California Naval History
Fifth Division, California Naval Militia and Aviator Eugene Ely
By Captain George J. Albert Jr.
On 14 November 1910 Eugene Ely a Curtiss pilot, was the first pilot to take off from a ship when he flew from an 83 foot wooden deck platform built over the ram bow of the U.S. Navy cruiser Birmingham at Hampton Roads in Chesapeake Bay. For that flight Ely had used a four cylinder, water-cooled 50 Horse power Curtiss gasoline engine. Ely was also the first pilot to arrested land on and take off from a ship's flight deck. This occurred on 18 January 1911 when Eugene Ely successfully landed on and took off from the cruiser U.S.S. Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay.

For a week prior to Eugene Ely's arrival in Eureka the Humboldt Times newspaper ran a series of articles advertising the exhibition flights planned for the 27th and 28th of May 1911 including a 3" by 3" photograph of Ely's historic flight off the cruiser U.S.S. Birmingham. Some local Eureka businessmen had planned this exhibition as a moneymaking proposition, which in the end turned out to be a failure for the backers.

On the 26th of May 1911 Eugene Ely, in company with his wife, her young sister Mercy Hall, his manager Norman Devaux, and two mechanics: W. Hoff and P. J. Rooney arrived on the steamer Iaqua in Humboldt Bay. With them was a Curtiss pusher aeroplane crated and with at least 4 extra engines. This group was met at dockside by the Fifth Division California Naval Militia (Eureka), City dignitaries, businessmen and a crowd of over 100 people.

Arrangements were made to lodge the Curtiss party at the Vance Hotel. In the mean time the two mechanics traveled with the crated Curtiss aeroplane and extra engines to New Era Park on the Samoa Peninsula for the flights to be held on the 27th and 28th of May 1911 at 2:00 o'clock in the afternoon. There was some concern about the strong winds blowing, reported at 45 miles an hour. Mr. Ely stated he had made flights in wind over 60 miles per hour, and did not see a problem, although he preferred little or no wind for his flights.

Eugene Ely made good on the intended flight becoming air-borne at 2:43 on the 27th of May 1911. He rose to between 1,000 and 1,200 feet from the 200 or so feet of cleared ground that was his runway. Ely was in the air 15 minutes, his flights were made in circles, down toward Samoa, over the old Consumers' mill, then seaward to a point about 1/4 mile west of the aviation field, then east. This imaginary track Ely circled 4 times averaging about 50 miles an hour due the 45 mile an hour wind.

On the 28th of May Ely made two exhibition flights, one in the morning shortly before 11:00. He stayed up for 15 minutes only due to the heavy fog. He rose to a height of 1,000 feet and circled the field and Humboldt Bay. In the afternoon Ely ascended again at 2:30. On this flight Ely performed a number of beautiful curves and dips to the delight of the crowd. He became an instant hero to all those who had the pleasure of watching his aerobatic displays. Ely had no trouble with any of his engines during these flights, which said a lot for the Curtiss engines.

The crowd was spellbound by the wonderful work of the aviator. His control over the machine was marvelous. His descent was most spectacular. Circling the field twice he gradually dipped the planes of his aeroplane and came to earth in almost the exact spot he had taken off from. Ely flew using the inline 6-cylinder engine, the Curtiss V-8 engine and a 7-cylinder radial engine.

Ely was immediately made the center of an admiring crowd. His wife however, was the last to bid him adieu and the first to greet him on his descent. Mrs. Ely was a petite little brunette, with big black eyes. She took a serious interest in all her husbands' flights, and saw the future of the aeroplane, as a useful commodity.

The flight on the 28th was as successful as that of the 27th and was on time and without incident. All through out these flights the Fifth Division was on hand and lent what assistance they could. With Curtiss' interest in selling his aeroplane to the Navy, it is obvious that the Officers of the Fifth Division were given special treatment. This event probably had a profound influence on a young Lieutenant Junior Grade Adolph B. Adams of the Fifth Division California Naval Militia.

Later in Lieutenant Adolph B. Adam's career, he would be mustered into the Navy for World War I; one of his assignments would be in Naval Intelligence stationed in the Panama Canal Zone. During this assignment he would fly on Curtiss flying boats conducting research with radio transmitters and receivers. I can but wonder if this experience with Eugene Ely marked Lt. Adams for the flying assignment in the Panama Canal.

Lt. A. B. Adams spent a lot of time in these Curtiss flying boats, flying from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean and back again testing various radio transmitters and receivers with a pair of planes.

Also of interest are the National markings on these planes; which were only used for a short period during World War I. On 8 February 1918 the cockade on the wings was adopted, it is concentric circles of red and blue around white, and the tail rudder bands become red, white and blue, with the red closest to the rudder post. This lasted to 19 August 1919, when the National insignia returned to the original red circle within a white 5 pointed star on a blue circle, and the rudder bands were reversed to the pre-war position, which
was blue forward. Lt. A. B. Adams returned from the Panama Canal in June 1919.
The Humboldt Times Newspaper Friday May 25th 1911; Saturday May 26th 1911; Sunday May 28th 1911.
The Humboldt Standard Newspaper Sunday May 28th 1911.
Search our Site!
Search the Web Search California Military History Online
Questions and comments concerning this site should be directed to the Webmaster
Updated 8 February 2016