Tuesday, May 24, 2011
On Jan. 18, 1911, civilian pilot Eugene Ely became the first to successfully land a Curtiss pusher biplane onto a makeshift wooden platform fitted to the armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania (ACR-4) in San Francisco Bay. This landmark occasion opened the door for aircraft to make a significant difference in the war fighting and support capabilities of the U.S. Navy.
However, even before Wilbur and Orville Wright proved that powered flight could be a reality, the Navy expressed interest in aircraft, and in 1898, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt recommended an investigation into the military potential of “flying machines.”
The Wright brothers sold their invention to the U.S. Army in 1909, but expressed grave misgivings about the risks and practicality of launching and landing aircraft aboard a ship. Their competitor Glenn Curtiss received word in 1910 through one of his pilots, Eugene Ely, that the Navy was interested in attempting a test launch from a ship, and that the Wrights had turned down the opportunity. Ely eagerly offered to try the launch. USS Birmingham (Scout Cruiser #2) was fitted with a platform, and on Nov. 14, 1910, Ely successfully took off in a Curtiss pusher biplane, briefly touching water and slightly damaging its propeller. He safely landed the plane on shore.
Even though this initial trial was successful, Secretary of the Navy George L. von Meyer remained skeptical and unwilling to purchase an airplane. Ely and Curtiss changed his mind on Jan. 18, 1911 when Ely was able to take off and land on USS Pennsylvania. After further improvements, the Navy purchased its first aircraft on May 8, 1911, which is considered the birth date of naval aviation.
From these humble beginnings, naval aviation grew to enable the United States Navy to project power far beyond the deep waters of the world. Design improvements over the years led to the creation of airplanes capable of offensive, defensive and supporting roles. Eventually, with the scope of naval operations expanding beyond blue water, aircraft carriers supplanted the battleship as the heart of the Navy task force. Whether it is a fighter, attacker, bomber, observer, hunter, jammer, supplier, or refueler, aircraft have become the Navy’s “teeth” when it comes to carrying out its mission. Today, with over 3,700 operational aircraft at the ready, naval aviation truly positions America’s Navy as a Global Force for Good.
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Master Chief Musician Aaron Porter is the Navy Band's public affairs director.