatly impressed when, on November 14, 1910, Eugene Ely, flying a 50 horsepower Curtiss pusher airplane, took off from a special platform constructed on the deck of the BIRMINGHAM anchored in Hampton Roads, Virginia. This event provided great impetus to the interest of the Navy in aviation and events moved much faster from this point on.

Late in 1910, Glenn Curtiss had established a flight training school at North Island, San Diego, California. On November 29 he wrote to the Secretary of the Navy offering "to instruct an officer of the Navy" in the operation and construction of the Curtiss aeroplane as one means of assisting "in developing the adaptability of the aeroplane to military purposes." This offer was made free of charge as there were no funds for such instruction available. As a result, Lieutenant Ellyson volunteered and received orders on December 23, 1910, to report to the Glenn Curtiss Aviation Camp at North Island, San Diego, California, to undergo flight training. Arriving in California in January 1911, Ellyson became the first Naval officer assigned to aviation.

Before his flight training started, Ellyson assisted Curtiss in further demonstrating the military value of the airplane in warfare. He did this by making suggestions regarding the use and placement of the sandbag arresting gear used by Eugene Ely in his successful landing and take-off from the afterdeck of the anchored USS PENNSYLVANIA on January 18, 1911, during the San Francisco Air Meet. This event further demonstrated the potential use of airplanes for Naval operations and set the stage for the aircraft carriers of the future.

On the day Eugene Ely made the above demonstration, Ellyson and Curtiss had arrived back in San Diego to undertake experiments and instructions at North Island. Although Ely had successfully demonstrated the ability of an airplane to land on and take off from a ship, Curtiss had also been experimenting with the concept float planes. Captain Chambers believed that an airplane able to land and take off from the water itself, rather than from the deck of a ship would be beneficial because "it would simplify the aerodrome problem for us." After receiving this message, Curtiss successfully developed and flew an airplane equipped with floats, which he called a "hydro-aeroplane," later becoming known as a "seaplane" from the water at North Island on January 26, 1911. This important step in adapting aircraft to Naval needs was witnessed by Lieutenant Ellyson who had assisted in preparing the seaplane for tests. Six days later a single float was successfully tested in place of the tandem floats used in the first flight, thereby, establishing a basic aircraft float arrangement.

Ellyson's instructions at North Island began with "the details of the aeroplane, the construction, wiring, bracing and engine details." He then progressed to use of the grass cutter, an eight cylinder machine with only a four cylinder engine and with the throttle blocked so that it could only be opened half way. He reported that when running over the polo ground at Coronado, the block under the throttle fell out. In his own words, "shortly afterwards I hit a bump causing me to fall back in the seat, at the same time elevating the front control and before I realized it I was fifteen feet in the air and in making a landing broke one wing of the machine." In February Ellyson commenced serious flight training using the four cylinder machine for ground runs and then progressing through short jumps, longer jumps and straight away flights of up to a mile and a half. In March he began using the eight cylinder machine and making turns. Finally on March 31 he reported, "in my opinion and that of Mr. Curtiss, I have qualified in practical aviation under favorable weather conditions. I have had no practice in flying the hydro-aeroplane."

In addition to his training, Ellyson assisted Curtiss with other demonstrations of the value of the seaplane, and cooperated to demonstrate it dramatically to the Navy. On February 17, 1911, Curtiss taxied his seaplane to the battleship USS PENNSYLVANIA anchored in San Diego Bay. A boat crane was used to hoist the seaplane aboard the ship. Later, the seaplane was lowered to the water and Curtiss returned to North Island. This was the first demonstration for the Navy showing the practicability of the seaplane.

Ellyson, while still a student of Curtiss', cooperated in the design of pontoons for the seaplanes and also became the first seaplane passenger when he made a flight on February 23, with Curtiss at the 4 controls of a "hydro-triplane" over North Island. Inspired by this success, Curtiss and his associates further advanced Naval Aviation when he demonstrated the first amphibian airplane on February 25, 1911, by taking off and alighting both on land and water.

