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This Day in “Plane” History, Jan 18 – Aviation Pioneer Lands Aircraft on Ship’s Deck

Eugene Burton Ely and the USS Pennsylvania Make History - #Tailhook

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It was 108 years ago today on January 18, 1911, that aviation pioneer Eugene Ely made history by being the first pilot to land an aircraft onto a ship’s deck intact, while also using the first ever tail hook system to secure the airplane.

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Ever since the Wright Brothers took off from kitty hawk in 1903, the U.S. military researched the possible implications of this new machine in military service. The navy was specifically interested in the possibility of using airplanes in naval warfare, for scouting, and later for actual fighting purposes as well. Eugen Ely teamed up with the navy in 1910 to attempt a takeoff from the light cruiser USS Birmingham. Though it was a success, the plane nearly plunged into the ocean, leading many to doubt its worth.

This did not dissuade Ely or the Navy, for on January 18, 1911, Ely took off from the San Bruno California Tanforan Racetrack, the army had taken it and renamed it Selfridge Field, in his Curtis pusher plane and headed toward the armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania. Moored in San Francisco Bay, the ship had a landing platform built astern. To make sure that the aircraft didn’t land on the platform and skid off into the bay, aviator designer and circus performer Hugh Robinson invented a tail hook to catch the plane on the platform. After having a meal with the ship’s officers, he took off from the deck and headed back to the airfield.

It was a great success for both pioneers, as well as Captain Washington Chambers, who would become the first officer in the Naval Aviation Program and was the naval liaison working with Ely. Though aircraft carriers were not built directly after this success, it was a huge milestone for naval aviation, and it was Americans that did it first, 108 years ago today.

Source: The First Aviators by Curtis Prendergast, The Epic of Flight, Time Life books.

About the Author

Ronald G. Mayer Jr. is a Native of Arizona and a graduate of the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. He teaches history at Liberty Traditional School in Prescott Valley where he resides. He looks forward to a career as a Professor of History.

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One response to “This Day in “Plane” History, Jan 18 – Aviation Pioneer Lands Aircraft on Ship’s Deck”

  1. Rick Hendrickson says:

    I was told my uncle invented the tail hook his name is Hazen Pratt. MN is that true? Rick. H

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