One hundred years ago today, Eugene Ely made history by executing the first ever shipboard arrested landing:
Ely’s flight, which came only seven years and one month after the Wright Brothers flew their first plane, was in every way historic. Though Ely had flown a plane from a Navy ship off Hampton Roads, Va., in 1910, no one had ever landed aboard a ship.
Ely, a self-taught pilot who represented the Curtiss Airplane Co. was just the man for the job. “If I did not believe I could do it without injury to myself or my machine, I would not attempt it,” he said.
The Curtiss firm had a primitive “flight deck” 130 feet long and 32 feet wide built on the stern of the Pennsylvania at Mare Island. Canvas screens were rigged on each side to catch the plane if it missed the deck. The major problem was how to stop the airplane, which would land at a speed of 50 or 60 mph.
The solution was to rig up 21 ropes across the deck, with a 50-pound sandbag attached to each end. The ropes were designed to catch a hook rigged under the plane and stop it — a primitive version of the tail hook system used on aircraft carriers today.
The Pennsylvania was anchored 300 yards off San Francisco’s Folsom Street wharf, surrounded by small boats. The event was heavily advertised — it was part of a big air show in San Bruno — and a crowd of perhaps 75,000, “a vast multitude” the papers said, was on hand aboard boats and along the bay shoreline to see Ely’s flight.
In doing so, Ely redefined cool forever, emptied jails and orphanages, filled countless public houses, seriously damaged the concept of chastity, set the stage for ten thousand broken hearts and forever dashed the self-regard of countless Air Force pilots who – ever after – would have to content themselves with second best.
In response the Air Force turned to crud.