Eugene Burton Ely

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Eugene Burton Ely
Born(1886-10-21)October 21, 1886
Williamsburg, Iowa
DiedOctober 19, 1911(1911-10-19) (aged 24)
Macon, Georgia
Place of burial
AllegianceUnited States of America
Service/branch United States Navy
AwardsDistinguished Flying Cross (posthumously)
Spouse(s)Mabel Hall

Eugene Burton Ely (October 21, 1886 [1] – October 19, 1911) was an aviation pioneer, credited with the first shipboard aircraft take off and landing.

Takeoff phase of flight in which a vehicle leaves the land or water surface

Takeoff is the phase of flight in which an aerospace vehicle leaves the ground and become airborne.

Landing transition from being in flight to being on a surface

Landing is the last part of a flight, where a flying animal, aircraft, or spacecraft returns to the ground. When the flying object returns to water, the process is called alighting, although it is commonly called "landing", "touchdown" or "splashdown" as well. A normal aircraft flight would include several parts of flight including taxi, takeoff, climb, cruise, descent and landing.



Ely was born in Williamsburg, Iowa, and raised in Davenport, Iowa. Having completed the eighth grade, he graduated from Davenport Grammar School 4 in January 1901. [2] Although some sources indicate that he attended and graduated from the Iowa State University in 1904 (when he would have been 17), the registrar of ISU reports that there is no record of his having done so - nor did he attend the University of Iowa or the University of Northern Iowa. [3] Ely likewise does not appear in the graduations lists for Davenport High School. [4] 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 set the speed record between Iowa City and Davenport. [5]

Williamsburg, Iowa City in Iowa, United States

Williamsburg is a city in Iowa County, Iowa, United States. The population was 3,068 at the 2010 census. Williamsburg is known for Holden's Foundation Seeds. Aviation pioneer Eugene Ely was born outside Williamsburg.

Davenport, Iowa City in Iowa, United States

Davenport is the county seat of Scott County in Iowa and is located along the Mississippi River on the eastern border of the state. It is the largest of the Quad Cities, a metropolitan area with a population estimate of 382,630 and a CSA population of 474,226; it is the 90th largest CSA in the nation. Davenport was founded on May 14, 1836 by Antoine Le Claire and was named for his friend George Davenport, a former English sailor who served in the U.S. Army during the War of 1812, served as a supplier Fort Armstrong, worked as a fur trader with the American Fur Company, and was appointed a quartermaster with the rank of colonel during the Black Hawk War. According to the 2010 census, the city had a population of 99,685. The city appealed this figure, arguing that the Census Bureau missed a section of residents, and that its total population was more than 100,000. The Census Bureau estimated Davenport's 2018 population to be 102,085.

Iowa State University public research university in Ames, Iowa, United States

Iowa State University of Science and Technology is a flagship public land-grant and space-grant research university in Ames, Iowa. It is the largest university in the state of Iowa and the third largest university in the Big 12 athletic conference. Iowa State is classified as a research university with "highest research activity" by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Iowa State is also a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU), which consists of 60 leading research universities in North America.

Ely was living in San Francisco at the time of the great earthquake and fire of 1906 [6] and was active there in the early days of the sales and racing of automobiles. [7] He married Mabel Hall on August 7, 1907; he was 21 and she was 17, which meant the marriage required her mother's consent; [7] [8] they honeymooned in Colorado. [9] The Elys relocated to Nevada City, California, in 1909, and for a time he drove an "auto stage" delivery route. [10]

1906 San Francisco earthquake major earthquake that struck San Francisco and the coast of Northern California

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck the coast of Northern California at 5:12 a.m. on Wednesday, April 18 with an estimated moment magnitude of 7.9 and a maximum Mercalli intensity of XI (Extreme). High intensity shaking was felt from Eureka on the North Coast to the Salinas Valley, an agricultural region to the south of the San Francisco Bay Area. Devastating fires soon broke out in the city and lasted for several days. As a result, up to 3,000 people died and over 80% of the city of San Francisco was destroyed. The events are remembered as one of the worst and deadliest earthquakes in the history of the United States. The death toll remains the greatest loss of life from a natural disaster in California's history and high in the lists of American disasters.

Auto racing motorsport involving the racing of cars for competition

Auto racing is a motorsport involving the racing of automobiles for competition.

Nevada City, California City in California, United States

Nevada City is the county seat of Nevada County, California, United States, located 60 miles (97 km) northeast of Sacramento, 84 miles (135 km) southwest of Reno and 147 miles (237 km) northeast of San Francisco. The population was 3,068 as of the 2010 Census.

