17 January 1911: Taking off from the U.S. Army’s Selfridge Field (the closed Tanforan race track at San Bruno, California) at approximately 10:45 a.m., Eugene Burton Ely flew his Curtiss-Ely pusher to San Francisco Bay where he landed aboard the armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania (ACR-4) as it lay at anchor.
A temporary wooden deck had been erected aboard the ship at the Mare Island shipyard. Built of wood, it was 133 feet, 7 inches (40.7 meters) long and 31 feet, 6 inches (9.6 meters) wide. Twenty-two manila hemp cables were stretched across the deck at 3-foot (0.9-meter) intervals. These were to catch hooks mounted beneath Ely’s airplane and drag it to a stop. Each cable had a 50-pound (22.7 kilogram) sand bag at each end. The bags were precisely weighed so that the Curtiss would not slew to one side. A guideway was laid out on the deck with 2-inch × 4-inch (5 × 10 centimeter) planks, and 2-foot (0.6-meter) high barriers were at each edge of the flight deck.
Captain Charles Fremont Pond, commanding Pennsylvania, offered to take the ship to sea in order that Ely would have the advantage of a head wind down the flight deck, but as winds in the bay were 10 to 15 miles per hour (4.5–6.7 meters per second), Ely elected to have the cruiser remain anchored.
About ten minutes after Ely took off, he was overhead the anchored ship. He set up his approach and when he was approximately 75 feet (23 meters) astern of Pennsylvania, he cut his engine and glided to a landing. The airplane was flying at about 40 miles per hour (64 kilometers per hour) when the hooks engaged the cables, which quickly slowed it to a stop. Eugene B. Ely landed aboard USS Pennsylvania at 11:01 a.m.
This was the very first time that an airplane had landed aboard a ship. The use of arresting wires would become common with aircraft carrier operations.
Ely and his wife, Mabel, were guests of Captain Pond for lunch. Photographs were taken and 57 minutes after his landing, he took off for the return flight to Selfridge Field.
Ely unsuccessfully tried to interest the Navy in employing him as an aviator. He and Mabel traveled the country, “barnstorming,” making flight demonstrations and entering aviation meets. He was killed at Macon, Georgia, 19 October 1911, when he was unable to pull out of a dive.
© 2016, Bryan R. Swopesby