100 Years Of Navy Aviation

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - May 25, 2011
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Although 2011 marks the actual Centennial of Naval Aviation (defined as the date an airplane first landed aboard and took off from a Navy ship), for the sake of safety it was actually done incrementally.

On November 18th, 1910, Eugene Burton Ely, a 24 year old barnstorming pilot, had his Curtis “pusher aeroplane” (the propeller mounted behind the pilot to literally push the plane) loaded aboard a Navy cruiser near Hampton Roads, Virginia. It was placed on the highest part of a sloping wooden ramp that had been fashioned over the foredeck of the ship.

The aircraft, designed by Glen Curtis, resembled the Wright brother’s contraption that flew at Kitty Hawk, N.C., only seven years earlier.

The weather was “dreadful.” After waiting most of the day for squalls to pass, at 3:15 in the afternoon, Ely, to take advantage of a momentary clearing, and not caring that the ship wasn’t even underway to generate a headwind, impetuously gunned the engine of the Curtis and headed down the 80 foot ramp at an estimated 30 mph.


At “take off” the craft dropped toward the water. As Ely nursed the nose up, the wheels made little wakes in the water and the tips of the propeller splintered as they hit the wavelets. With his airplane vibrating violently and barely airborne, Ely - a non-swimmer, by the way - knew he had to land ASAP. After a little more than two miles in five minutes he set the wobbly wreck down on a nearby beach - important lessons learned.

Two months later on Jan. 18th, 1911, on the other side of the continent, Ely was over San Francisco Bay with a new propeller, and an inflated bicycle tube fashioned around his torso as a life preserver.

His new mission: land aboard and take off from the armored Cruiser, USS Pennsylvania. Again a wooden platform had been erected, 133 feet long over the after deck.

Ropes with a bag of sand tied to each end were stretched across the length of the ramp to be snared by the “tail hook” Ely had attached to his axel. After a banking approach to about 75 feet out, Ely cut the power and glided to a graceful touchdown, catching several ropes one after the other, which smoothly decelerated him to a stop at 11:01.

The first shipboard arrested landing was history.

After his celebratory lunch with the ship’s captain, Ely made a much less eventful takeoff than the one two months earlier from the Birmingham, circled the gathered ships and boats to the din of their horns and sirens, and Naval Aviation was born.

The very next day, Navy Lt. Theodore Ellyson commenced flight training to become the first naval aviator to wear the coveted “Wings of Gold.”

The Navy’s first dedicated aircraft carrier, the USS Langley, was commissioned 11 years later in 1922. The recent completion of the huge nuclear powered USS George H.W. Bush represents a quantum change from those days.

Indeed, these past hundred years have seen mind-boggling change in naval aviation, and I feel both privileged and lucky to have personally participated in the most recent 50 years or so.

After flying several propeller and advanced jet trainers, I received my gold wings in 1959.


I have flown opera-tionally in the F-8 Crusader (considered the last of the great “gun-fighting” fighters) and the RF-8 Reconnaissance version low and fast over Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I flew the sleek RA-5C Vigilante over Vietnam (but not quite low and fast enough), and the A-4 Sky Hawk (out of NAS Barbers Point) over the beautiful mountains and waters of Hawaii.

I have “car-qualed” (carrier qualified) on the wooden deck of the of the USS Antietam out of Pensacola and flown operationally from the Intrepid, Shangri-La (both in the Atlantic),

Saratoga (Mediterranean Sea) and the Kitty Hawk (Pacific/Vietnam).

With the possible exception of the astronaut crew manually guiding the Apollo 13 space craft back into Earth’s atmosphere to a safe recovery, Navy carrier aviation is the most challenging and demanding, most exciting, most fun and sometimes most scary flying a man or woman could do.

What is it like to land a hot jet on an aircraft carrier at night in bad weather and with a pitching deck? At the moment, it’s the most important thing in the world and you must maintain a laser-like focus, as if your life depended on it - because it does!

Happy 100th, naval aviation!

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