A Brief History
On January 18, 1911, Eugene Ely, a pilot who worked for Glenn Curtiss, a pioneer in the U.S. aviation industry, became the first person to successfully land an airplane on the deck of a ship. He did so when he landed a Curtiss “pusher,” a biplane with a rear-facing engine and propeller, on a specially-constructed platform over the deck of the armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania.
This very first “carrier” landing was also significant in aviation history for being the first landing to be arrested by tail hook. History and Headlines Note: The annual party and bash for U.S. Navy and Marine Corps carrier pilots is called “Tailhook.” (It has a scandalous history of its own.)
Although the technology would not developed enough in time to be a factor during World War I, by World War II, aircraft carriers and their planes surpassed battleships as the mightiest arm of the world’s navies. Not only could carrier aircraft strike both land and sea targets and perform reconnaissance for the fleet, but in the Atlantic especially, the use of naval aviation helped the Allies win the battle against German U-boats.
Today, the 10-ship fleet of large U.S. aircraft carriers can go to any corner of the oceans to exert the military will of the United States. Smaller American carriers that carry helicopter and V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft are used by the Navy as amphibious assault ships to land Marines on any shore.
The aircraft carriers in the arsenals of the other few nations that can boast having them are hopelessly outclassed by the size and capabilities of the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered carriers.
And Eugene Ely? He trained himself to fly airplanes with no instruction after he had crashed a plane on his first attempt at flight. He bought the plane, repaired it and taught himself to fly before going to work for Glenn Curtiss.
On November 14, 1910, two months before he had successfully landed on the USS Pennsylvania, he had successfully taken off from the USS Birmingham. However, shortly after these two firsts, on October 19, 1911, while flying at an exhibition, his plane crashed. Ely got himself out of the wreck but died of a broken neck a few minutes later.
History and Headlines Fact: Glenn Curtiss’ airplane company, which in 1929 was consolidated into the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, was the largest such American company of the 1920s and 1930s and made many military aircraft for the war effort, some of which, such as the C-46 Commando, P-40 Warhawk and SB2C Helldiver, featured prominently during World War II.
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever been on an aircraft carrier? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Miller, William M. Eugene Ely, Daredevil Aviator: First Shipboard Landing and Takeoff. McFarland, 2014.