One hundred, nine years ago, today, aviator Eugene Ely made naval aviation history, taking off from a wooden platform secured to the bow of the light cruiser USS Birmingham. Captain Washington Chambers, USN, was tasked by the Secretary of the Navy George von Lengerke Meyer to investigate uses for aviation in the Navy. Ely successfully took off in a Curtiss Pusher from the Birmingham, barely. The airplane rolled off the platform, plunged downward, skipping the water, which damaged the propeller but, he managed to stay airborne, landing two and a half miles away on Willoughby Spit. Two months later, on January 18, 1911, Ely landed his Curtiss Pusher airplane on a platform on the armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania anchored in San Francisco Bay.
Ely communicated with the United States Navy requesting employment but, United States naval aviation was not yet organized. Ely continued flying in exhibitions while Captain Chambers promised to “keep him in mind” if Navy flying stations were created.
On October 19, 1911, while flying at an exhibition in Macon, Georgia, his plane was late pulling out of a dive and crashed. Ely jumped clear of the wrecked aircraft but, his neck was broken and he died a few minutes later.
On February 16, 1933, Congress awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross posthumously to Ely, “for extraordinary achievement as a pioneer civilian aviator and for his significant contribution to the development of aviation in the United States Navy.”
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