California State Military Department
The California Military Museum
Preserving California's Military Heritage
California Naval History
A California Moment
. . . From the Pages of Naval Aviation's History
By Norman S. Marshall and Mark J. Denger
California Center for Military History
 
 
Unknown to those young officers and men stationed at Pensacola, Florida, on January 11, 1914, found the U.S. Navy about to embark upon an adventure. On that January day, an unknown hand wrote the following first entry in the log book:

"The Secretary of the Navy has decided that the science of aerial navigation has reached that point where aircraft must form a large part of our naval force for offensive and defensive operations. Nearly all countries having a navy are giving attention to this subject. This country has not fully recognized the value of aeronautics in preparation for war, but it is believed that we should take our proper place."

The Navy Yard in Pensacola had become the Naval Aeronautic Station for a group of enthusiastic young officers introduced to a new and odd vocabulary of struts and ailerons, propellers and air foils.
Many a California Naval Militia aviator, including Frank Seaver, Edward Doheny, Jr. and Frank Simpson, Jr. (subjects of other articles) received training at the Navy Yard in Pensacola, Florida. However, Naval Aviation dates its beginning not from the Navy's establishment of the Naval Aeronautic Station in 1914, but from the purchase of its first aircraft and the designation of its first aviator, both of which occurred in California from a series of events which took place in 1911.

Most people improperly assume that Naval aviation began in December of 1903 when the Wright brothers took to flight.

Evidence of the Navy's first interest in the naval application of aviation actually dates back to March 25, 1898, five years before the Wright Brothers. On that day, a young Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, impressed by Professor Samuel P. Langley's success with flying models, reported to the Secretary of the practicability and potentiality of aviation for use in war, recommending to the Secretary that he should appoint two officers to access the "scientific attainments and practical ability" of the role of aircraft in war.

Following the recommendation of Theodore Roosevelt, the Navy appointed members to a joint board with the Army to consider the subject, and on April 29, 1898, their report expressed a general sentiment in favor of its value for military purposes. While the tests were largely theoretical in nature, the report expressed a general sentiment in favor of supporting Professor Langley.

Despite this favorable report, the Navy took no further part in the development of the aeroplane. Even the Army's purchase of aeroplane in 1908 failed to ruffle the Navy's official complacency. It would not be until 1910 before the Navy would officially consider taking steps towards the development of Naval Aviation.

During those subsequent years it adhered to this same attitude, and, although individual officers showed considerable interest, the Navy Department gave aviation no official recognition.

Commander Frederick L. Chapin, the United States' Naval Attache at Paris, reported his observations at the Rheims Aviation Meet, expressing the opinion that "the airplane would have a present usefulness in naval warfare, and that the limits of the fields will be extended in the near future," and in elaborating upon that theme prophetically noted two means by which aircraft could be operated from naval vessels.

In 1910 the Secretary of the Navy appointed Captain Washington I. Chambers to investigate and supervise the Navy's first aeronautical experiments.

It did not take Glenn Curtiss long to get his sights on the Navy as his target. Meeting Chambers at air meets in the autumn of 1910, Glenn Curtiss set out to convince the Navy of the practicability of his aircraft for Naval use.

The need for more science and less the rule of thumb was apparent to Captain Chambers. He collected the writings and scientific papers of leaders in the new field, pushed for a national aerodynamics laboratory, and encouraged naval contractors to work on aerodynamic and hydrodynamic problems.

During this period the Navy built a wind tunnel and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was established.

The Secretary of the Navy also informed the U.S. Aeronautical Reserve, a newly formed organization of private citizens promoting the advancement of aeronautical science, that Captain Chambers, Assistant to the Aid for Material, had been designated as the officer to whom all correspondence on aviation should be referred.

For some time Curtiss, a pioneer in aviation, had been trying to convince the Navy that an airplane could take off and land on board a ship, and knowing that as take-off would be less hazardous than a landing, he wanted to try to accomplish that feat first.

