The Liberty Gazette
June 9, 2015Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Linda: The first person ever to land an airplane on an aircraft carrier was Eugene Ely, a highly skilled civilian pilot. Eugene had been traveling the air show circuit performing feats of great danger and thrill when he met a Navy captain who was convinced it would be possible to take off and land an airplane on a ship. If there was only one person in the world who would do it, that would be Ely.
First, the take-off. The year was 1910, and the ship, the Birmingham, a cruiser on which a sloping wooden platform was specially built for the experiment. Eugene flew off the ship and landed ashore, triumphant in his ambition in spite of limited vision through splattered goggles onto which ocean water flung from the wooden prop as it splintered when it glanced the water. Amazing that he kept the airplane flying.
Then, the landing. Only six months later the Navy was ready for Eugene to prove their supposition that a plane could also land on a carrier. This time they picked the USS Pennsylvania. Even with Ely’s reputation as a great and natural flyer, and even though an early version of arresting cables was put in place to catch hooks on the bottom of his airplane to stop him from going in the drink off the other end, most onlookers could not fathom a successful outcome to this daring attempt.
Yet successful it was, and the sirens and whistles of all the ships in the San Francisco Bay where this historic event took place celebrated at the birth of Naval Aviation.
For several years this type of flying improved, in terms of airplane design, pilot training and skill, and ship building, making Naval Aviators who landed on carriers a symbol of great flyers. And it all began with a great pilot named Ely.
Mike: About this same time Air Mail was reaching its hey-day, when along came Postmaster General Harry S. New, who had an idea. Air Mail pilots were made up largely of former military pilots, and the job they did was high risk. Surely the pool of masterful skill was already present – to be a pilot in those days was to be on the cutting edge of everything that was simultaneously dangerous and technologically advanced.
New’s idea was to build landing decks atop railroads. This would bring landing planes much closer to the urban business destinations of their passengers, and to ground transportation in the cities.
The Postmaster pointed to New York City’s Bush Terminal (now Industry City, and no relation to the Georges) as a perfect spot to begin putting his plan into action. The railroads that came in to the warehouses at Bush Terminal provided plenty of space in which to build second-story landing strips that did not interfere with the rail traffic. Convenience to depots and business centers would be something over which the public would clamor – according to New.
The landing decks were never built, as far as we can tell, but had New’s plan been successful, we would be able to fly right up and land near Times Square, where Bush Tower, the building that once housed the offices of the Bush Terminal, was just a few steps away.