When I think of modern naval power today, the first thing that comes to my mind is the aircraft carrier. The carrier is the flagship of all US fleets. In fact, they are referred to as carrier groups. It is the aircraft carrier that is the eyes, the primary attack, and the primary defense of the fleet.
100 years ago that was not the case. The navies of the world were replacing their beautiful dreadnought class ships with new modern battleships. Sadly, the HMS Dreadnought was launched in 1906, and was outdated and replaced by battleships by 1916. The Dreadnought herself was replaced in 1919 and scrapped in 1923. The only dreadnought of any navy still floating is the USS Texas, which was launched in 1912 and is now a museum in San Jacinto State Park near Houston, Texas.
On December 17, 1903 (I should write about this that day) two brothers–Orville and Wilbur Wright–flew the first powered airplane on the beaches of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The flight lasted all of 12 seconds for a total distance of 120 feet.
I wonder if they realized that they had just changed to world forever? Could you imagine waking up that morning, going to fly your new powered areoplane and realizing that the world may never again be the same?
Not quite six years later, airplane manufacturer Glenn Curtiss and Captain Washington Irving Chambers–the man put in charge of figuring out how to use this new airplane for naval service–met together. They devised a plan to launch an airplane off of a navy ship. This demonstration would prove the value of airplanes to the United States Navy and hopefully get airplane orders for Curtiss.
At the Norfolk Navy Yard, carpenters were busy building a wooden flight deck onto the cruiser USS Birmingham (CL-2). And, believe it or not, wooden flight decks remained the staple for modern aircraft carriers through the end of the Second World War. This first deck was 85 feet long and 24 feet wide, built onto the bow.
Civilian pilot Eugene Ely arrived with his Curtiss Model D “Pusher” airplane on November 13, 1910. The Pusher had been modified with light weight pontoons, just in case Ely had to ditch the airplane in the water, despite what the New York Times had said.
The plan was for the Birmingham to sail out into the Chesapeake Bay shortly before noon, and for Ely to take off while the ship was moving. With the forward momentum of the ship adding to the lift of the airplane wings, everyone was anticipating a good takeoff and 50 mile flight to shore.
Great plans are always just that–great plans. As the Birmingham reached the area in the bay for the launch, weather played its ugly hand in the best made plans. With fog, rain, and wind from a storm as a factor, the Birmingham dropped anchor. Around three in the afternoon, the weather cleared and Ely prepared for his flight. The decision was made to take off without the ship being underway. This meant no added lift from the ship’s speed.
At about 3:15 on November 14, 1910, Ely started his takeoff run down the sloped, improvised flight deck. As soon as he felt the wheels leave the deck, Ely pushed the nose of his aircraft toward the water 35 feet below him. He was attempting to get more speed from the dive but miscalculated the distance so that his wheels and prop touched the water, damaging the aircraft.
The purpose of the exercise was to prove that you could launch an airplane off the deck of a ship at sea. Having accomplished that task, Ely decided to fly for the nearest beach rather than the 50 mile flight back to the navy yard. His flight was three miles and a total time in the air of 5 minutes.
The press was in awe of this daring young man and his flying machine. They were impressed by his willingness to fly despite the weather and fear of water. The reported from the Indianapolis Star said “Aerial navigation proved today that it is a factor which must be dealt with in the naval tactics of the world’s future.”
The reporter was so very right. The next month, Secretary of the Navy George Meyer asked for more funding to further explore the possibilities. Two months later, in January 1911, Ely became the first man to land an airplane on a ship at sea.
Air power would become the standard by which the world waged war. During the first World War, combat aircraft really began to evolve. Because of limitations to building battle cruisers, after the war the United States started building aircraft carriers instead.
I think that is why–at least for me–when I think Navy, I think fighter jets and aircraft carriers.
And we owe all of this to brave pioneers like Glenn Curtiss and Eugene Ely.
- Naval Aviation Museum
- Ely Ready to Fly From Battleship – New York Times – Nov 14, 1910
- Airship Flight to Warship – new York Times – Nov 16, 1910