- California State Military
- The California
- Preserving California's
- Californians and the Military
- Theodore Gordon Ellyson, Commander,
- "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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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