Commemorating the First Flights of the Wright Brothers December 17, 1903

‹--Return to the Shrine

Eugene B. Ely

1886 - 1911

First Aviator To Take Off From A Ship, 1910, And First Aviator To Land On A Ship, 1911

Inducted in 1994

Eugene Burton Ely, a civilian pilot from Iowa, became the first man to take off from the deck of a ship. He flew a Curtiss Model D bi-plane from a platform constructed on the bow of the cruiser USS Birmingham at Hampton Roads, Virginia, on November 14, 1910.

Rain and fog threatened to delay the flight, but Ely pressed on. Witnesses saw the daring aviator coast down the platform, drop to the bay, hit the water with a splash, rise again, and continue onward to a safe landing two and one-half miles away on Willoughby Spit.

Two months later, on January 18, 1911, Ely successfully executed the first airplane landing on a ship, again in a Curtiss airplane. He departed Tanforan Field near San Francisco wearing a padded football helmet and a bicycle tube as a survival vest. Haze obscured his view of the cruiser USS Pennsylvania, anchored in San Francisco Bay. He landed on a specially designed tilted platform at a speed of 40 miles per hour and was slowed to a gentle stop by grappling hooks fitted underneath the aircraft that caught arresting wires attached to sandbags. After a leisurely lunch on board ship, Ely made the world's second nautical takeoff and returned to shore.

Following his California success, Ely established a reputation as an expert aviator, publicly demonstrating his skills across the country. His brief but brilliant career was cut short by a tragic crash during a demonstration at the Georgia State Fair on October 19, 1911.

Though Ely was a civilian flyer and not part of the naval organization, his flights called attention to the possibilities of aircraft landing and taking off from ships. On February 16, 1933, President Herbert Hoover recognized the significance of Ely's contribution by posthumously awarding him the Distinguished Flying Cross.