In March 1911, the Navy's Bureau of Navigation received an appropriation of $25,000 for experiments in aeronautics. Captain Chambers was transferred to the Bureau of Navigation and, seeing need to perfect the airplane, urged that a more scientific approach be used in the design and construction of airplanes for Naval use.

On May 8, 1911, Captain Chambers prepared requisitions for two Curtiss biplanes. One, a "Triad," was to be an amphibian equipped for arising from and alighting on land or water, with a metal tipped propeller, designed for a speed of at least 45 MPH, with provisions for carrying a passenger alongside the pilot and the controls to be operated by either pilot or passenger. This airplane later became the Navy's first airplane the A-1. Although these requisitions lacked proper signatures to direct the General Storekeeper to enter into a contract with Curtiss, they indicated the Navy's interest and decision to purchase aircraft for Naval use. This date of May 8 has come to be considered as the date of the Navy's first ordering of airplanes and has been officially proclaimed as the birthday of Naval Aviation.

On July 1, 1911, the first flight of the A-1 was made at Hammondsport, New York, when Glenn Curtiss took off at 6:51 p.m., from Lake Keuka and alighted 5 minutes later, having reached an altitude of 25 feet. Curtiss then took Ellyson aloft as a passenger and finally Ellyson made two flights alone in the A-1 that same evening. The following day Ely made two more flights in which he met the requirements and qualified under the rules of the Aero Club of America, and was granted its pilot certificate No. 28. He also received its expert aviator certificate No. 26.

By this time, two other Naval officers had also been ordered to flight training: Lt. John Rodgers with the Wright Brothers at Dayton, Ohio while Lt. (J.G.) J. H. Towers joined Ellyson at Curtiss' Hammondsport, New York plant. The Navy, in recognition of Ellyson seniority in flying, when it formally established a designation of Naval Aviator some years later, designated Ellyson as Naval Aviator No. 1.

On July 3, Ellyson made a night flight over Lake Keuka from Keuka to Hammondsport and without the aid of lights landed successfully on the water. These were the first night flights by a Naval aviator. On July 12, Curtiss demonstrated the amphibious features of the A-1 when he took off from land, lifted the wheels in flights and landed on the water of Lake Keuka. The following day, the Navy's second airplane, the A-2 was flown first by Curtiss, followed by Ellyson. Towers then began using it for the "grass cutting" phase of his training. About this same time, Captain Chambers had been ordered temporarily to the Naval Academy to establish an aviation experimental station and school at Greenbury Point. On August 23, Lt. Ellyson was also ordered to report for duty at the Academy to assist in the testing of engines and other experimental work in the development of aviation, including instruction at the Greenbury Point Aviation School.

For some time Ellyson along with Curtiss had been concerned with devising some means of launching an airplane to be launched from a Naval vessel. On September 7, 1911, they made a memorable experiment in the Navy's search for a shipboard launching device at Hammondsport, New York. Lt. Ellyson made a successful take-off in a Curtiss plane, equipped with a slotted pontoon, from an inclined three-wire cable runway which was rigged from a 16 foot high platform on the beach 250 feet into the water of Lake Keuka. Ellyson's report contained the following description of the run. "The engine was started and run at full speed and then I gave the signal to release the machine - I held the machine on the wire as long as possible as I wanted to be sure that I had enough headway to rise and not run the risk of the machine partly rising and then falling - everything happened so quickly and went off so smoothly that I hardly knew what happened except that I did have to use the ailerons, and that the machine was sensitive to their action." Ellyson alighted on the water thereby successfully demonstrating the possibility of ship board take-off and landing on water for seaplanes.

