100 Years of Naval Aviation

The Navy’s first pilot and 10 more milestones.

(US Navy/Lt. Cmdr. Tam Pham)
Air & Space Magazine

Before the U.S. Navy had airplanes or pilots, it had an interest in aviation. As aviation pioneers demonstrated their inventions in the United States and Europe, naval planners attended airshows to watch the new technology develop. By 1910, the Navy had appointed an aviation officer, and a civilian pilot, Eugene Ely, demonstrated that an airplane could take off from a ship. About the same time, Glenn Curtiss proposed free flight instruction to the Navy, and Lieutenant Theodore Ellyson was ordered to the Glenn Curtiss Aviation Camp at North Island, San Diego, to accept his offer. By 1911, naval aviation was under way. That year, the U.S. Navy bought its first airplane, the Curtiss A-1 Triad. From these humble beginnings the Navy’s aircraft inventory has grown to more than 30 types of fixed-wing, rotary, and remotely piloted aircraft today. We’ve highlighted a few in this list of 10 milestones, assembled to kick off the centennial. Well aware that 10 milestones can’t cover a full 100 years, we invite you to suggest what you consider the most significant aircraft or events in naval aviation history. Visit our Web site, airspacemag.com, and add your comments to this feature. The Web site also has a special section: 100 ways to celebrate 100 years of naval aviation—our suggestions of events, activities, exhibits, and further reading for the centennial year.  — The Editors

SOME PEOPLE MAKE their way into history through hard work and perseverance. Others show up by accident. Theodore Gordon “Spuds” Ellyson, the Navy’s first aviator, made history both ways.

On December 16, 1910, at the urging of aviation visionary Ken Whiting, Ellyson submitted a request for flight training to the Secretary of the Navy. At the same time, Glenn Curtiss sent a note to the Navy offering to train an officer—at no charge—in the construction and operation of his airplane. The air-minded Captain Washington Irving Chambers thought the proposal a fine idea, but by the time his recommendation got kicked down the food chain to the detail officer, it was December 23, and folks were trying to leave early for Christmas. The harried detail officer grabbed the first request at hand—Ellyson’s—and sent out the orders that afternoon.

Two weeks later, Ellyson was on North Island in San Diego Bay, learning the intricacies of the Curtiss biplane. At a local airshow, Ellyson sat in the aircraft—only the second time he had done so—and as the surprised crowd watched, he inadvertently took off on his first solo flight. A governing mechanism on the biplane malfunctioned, causing the airplane to soar 15 feet into the air before crunching down on one wing.

For chance acquaintances, Curtiss and Ellyson got along well. Ellyson happily tinkered with carburetors and leaky valves in addition to learning piloting basics. The two also collaborated on the seaplane, or “hydroaeroplane,” which Ellyson felt to be the future of naval aviation. He compiled an impressive list of firsts: He was the first passenger to go aloft in a seaplane, and was aboard on the first flight of Curtiss’ A-1 aircraft. He was the first naval airman to fly at night, and flew the first airplane successfully launched from a wire cable.

In March 1912, Ellyson tried out the A-2. Curtiss suggested a cautionary air test, but Ellyson ignored his advice, taking off over the two-mile straightaway. In a letter to Chambers (now in the Library of Congress) recounting what happened next, fellow student Jack Towers wrote: “[Ellyson’s aircraft shot] straight into the ground at an angle of about 45º and from a height of about twenty-five feet. It was so sudden that he did not have time to do anything and there was not enough room to recover anyway.” It took Ellyson more than five weeks to mend, but in September of that year, he added another accomplishment to his list: He piloted the first floatplane successfully launched from a catapult.

Something changed—we don’t know precisely what—over the next few months to turn Ellyson away from flying. In March 1913, Ellyson wrote to his wife, “I have decided to quit flying for good and all, that is never to get in a machine again for any reason. Things have come to such a pass here that I had to decide, either to go to Annapolis and take charge of the camp or quit for good. I have not told anyone yet of my decision, nor will I for the present. I cannot do the job half way.”

The next month would find him aboard the battleship South Carolina, where he seemed content: “I took the bridge today for about an hour, my first watch, and it did seem nice to be in charge of a ship underway once again,” he wrote to his wife on April 29. (Ellyson added, “I am really feeling fit and in good condition for the first time since I bumped my head out at San Diego.”)

A chance meeting with an aviator aboard the South Carolina reveals Ellyson’s conflicted feelings about flying, as outlined in a January 1914 letter to his wife: “B.S. Smith is here with two flying boats and is flying his head off. He must have been in the air over five hours today. I was sorely tempted to go up with him to get an idea of what Culebra [Puerto Rico] is like, but decided I had no right to with present responsibilities, since I am not in the game at present. Another thing I don’t like to go up when anyone else is doing the driving.”

For the next seven years, Ellyson roamed the seas aboard steamers, battleships, and destroyers, traveling to Haiti, England, Italy, and Russia with seemingly little interest in aviation. In October 1919, when offered a position as part of the commission charged with carrying out the Austrian peace treaty, which ended World War I, Ellyson complained to his wife, “I cannot understand what my status is going to be on this Commission…. My ignorance on present day aviation is pitiful, and I cannot understand why some of the Flight Officers in Paris, who were ordered over here for this job, are not detailed in my place. I suggested this to the Admiral, and he replied ‘I don’t want any highbrow aviators on my staff. I want a Naval Officer of some experience with a little common sense, and you are the one who comes nearest to fulfilling those requirements.’ ”

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