The couple moved to Portland, Oregon, in early 1910, where he got a job as an auto salesman, working for E. Henry Wemme. [7] Soon after, Wemme purchased one of Glenn Curtiss' first four-cylinder biplanes and acquired the franchise for the Pacific Northwest. Wemme was unable to fly the Curtiss biplane, but Ely, believing that flying was as easy as driving a car, offered to fly it. He ended up crashing it instead, and feeling responsible, he bought the wreck from Wemme. [7] Within a few months he had repaired the aircraft and learned to fly. [7] He flew it in the Portland area, then headed to Minneapolis, Minnesota in June 1910 to participate in an exhibition, where he met Curtiss and started working for him. [7] After an unsuccessful attempt in Sioux City, Iowa, [11] Ely's first reported exhibition on behalf of Curtiss was in Winnipeg in July 1910. [12] Ely received the Aero Club of America pilot's license #17 on October 5, 1910. [7]

Portland, Oregon city in Oregon, USA

Portland, officially the City of Portland, is the largest and most populous city in the U.S. state of Oregon and the seat of Multnomah County. It is a major port in the Willamette Valley region of the Pacific Northwest, at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers. As of 2018, Portland had an estimated population of 653,115, making it the 25th most populated city in the United States, and the second-most populous in the Pacific Northwest after Seattle. Approximately 2.4 million people live in the Portland metropolitan statistical area (MSA), making it the 25th most populous in the United States. Its combined statistical area (CSA) ranks 19th-largest with a population of around 3.2 million. Approximately 60% of Oregon's population resides within the Portland metropolitan area.

Ernest Heinrich Wemme (1861–1914) was a German businessman and philanthropist who came to prominence in Portland, in the U.S. state of Oregon. He was an active business investor during the pioneering era of automobiles and aviation.

This is a list of aviation-related events from 1910:

Ely takes off from the USS Birmingham, Hampton Roads, Virginia, November 14, 1910 First airplane takeoff from a warship.jpg
Ely takes off from the USS Birmingham, Hampton Roads, Virginia, November 14, 1910

In October, Ely and Curtiss met Captain Washington Chambers, USN, who had been appointed by George von Lengerke Meyer, the Secretary of the Navy, to investigate military uses for aviation within the Navy. This led to two experiments. On November 14, 1910, Ely took off in a Curtiss Pusher from a temporary platform erected over the bow of the light cruiser USS Birmingham. [7] [nb 1] The airplane plunged downward as soon as it cleared the 83-foot platform runway; and the aircraft wheels dipped into the water before rising. [7] Ely's goggles were covered with spray, and the aviator promptly landed on a beach rather than circling the harbor and landing at the Norfolk Navy Yard as planned. [7] John Barry Ryan, head of the U.S. Aeronautical Reserve, offered $500 to build the platform, and a $500 prize, for a ship to shore flight. [14]

George von Lengerke Meyer United States businessman, diplomat and government official

George von Lengerke Meyer was a Massachusetts businessman and politician who served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, as United States ambassador to Italy and Russia, as United States Postmaster General from 1907 to 1909 during the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt and United States Secretary of the Navy from 1909 to 1913 during the administration of President William Howard Taft.

United States Secretary of the Navy statutory office and the head of the U.S. Department of the Navy

The Secretary of the Navy is a statutory officer and the head of the Department of the Navy, a military department within the Department of Defense of the United States of America.

Naval aviation air warfare conducted by forces under naval authority, or in direct support of naval operations

Naval aviation is the application of military air power by navies, whether from warships that embark aircraft, or land bases.

First fixed-wing aircraft landing on a warship: Ely landing his plane on board the USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay, January 18, 1911. USS Pennsylvania - First airplane landing.jpg
First fixed-wing aircraft landing on a warship: Ely landing his plane on board the USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay, January 18, 1911.

Two months later, on January 18, 1911, Ely landed his Curtiss Pusher airplane on a platform on the armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania anchored in San Francisco Bay. [nb 2] Ely flew from the Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, California and landed on the Pennsylvania, which was the first successful shipboard landing of an aircraft. [16] [17] This flight was also the first ever using a tailhook system, designed and built by circus performer and aviator Hugh Robinson. [7] Ely told a reporter: "It was easy enough. I think the trick could be successfully turned nine times out of ten."[ citation needed ]

Armored cruiser type of cruiser in the late 19th and early 20th centuries

The armored cruiser was a type of warship of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was designed like other types of cruisers to operate as a long-range, independent warship, capable of defeating any ship apart from a battleship and fast enough to outrun any battleship it encountered. Varying in size, it was distinguished from other types of cruiser by its belt armor—thick iron plating on much of the hull to protect the ship from shellfire much like that on battleships. The first armored cruiser, the Imperial Russian Navy's General-Admiral, was launched in 1873 and combined sail and steam propulsion. By the 1890s cruisers had abandoned sail and took on a modern appearance.

USS <i>Pennsylvania</i> (ACR-4) Pennsylvania-class cruiser

The second USS Pennsylvania (ACR-4/CA-4), also referred to as Armored Cruiser No. 4, and later renamed Pittsburgh, was a United States Navy armored cruiser, the lead ship of her class. She was originally assigned the name Nebraska but was renamed Pennsylvania on 7 March 1901.

San Francisco Bay bay on the California coast of the United States

San Francisco Bay is a shallow estuary in the US state of California. It is surrounded by a contiguous region known as the San Francisco Bay Area, and is dominated by the large cities of San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland.