By now it was evident that water-flying was on a practical basis. A seaplane had operated alongside an armored cruiser, being hoisted aboard, and subsequently lowered to the water from where it made its way back to shore. With wheels attached, airplanes had taken off from the land, alighted on the water, taken off again and returned to land. Also, an airplane had been launched from a special rig showing that ingenious means could be used to put the airplane to work for the Navy.

Special clothing to be worn by the pilots was developing and plans to purchase flight clothing were described in a September 16, 1911 letter by Lt. Ellyson, who hoped to get the Navy Department to pay for them later. Requirements were outlined: 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. Lt. Ellyson while still at San Diego, had prepared the first check-off lists for inspecting an aircraft after its assembly and prior to each flight.

On October 25, Ellyson and Lieutenant J. H. Towers, on a flight in the Curtiss A-1 to test the durability of the aircraft on cross-country flights, took off from Annapolis and were forced down in the ocean by a leaking radiator near Milford Haven, Virginia. Having covered a distance of 112 miles in 122 minutes, they established an unofficial non-stop, two-man seaplane record. They taxied ashore through a six-foot surf with a twenty-mile wind astern. Continuing their journey, they covered an additional thirty-five miles in twenty-five minutes.

The winter of 1911 was again spent at the Curtiss School at San Diego conducting further experiments with hydroaeroplanes. This involved testing floats of different bottom designs and different arrangements (i.e. configurations) of installing floats under the flying machines.
In May 1912, Lt. Ellyson returned to Annapolis with other aviation personnel. By spring, Ellyson found that the Curtiss hydroaeroplane handled almost as easy as a boat. He looked forward to the day when ships would carry aeroplanes aboard and devoted more of his efforts to devising suitable catapult launching devices. On June 21, 1912, Ellyson ascended 900 feet over Annapolis in 3 minutes 30 seconds in the A-1.

The wire cable apparatus for launching seaplanes had been abandoned after a single test and a catapult launching device was developed at the Naval Gun Factory, Navy Yard, Washington, D. C. The catapult was powered by compressed air and was built from a plan proposed by Captain Chambers. On July 31, 1912, the first catapult launching of an airplane was attempted by Ellyson in the A-1. The catapult was mounted on a dock at Annapolis. The aircraft, not being secured to the catapult, reared at about mid-stroke of the catapult action and left the ramp nose up. It was caught in a crosswind and thrown into the water. Ellyson swam away from the wreckage wet, but unhurt. Naval aviation was still in the learn as-you-go phase, no matter what precautions were taken.

There exists little documentation of the succeeding steps, but from what we do know, Lieut. Ellyson spent much of the summer and Fall of 1912 at the Washington Navy Yard assisting Naval Constructor H. C. Richardson in designing and constructing an improved catapult. The new catapult was mounted on a barge at the Washington Navy Yard and on November 12, 1912, Lieut. Ellyson made the first successful launch of an airplane by catapult in the Curtiss AH-3. The following month Lieut. Ellyson also successfully made a catapult launch with the Navy's first flying boat the C-1.

That year, on November 15, 1912, Lieut. Ellyson married the lovely Helen Mildred Lewis Glenn. Following a brief honeymoon, on November 30, 1912 Ellyson tested the Navy's first flying boat, at Hammondsport, New York. His report on the plane's performance states: "circular climb: only one complete circle, 1,575 feet in 14 minutes 30 seconds fully loaded. On glide: approximately 5.3 to 1. Speed: eight runs over measured mile, 59.4 MPH fully loaded. The endurance test was not made, owing to the fact that the weather has not been favorable, and I did not like to delay any longer."

On January 6, 1913, the entire aviation element of the Navy, with the exception of Lieut. Ellyson who was invalided with a broken ankle (suffered while hurrying to catch a train), arrived at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and set up an aviation camp on Fisherman's Point. Ellyson joined Captain Chambers in the Bureau of Navigation, Navy Department, and assisted him in overall administration of Naval aviation and in providing special support need for the experimentation that was involved in Naval aviation's first operation with the Fleet. This operation, which included scouting missions and exercises in spotting submerged submarines as part of the fleet maneuvers, served both to demonstrate operational capabilities of the aircraft and to stimulate interest in aviation among fleet personnel, more than a hundred of whom were taken up for flights during the eight-week stay. Experimental work at Guantanamo included bombing, aerial photography and wireless transmission from airplanes.

