Monday, November 14, 2016

How One Piece of FOD Changed Naval Aviation History

Considering that November is National U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier Month, we at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum would be remiss if we did not mention our area's most important early contribution to naval aviation history as the site of Eugene Ely's epochal flight on the afternoon of November 14, 1910, from a hastily-built wooden platform atop the foredeck of the scout cruiser Birmingham (CS-2).  
At approximately 3:17 pm on November 14, 1910, Curtiss Exhibition Company pilot Eugene Ely leaves the scout cruiser Birmingham (CS-2).  Note that she is still at anchor, awaiting more favorable weather.  Birmingham was accompanied by the torpedo boat destroyers Roe (seen in the background) and Terry (presumably where this iconic photograph was taken from), as well as the torpedo boats Bailey and Stringham.  (Eugene B. Ely Scrapbook, Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph)
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.
The Hamburg-America Line steamship Pennsylvania nearly became the first vessel to launch a fixed-wing aircraft at sea, but lost out to the scout cruiser Birmingham.  Even today she is occasionally confused with the second vessel that Eugene Ely flew from, the armored cruiser Pennsylvania (CA-4). (Library of Congress)
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."
J.A.D. McCurdy, son of the personal secretary to Alexander Graham Bell (an important associate of Glenn Curtiss), was hand-picked by Curtiss to become the first man to fly an airplane from a vessel at sea.  Bad weather and scheduling conflicts kept the 25 year-old Canadian from achieving this aviation milestone. (George Grantham Bain Collection, the Library of Congress)
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)
The failed ocean launch attempt and a three-day postponement of the Halethorpe meet created an opportunity for Captain Washington Irving Chambers, the Navy's first representative for aviation matters. While Ely awaited a replacement plane, Chambers reached out to the young aviator, having formed a positive opinion of him after meeting him two months before. The two then approached Navy Secretary George von Lengerke Meyer in a bid to get the Navy into the competition. This would no longer be a race simply for prize money and fame, but a feat to capture international prestige for the nation. Meyer was nonplussed until John Barry Ryan, the wealthy, self-styled "commodore" of his own aerial militia, the United States Aeronautical Reserve, offered to finance the experiment. All the Navy had to do was provide a ship. After checking with President William Howard Taft, Meyer directed Assistant Navy Secretary Beekman Winthrop to find a suitable vessel.   

John Barry Ryan (Library of Congress)
The news that Chambers, with “Commodore” Ryan’s financial backing, would construct a launch platform aboard a ship at Norfolk Naval Shipyard forced Curtiss to move up the second air mail attempt from November 24, when a sister ship to Kaiserin Auguste Victoria would have been available. On November 7, Curtiss announced that a second attempt from a German liner would be made on Saturday, November 12, from the liner Pennsylvania after leaving Hoboken, New Jersey, on a regularly-scheduled transatlantic voyage.

"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)
Assistant Secretary Winthrop ordered USS Birmingham to the Norfolk Naval Shipyard for conversion on November 9, and the stage was set to see which faction of the Curtiss aviation team would complete the first flight of a heavier-than-air craft from a ship.  German carpenters in Hoboken and their American competitors in Norfolk worked nonstop to complete their platforms and load their respective aircraft.
SS Pennsylvania's stern platform, with a Curtiss pusher aircraft being assembled (George Grantham Bain Collection, the Library of Congress)
By the morning of November 12, it seemed as though the McCurdy faction would win.  Curtiss had overseen the final preparations himself and supervised the loading of one of his new planes from crates shipped directly from the factory in Hammondsport, New York.  Meanwhile, Ely would have to make do with the plane Mars used for the Norfolk air show, Curtiss' venerable Hudson Flyer.  It had been mended after the nor'easter and used again by Mars on November 11 in an attempt to race a horse at the Jamestown Jockey Club track, which he barely won.

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.

It was a blue flag day and everything seemed to be in order. Fifteen minutes before departure time, the mechanics lashed the aircraft to the deck and tried the engine, which worked smoothly. Ten minutes later, and five minutes before departure, with Mars at the controls and his wife Marie and Glenn Curtis looking on, the engine was test-started one more time. A New York Times reporter recorded what happened next:  

Glenn Curtiss brought several mechanics from his team, some of whom are shown here from a meet earlier in 1910, to the ocean liner Pennsylvania to prepare his aircraft for its launch attempt on November 12, 1910.  Although sources differ about just what was sucked into the airplane's propeller during the final engine test, in all probability one of the mechanics left out a funnel (ending in a rubber tube) similar to one shown being used here, during the rush to make the plane ready.  Although essential for both fueling and installing engine oil, the piece of FOD ricocheted off the plane's pusher propeller and into the strong but brittle bamboo frame, damaging it beyond reasonable repair. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection)
“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.

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