Eugene Burton Ely was born in Williamsburg, Iowa on October 21, 1886.
Ely graduated from Davenport Grammar School in January 1901. (the last confirmed school he attended)
By 1904, Ely was employed as a chauffeur to the Rev. Fr. Smyth, a Catholic priest in Cosgrove, Iowa, who shared Ely’s love of fast driving; in Father Smyth’s car (a red Franklin). Ely was active in the early days of racing automobiles and even set the speed record between Iowa City and Davenport, Iowa.
Ely was living in San Francisco at the time of the 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed three-quarters of the city.
Ely married Mabel Hall in 1907 and relocated his family to to Nevada City, California in 1909 while working as a driver for an “auto stage” delivery route.
Early in 1910, Ely moved to Portland, Oregon where he got a job as an auto salesman for E. Henry Wemme.
Soon after, Wemme purchased one of Glenn Curtiss‘ first four-cylinder biplanes and acquired the franchise to sell them in the Pacific Northwest.
Ely believed flying would be as easy as driving a car and offered to fly Wemme’s new biplane.
On his first attempt, Ely crashed the plane and felt so guilty that he agreed to purchase the wrecked biplane from Wemme.
Ely repaired his wrecked aircraft and taught himself to fly.
Ely flew first around the Portland area, then when he had gained enough confidence, headed to Minneapolis, Minnesota in June of 1910 to participate in an exhibition of Curtiss biplanes.
Glenn Curtiss was impressed with Ely and hired him away from Henry Wemme.
Then in July of 1910, Ely participated in an exhibition on behalf of Curtiss biplanes in Winnieg, Canada.
Ely officially received the 17th Aero Club of America pilot’s license on October 5, 1910.
Later that October, Ely and Glenn Curtiss met United States Navy Captain Washington Chambers. Captain Chambers had been appointed by the Secretary of the Navy to investigate military uses for aviation within the Navy.
On November 14, 1910, Ely took off in a Curtiss pusher biplane from a temporary platform erected over the bow of US Navy light cruiser USS Birmingham.
Ely and his Curtiss biplane plunged downward as soon as the aircraft cleared the 83-foot platform runway. Ely felt the biplanes wheels dip into the water before he was able to get the biplane airborne.
Ely could not see very well as his goggles were covered with spray, so he promptly landed his biplane on a beach rather than circling around the harbor and landing at the Norfolk Navy Yard as planned.
Then on January 18, 1911 – Eugene B. Ely took off in a Curtiss pusher biplane from the Tanforan airfield in San Bruno, California and headed towards the San Francisco Harbor. Ely lined up his biplane with the deck of the USS Pennsylvania anchored in San Francisco Bay, and became the first to land an aircraft on a ship.
The Curtiss pusher biplane and the deck of the USS Pennsylvania had been fitted with the first ever tailhook landing system designed by circus performer and aviator Hugh Robinson.
After the infamous landing, Ely told a reporter:
“It was easy enough. I think the trick could be successfully turned nine times out of ten.”
Ely asked to continue to fly with the United States Navy, but United States naval aviation was not yet organized. Captain Chambers promised to “keep him in mind” when Navy flying stations were created.
Captain Chambers also advised Ely to stop performing the sensational flying exhibition’s for the sake of his own personal safety as well as the future of aviation.
When asked about retiring, The Des Moines Register quoted Ely as replying:
“I guess I will be like the rest of them, keep at it until I am killed.”
This destiny caught up with Ely on October 19, 1911. While flying at an exhibition in Macon, Georgia, Ely’s 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.
Spectators picked the wreckage clean looking for souvenirs, including Ely’s gloves, tie and cap.
On what would have been his twenty-fifth birthday, his body was returned to his birthplace in Iowa for burial.
On February 16, 1933, Congress awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross posthumously to Eugene Burton Ely, “for extraordinary achievement as a pioneer civilian aviator and for his significant contribution to the development of aviation in the United States Navy.”
An exhibit of retired naval aircraft at Naval Air Station Norfolk in Virginia bears Ely’s name, and a granite historical marker in Newport News, Virginia, overlooks the waters where Ely made his historic flight in 1910 and recalls his contribution to military aviation, naval in particular.
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Ely’s historic flight, Naval Commander Bob Coolbaugh flew a personally built replica of the Ely Curtiss from the runway at NAS Norfolk on November 12, 2010.
Now We know em
- On December 10, 1911, who intentionally taxied his plane into the Pacific Ocean after completing the first transcontinental flight across the United States a month earlier? (carl-leonard.com)