Curtiss arrived at North Island in the winter of 1910. He soon invited the Army and Navy to send officers for free instruction as "aeroplane pilots." There Curtiss had just established a private flying school on land obtained without charge from John D. Spreckels through the cooperation of the Aero Club of San Diego, composed of a number of leading citizens who had become excited about the possibilities of flight. Many years later this site would become known as Naval Air Station, North Island.

Curtiss was always looking for possible new exhibition flyers and at an event in June 1910 he took quite a liking to the young man by the name of Eugene Burton Ely. Impressed with his flying abilities, he signed Eugene Ely on as one of his exhibition men. Unknown then to either men, six months later, when Eugene Ely was at Norfolk, Virginia, he would make the first of two historically notable flights during his fabulous flying career.

At Curtiss' urging, Eugene Ely was to fly from a special platform built on the cruiser BIRMINGHAM. Curtis finally received Naval approval, preparations were made. On the morning of November 14, 1910, Eugene Ely flew off a platform on the deck of the cruiser BIRMINGHAM lying at anchor in Hampton Roads and landed ashore on the beach near Ft. Monroe. Reportedly this first aircraft carrier achievement in history was made with the same plane Curtiss had used on his famous flight from Albany to New York earlier that year.

Scarcely two months later, Curtiss had Ely and his men busy making arrangements to demonstrate to the Navy that an airplane could land, as well as take off, from a ship at anchor.

Ely returned back to California, and on December 24th to January 2nd, 1911, he was completing as a contestant in the second annual Flying Meet at Dominguez Field, Los Angeles, California, as part of the Curtiss Team. Among his team mates were Glenn Curtiss, Charles Willard, Hugh Robinson and Lincoln Beachey. Competing against them on the Wright Brothers' Team were Hoxsey and Parmelee; from Europe were Latham and Radley. It was also at this Air Meet that another California aviator Glenn Martin made his public flying debut. Ely made second best showing of the Curtiss men.

Five days later, Ely was with the Curtiss Team competing as contestants at an Air Meet held at what was then Selfridge Field, San Francisco, California, January 7th to 25th, 1911. Also flying for the Curtiss Team were Willard, Beachey, and Robinson, all of whom where competing against Brookings, Parmelee, Latham, Radley, Red Wisemand and Clarance Walker, in addition to a number of local amateur aviators entered in their events.

It was at the Selfridge Field Air Meet that Eugene Ely, along with other Curtiss Team members participated in several tests of a military nature, including bomb dropping contests, wireless experiments and similar activities. During the Air Meet both Parceled and Charles Willard would carry wireless sets and successfully receive messages in flight instructing them to perform certain maneuvers.

At this Air Meet, Curtiss had Ely and his men busy making arrangements to demonstrate to the Navy that this time an airplane could land, as well as take off, from a ship at anchor.

On the morning of January 18, 1911, Eugene Ely made his second very notable, and undoubtedly most historic flight, when he flew from the Air Meet at Selfridge Field, circled several vessels of the Pacific Fleet at anchor in San Francisco Bay, then made a precise and perfect landing on an inclined platform on the U.S. cruiser PENNSYLVANIA exactly as planned.

The platform used was 130 feet long and 30 feet wide, and the forward momentum of the plane was quickly retarded by ropes stretched between large movable bags of sand placed along the entire length of the runway five feet apart. Wooden rails along both sides of the runway raised the ropes several inches above the surface of the platform. As the plane landed hook-like skis on the undercarriage caught these ropes and rapidly brought the machine to a stop. Reportedly, it took only ten sand bags to stop him. It is recorded that these arrangements, which worked so successfully, were largely the ideas of Eugene Ely and Hugh Robinson, and proof of their fundamental value is the fact that the same basic design for carrier landings is in use today.

Mrs. Ely and Captain Pond of the cruiser PENNSYLVANIA were the first to reach him after his plane came to a stop, then pandemonium broke loose on board and from the surrounding vessels roaring blasts of "Welcome Aboard."