On April 29, 1913, Lieut. Ellyson completed the period of his life which began in January 1911 during which he devoted all his time to active flying and experimental aeronautics. Ellyson then returned to sea duty, serving on battleships until July 1915. He was then assigned to the Naval Academy as an instructor and was advanced to Lieutenant Commander on May 23, 1917. In 1917 he had duty at the Naval Academy and with the Midshipmen on cruise in the USS WYOMING and USS KANSAS. On February l4, 1918, he was detached for duty at the Submarine Chaser Base, New London, Connecticut, and in June, arrived in London, England, for duty with a Submarine Chaser Squadron at the U. S. Naval Base at Plymouth, England.

For his war service, Lieut. Commander Ellyson was awarded the Navy Cross and cited, "For distinguished service in the line of his profession as Assistant for Operations to the Commander, Submarine Chaser Detachment One, and was largely responsible for the development of successful submarine chaser tactics and doctrine."

He advanced to Commander from July 1, 1918. Remaining in the European area until May 1919, Commander Ellyson assisted in placing captured German passenger liners in operation as troop transports by commanding the nucleus crew for the liner ZEPPELIN, and briefly commanding the ship. Upon his arrival in the United States, he assisted in fitting out the USS J. FRED TALBOT at the William Cramp and Sons Company, Philadelphia, and served on board that destroyer from her commissioning June 30, 1919 until July 1920. During the next four months, he successively commanded the USS LITTLE and USS BROOKS.

On January 10, 1921, he was ordered to Hampton Roads Virginia, to serve for eight months as Executive Officer of the Naval Air Station, Naval Operating Base. The Bureau of Aeronautics was established in the Navy Department on September 1, of that year, and on October 21, Commander Ellyson became Chief of the Plans Division of that Bureau. He remained in that assignment until December 1922, when he became the Aviation Member of a U. S. Naval Mission with the Brazilian Navy. He returned to the Bureau of Aeronautics in May 1925.

On July 20, 1925, he became Squadron Commander of VT-1 (Torpedo and Bombing Plane Squadron One). From March to June 1926, he was Executive Officer of the seaplane tender USS WRIGHT. On June 23, 1926, he was ordered to duty in connection with fitting out the USS LEXINGTON, the Navy's second aircraft carrier and was on board when she was placed in commission. The LEXINGTON and her sister ship, the USS SARATOGA, were originally designed for battle cruisers, but during their construction were changed to aircraft carriers as a result of the Limitation of Armament Treaty.

Commander Ellyson was killed on his forty-third birthday, February 27, 1928, in an airplane crash while on a night flight from Norfolk, Virginia to Annapolis, Maryland. In addition to the Navy Cross, Commander Ellyson had the Victory Medal, Submarine Chaser Clasp. He also held the distinction being one of the pioneers of the submarine force, having "qualified-in-submarines", and being assigned as Naval Aviator No. 1.

As a final note, on February 27, 1941, fifty-six years from the date of his birth and thirteen years after his death, announcement was made of the naming of a new auxiliary airfield at the Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida, ELLYSON FIELD, in his honor. And, just prior to World War II, the Navy named destroyer (DD-454), the USS ELLYSON, in honor of Commander Ellyson. When launched on July 5, 1941, she was christened by his daughter, Miss Gordon Ellyson. Commissioned on November 28, 1941, the ELLYSON had a distinguished World War II record, first in the Atlantic, and later the Pacific where she was designated as a destroyer mine sweeper (DMS-19). She served as the flagship of several Fleet Units from June 15, 1942, throughout the remainder of the war.
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Updated 8 February 2016