“The most important landing since the dove returned to the Ark!”
Capt. Pond, USS Pennsylvania, 1911
The rain had finally stopped on the gray cloudy day on January 18, 1911. Pilot Eugene Ely sat on the wooden seat while his ground crew circled rope around him and the back frame of the seat. He pulled on the heavily padded football helmet that had thick flaps that covered his ears. He fixed his goggles and checked the bicycle tube that formed an X across his chest in case he had to land in the cold San Francisco Bay. A moment later the ground crew moved away and with cries of encouragement watch as the Curtiss Pushers motor throbbed loudly. Jolting and bouncing along the Tanforan Airfield the little airplane raced ahead and leapt into the sky. Eugene Ely, a 24-year-old ex-farmer from Iowa, was flying into Naval Aviation history.
After about 10 minutes of flying North towards Yerba Buena Island (then called Goat Island) across the San Francisco Bay Eugene spotted his target through the gray haze, the USS Pennsylvania. All the planning between Eugene and the Navy came down to the next few minutes.
The Navy’s interest in aviation was continuing to increase especially after Eugene successfully took-off from the USS Birmingham at Hampton Roads three months earlier. This was now the big test to land on a ship. There were many critics that believed “Airplanes were not built for operation at sea” as one newspaper headline declared. Despite the resistance and inflammatory remarks about airplanes and there usefulness on ships, Captain Charles “Frog” Pond agreed to build a 30’ wide 120’ long wooden deck on the stern of his ship.
As he flew by at topmast height, he was startled at the number of people wedged throughout the armored cruiser. There was also a smattering of large and small ships in the area vying for position to witness history. He also confirmed that the 22 ropes strewn across the deck to arrest his stop upon landing. The budget was so tight that Eugene and Capt. Pond chipped in together to buy the sand to fill the sea bags and the rope that was tied to the ends and laid across the deck.
After he flew by the ship he banked at 100 yards and set up his approach to land. On the Pennsylvania the voice of the Officer of the deck boomed, “Stand By”. Everyone on board fell completely silent and even though the betting odds were going against Ely everyone on board was pulling for him at that moment.
As he was completing his inbound turn, he noticed a crosswind blowing across the deck that would push him from right to left. Due to all the ships in the area and the constraints of the bay Capt. Pond could not turn the ship into the wind. Ely alertly compensated for the wind as he eased the plane closer to the ship. His calculation was perfect and about 50 feet from the sloping overhang he cut his engine.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, he felt the biplane balloon upward. A wave of apprehension swept through the crowd in a collective gasp. Ely eased the plane back down and the wheels gently struck the deck. The meat hook between the wheels snagged the 12th line and all the rest of the remaining lines brining the Pusher to stop a few yards from the final protecting cloth barrier. The plane did not have any brakes.
At 11:59am Eugene Ely completed the first successful Naval trap. After a long pause of silence, the impact of the achievement settled in, Wild cheering broke out. The exuberant shouting cascaded from the Pennsylvania over to the surrounding boats all the way to the shore. Ships whistles streaked, sirens in the city began to blare.
The ropes were loosened from around Eugene and his plane, as he rose his wife Mabel rushed to him crying, “I knew you could do it”. Capt. Pond shook his hand vigorously while photographers clicked away. Capt. Pond proclaimed “This is the most important landing since the dove came back to the Ark”.
Capt. Pond then guided the group to the quarterdeck. Before entering his cabin, he turned to his officer of the deck and ordered “Mr. Luckey, let me know when the plane is respotted and ready for take-off”. The reference “Respot” in this command was destine to become a by-word used in carrier aviation today.
As Ely was strapping in again for take-off, thoughts of the USS Birmingham swept through his mind. He recalled the frightening dip toward the sea. But his confidence returned to him once again and he chased any doubt away. He revved the Pusher engine and climbed away. Less than 15 minutes later he was safe again on the ground at Tanforan Field.