After completing interviews and taking photographs, Eugene Ely was escorted to the Captain's cabin where he was honored guest at an officers lunch. One hour later Eugene Ely made a perfect take-off from the platform and returned to the air meet where another tremendous ovation awaited him. Both the landing a take-off were witnessed by distinguished U.S. Naval officers.

Glenn Curtiss had successfully demonstrated the possibility of the aircraft carrier and to the credit of Eugene Burton Ely goes the credit for proving it and the title "Father of the Carrier Pilot."

There can be little doubt that Ely's daring flight that day, during the early history of aviation, was one of the most outstanding achievements ever made by any of those early pioneer aviators.

Although many of the Navy's officers were convinced by these demonstrations, George Von L. Meyer, Secretary of the Navy, remained skeptical and had a different concept of the possibility of naval employment of airplanes in scouting at sea, and informed Mr. Curtiss in writing:

"When you show me that it is feasible for an aeroplane to alight on the water alongside a battleship and be hoisted aboard without any false deck to receive it, I shall believe the airship of practical benefit to the Navy."

Glenn Curtiss was not the type of man to disregard a hint. At the suggestion of a naval officer, Curtiss converted one of his Golden Flyer areoplanes into a "hydro-aeroplane" by fitting a float to the planes undercarriage –creating the first sea plane.

Using his flight school on North Island as a base camp, on January 26, before a large crowd of San Diego spectators, Glenn Curtiss successfully took off and landed on the waters of San Diego Bay.

A month later, on February 17, 1911, at San Diego, California, after completing a spectacular show in the air, he landed his craft on the water and brought his hydro-aeroplane alongside the cruiser PENNSYLVANIA. Here both pilot and plane were hoisted aboard, and then lowered back to the bay, from where he lifted off for a return flight to North Island.

The result, a young Lieutenant T. G. Ellyson, USN, was sent to Curtiss' flying school at North Island for training as the Navy's first aviator. And true to his word, the Secretary of the Navy, as part of his appropriation for fiscal year 1912, asked for and received a modest sum of $25,000 for the purchase of the Navy's first aircraft.

After some deliberation the Navy purchased one Wright A (Military Flyer) and two Curtiss Golden Flyers. As part of the agreement, each manufacturer agreed to train a pilot and a mechanic, and that is how Lieutenant John Rodgers and Lieutenant John H. Towers became Naval Aviators 2 and 3.

From these daring demonstrations, it did not take long for Naval Aviation to see its first action.

In 1914, a three plane detachment of fleet aircraft under command of Navy Lieutenant John H. Towers joined the Fleet in operations off Tampico, Mexico. Later a second detachment reconnoitered the city and searched for mines in the harbor at Veracruz. This two plane detachment also took aerial photography and flew ground support missions. In fact, the detachment commander, Lieutenant (junior grade) P. N. L. Bellinger has the distinction of being the first American pilot to be shot at in anger. His AB-3 flying boat returned from its reconnaissance mission over enemy positions damaged by hostile rifle fire.

Within four short years, the United States had developed a workable shipboard catapult system which had been tried on the NORTH CAROLINA in 1915 and later installed on the cruiser HUNTINGTON. When hostilities came, however, they were not involved in fleet combats but antisubmarine warfare.

Our entry into World War I in April 1917, less than 6 years after Naval Aviation was born and only 14 short years after the Wrights' first flight, found Naval Aviation with 54 aircraft, 239 men and 48 officers. At the end of the war, 20 months later, these totals had risen to 2,107 aircraft, 30,693 men and 6,716 officers.

But Naval Aviation's growth wasn't the only accomplishment. Naval Aviation was the first of the American Expeditionary Force to reach Europe. During that war, Navy planes operated from 12 coastal stations, flying some 800,000 miles on patrol and bombing missions from U.S. bases, dropping 126,302 pounds of bombs on German submarine bases and other military targets, and attacked 25 enemy submarines, damaging or sinking 12.

During this short period, Naval Aviation had proved its worth.
 
 


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