Today, Naval Station Norfolk features Ely Park, a place dedicated not only to preserving the name of the young Iowan many believe to have been the "first naval aviator," but to the memory of the planes and pilots that flew from the former naval air station there, as well as Ely Hall, where generations of naval aviators have called home at one time or another.
In addition to the fact that he was a civilian pilot working for Glenn H. Curtiss' aerial exhibition team, it is not widely known how close Ely came to being beaten by another member of this team. Lesser known still is that, had it not been for the oldest enemy to aircraft everywhere, known today as foreign object debris (also known as foreign object damage, or FOD), the United States Navy in all likelihood would never have been able to claim this aviation milestone as its own.
Although Ely's flight was the first made from a United States Navy warship, it was in fact the third attempt the Curtiss team had made during November 1910. The last one had been made only two days before Ely, from a similar platform built over the stern of the German passenger liner Pennsylvania. The first had been scheduled for November 5 on yet another ship of the Hamburg-America Line, SS Kaiserin Auguste Victoria. Although it received the "official sanction" of Postmaster General Frank H. Hitchcock as a test of the applicability of airplanes to deliver mail from civilian vessels, its military implications were no secret. John Alexander Douglas McCurdy, the designated aviator for the flight, said as much to a reporter earlier that month at Sewells Point, Virginia, as he headlined Norfolk's first airshow at what is now Naval Station Norfolk.
"In speaking of the proposed flight," wrote the Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch reporter on November 2, "Mr. McCurdy said it would combine the aeroplane with the navy, by showing that an airship can be launched from the deck of a warship while the vessel is in motion."
A violent nor'easter clobbered Norfolk on November 3 and put a stop to the airshow, which began two days before, wrecking McCurdy's aircraft at the old Jamestown Exhibition grounds and severely damaging the plane of his costar, James Cairn "Bud" Mars. As the massive storm moved up the eastern seaboard, the planes of the Curtiss team flyers participating in a meet at Halethorpe, near Baltimore, including Eugene Ely's, were also wrecked. Meanwhile, McCurdy's date with destiny aboard Kaiserin Auguste Victoria was dashed by the storm as well.
|Captain Washington Irving Chambers (Naval History and Heritage Command Image)|
|John Barry Ryan (Library of Congress)|
"Nothing but a gale will prevent the flight," Curtiss told a correspondent for the Washington Post, yet this would be a more difficult attempt for a number of reasons. Not only was SS Pennsylvania significantly smaller and slower than Kaiserin, but her design only allowed construction of the 85-foot launch platform on her stern. This meant that the liner would have to throw her engines into reverse eight miles east of Fire Island in order to make 10 knots into a headwind, enabling McCurdy to make a safe launch and follow a 50-mile route along the coast of Long Island back to Governors Island, to claim a prize that was, incidentally, offered by John Barry Ryan.
|USS Birmingham as outfitted with a platform over her foredeck at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, with the Hudson Flyer almost in position for launch. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection)|
|SS Pennsylvania's stern platform, with a Curtiss pusher aircraft being assembled (George Grantham Bain Collection, the Library of Congress)|
Mars had left the racetrack that afternoon for Hoboken after an urgent call from Curtiss. McCurdy had crashed his plane a few hours earlier in heavy winds during an aviation meet in in Charlotte, North Carolina. Although not seriously hurt, McCurdy would never be able to make it to Hoboken in time. Mars, once the understudy, now had his chance to make history.
|James Cairn "Bud" Mars. (George Grantham Bain Collection, the Library of Congress)|
Although the 34 year-old Mars was not Curtiss' first choice to make the history-making flight, he had spent far more time in the aviation field than Ely, McCurdy, and Curtiss put together. He had first dazzled crowds some 15 years before as a parachutist, and had even made some of the first known attempts to fly an amphibious aircraft, with a Navy torpedo boat's help, during the Jamestown Exposition in 1907.
Originally scheduled to sail for Hamburg at 2 pm, Pennsylvania's departure time was moved up to noon to allow time to conduct the experiment. If the weather was favorable, blue signal flags with white crosses would fly from the dome of the Pulitzer Building and several other prominent buildings in New York City. If all went well, a white flag with a red ball in the center would be hoisted. Mars would land and deliver his "aeroplane mail" at around 4 pm, making aviation history, and winning Ryan's $500 prize.
“Directly the propeller started [and] a sharp click was heard, and two pieces of wood flew off at a tangent with great force, striking one of the sailors standing near on the knee. Curtiss stopped the engine at once and discovered that a piece had been broken from the lower part of one of the propeller blades, and that the bamboo lead for the rudder lines on the starboard side of the airship had been smashed. A piece of rubber tubing had been left on one of the lower planes, Mr. Curtiss said, and the suction when the motor was started drew it into the propeller. On its way the rubber tube struck the bamboo tube that acted as a rubber lead and broke it off. The breaking of the steering gear put it out of the question to try the flight, Mars said.
“’I should have only got a ducking if I failed to rise with the machine,’ he said, ‘and that did not alarm me very much. I would have been quite willing to go to Europe on the Pennsylvania and try the flight on my return.’
“The airship was taken down quickly in sections from its lofty perch and and sent to the pier, and the gay bunting with which the shil was decorated from truck to keel was hauled down. It was 1 o’clock, an hour after the scheduled sailing hour, when Capt. Russ, commander of the Pennsylvania, started his ship on her eastward voyage, with the aviation platform towering high above her stern. The carpenters were to demolish it when she got to sea.”
It had been a devastating day for someone who had endured several weeks of disappointment that fall, but a Washington Post correspondent suggested that the luckless Bud Mars’ “luck might have been worse, bad as it was.” “White squalls and black squalls played tag with each other across the lower harbor all afternoon,” he wrote after observing the attempt, “and as the sun went down the the wind rose to 50 miles per hour.”
The following day, the naval tug Alice came down the Elizabeth River from the Norfolk Naval Shipyard to the large commercial pier at Pine Beach, and a detachment of Sailors retrieved the Hudson Flyer from the Jamestown Jockey Club track. It was brought back to the yard and hoisted aboard USS Birmingham, where the following afternoon at approximately 3:17 pm, Eugene Ely would ride it down the platform, bounce off the waters off Old Point Comfort, and into naval history.