Ely communicated with the United States Navy requesting employment, but United States naval aviation was not yet organized. [7] Ely continued flying in exhibitions while Captain Chambers promised to "keep him in mind" if Navy flying stations were created. [7] Captain Chambers advised Ely to cut out the sensational features for his safety and the sake of aviation. [7] 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." [7]

Curtiss Pusher replica in flight in 2011 1911 Curtiss-Ely Pusher Replica 2.jpg
Curtiss Pusher replica in flight in 2011

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the flight, Naval Commander Bob Coolbaugh flew a personally built replica of Ely's Curtiss from the runway at NAS Norfolk on November 12, 2010. The U.S. Navy planned to feature the flying demonstration at Naval anniversary events across America. [18]


On October 19, 1911, while flying at an exhibition in Macon, Georgia, his plane was late pulling out of a dive and crashed. [7] Ely jumped clear of the wrecked aircraft, but his neck was broken, and he died a few minutes later. [7] Spectators picked the wreckage clean looking for souvenirs, including Ely's gloves, tie, and cap. [19] On what would have been his twenty-fifth birthday, his body was returned to his birthplace for burial. [20]

On February 16, 1933, Congress awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross posthumously to Ely, "for extraordinary achievement as a pioneer civilian aviator and for his significant contribution to the development of aviation in the United States Navy." [21] 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.[ citation needed ]

See also


  1. Modifications for take-off required outfitting the ship with "an 83-foot-long ramp, sloping 5 degrees over the bow. The ramp’s forward edge was 37 feet above the water". [13]
  2. "The landing platform, constructed of pine planks, was 130 feet long by 32 feet wide. Ten feet of it hung at an angle – with a drop of four feet – over the stern of the ship. The arresting gear comprised 21 ropes – each with 50-pound sandbags attached to either end – laid across the runway. Each rope was suspended 8 inches above the deck. Three hooks had been affixed to the underside of the aircraft to catch on the ropes when the landing was made". [15]

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Glenn Curtiss American aviator and industrialist

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Seaplane airplane with an undercarriage capable of operating from water surfaces

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Curtiss NC-4 American flying boat

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This is a list of aviation-related events from 1925.

This is a list of aviation-related events from 1911:

1912 in aviation

This is a list of aviation-related events from 1912:

1909 in aviation

This is a list of aviation-related events from 1909:

Elmer Fowler Stone United States naval aviator

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The 1911 Curtiss Model D was an early United States pusher aircraft with the engine and propeller behind the pilot's seat. It was among the first aircraft in the world to be built in any quantity, all of which were produced by Curtiss during an era of trial-and-error development and equally important parallel technical development in internal combustion engine technologies.

Theodore G. Ellyson United States naval aviator

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Thomas Scott Baldwin American balloonist

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Charles Francis Walsh American aviator

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Short S.27

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The 1910 Hartman monoplane or Hartman original was the first aircraft built and flown in Iowa.


  1. 1900 census, Scott County, Iowa. Williamsburg (IA) Historical Commission Obituary Collection Index "Archived copy". Archived from the original on July 9, 2012. Retrieved March 12, 2012.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  2. Davenport Daily Leader, January 21, 1901, p. 4.
  3. Becky Jordan, reference specialist, Iowa State University, March 12, 2012
  4. Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Center, Davenport Public Library, March 26, 2012
  5. Iowa City Daily Press, August 26, 1904, p. 4; September 28, 1904, p. 4; December 3, 1904, p. 8; December 5, 1904, p. 1
  6. Williamsburg Journal Tribune, April 26, 1906, p. 5
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 Moore (January 1981) pp.58–63
  8. Genforum Genealogy courtesy of Cathy Gowder
  9. Williamsburg Journal Tribune, August 29, 1907, p. 10
  10. "Nevada City Advocate". Archived from the original on June 10, 2015. Retrieved March 12, 2012.
  11. Atlantic Daily Telegraph, July 2, 1910, p. 6
  12. "WinnipegREALTORS®". Archived from the original on November 17, 2015. Retrieved November 14, 2015.
  13. Mersky, P. (2011). "Ely's Flights – Part 1, The First Launch". Approach: The Naval Safety Center's Aviation Magazine. 56 (1): 3.
  14. Hiller B. Zobel, John H. Zobel, "Those Magnificent Men", American Heritage, Winter 2011, pp.46–51
  15. Demers, D.J. (2011). "What goes up…". Naval History. 25 (1): 48.
  16. Accessed February 8, 2007.
  17. Accessed February 8, 2007.
  18. "EAAer Flies Curtiss Pusher Replica in Navy Centennial Ceremony". Archived from the original on November 25, 2010. Retrieved December 6, 2010.
  19. Skylark: the life, lies, and inventions of Harry Atwood . p. 25.
  20. Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, October 21, 1911, p. 16.
  21. U.S. Air Services, Vol. XVIII No. 3 p. 14 (March 1933)