THE MIDWESTERN HERO NOBODY KNEW
Eugene Burton Ely was born on a farm near Williamsburg, Iowa October 1, 1886. He worked as an automobile mechanic and later became a driver for a Catholic priest in Cosgrove, near Iowa City.
Eugene and the priest set a speed record for automobiles, driving fast between Iowa City and Davenport.
Ely later moved to the West Coast and in 1909, he bought a Curtiss plane in Portland, Oregon. Realizing the potential income from flying exhibitions; he taught himself to fly through trial and error, and refined his skills at a flying school run by aviation pioneer Glen Curtiss.
Curtiss signed Ely to his exhibition team. During an October 1910 show in Baltimore, Ely was approached by a Navy captain who was assigned to develop naval aviation. He asked if Ely wanted to try taking off from a ship and landing back on the same ship.
Ely accepted the captainís offer. It was a proposition with a great deal of danger. Ely might crash into the ocean or the ship's structure. To make matters worse, Ely didn't know how to swim.
Ely's willingness to give it a shot probably stemmed from his roots working on his family's farm. The Midwestern work ethics instills the idea that farm boys can do anything after working on the family farm. In combat, farm boys are the first to go and the first to get shot. That's just the way it is.
In November 1910, on board the USS Birmingham, Ely strapped bicycle inner tubes across his chest in a make-shift life jacket. He wore a leather helmet while roaring down an 83 foot-long, makeshift wooden flight deck. After clearing the ship, the plane lost altitude and its wheels dipped into the water before climbing back into the sky. After almost crashing, Ely landed on shore and wiped water off his goggles - the water splashed all over him as he skimmed the surface of the ocean. Ely became the first brave man to take off from the deck of the ship, and almost didn't make it! What a dare devil!
But he didn't rest on his laurels. In January 1911 he took off from a San Francisco racetrack and landed on the USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay. A hook hanging from his plane caught a rope tied to two sand bags on the deck of the Pennsylvania, giving Ely the distinction of being the first man to land on the deck of a ship.
Charles Lindberg got ticker tape parades and audiences with presidents and prime ministers while Eugene Ely's only fame was a glass of champagne and sandwich on the deck of the USS Pennsylvania. After downing his sandwich and champagne Ely climbed into his plane, took off, and flew back to shore.
Ely continued exhibition flying, giving most Americans their first glimpse of an airplane, flying by the seat of his pants while pushing the limits of his aircraft.
Just months after his shipboard take-off and landing, Ely was killed during an exhibition flight at the George State Fair. While a crowd of 20,000 watched in horror, Ely was unable to pull out of a spiral and crashed, breaking his neck in the fatal accident.
He was buried in a cemetery near Williamsburg, Iowa, but wasn't forgotten by the Navy of his home state. A Navy ceremony in Norfolk, Virginia marked the 100th anniversary of the first maritime takeoff. He was inducted into the Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame in 1994 and was honored January 29 at the Museum's 14th annual "Chili Fly-In".
It's only right that he be honored for being the pioneer of aircraft carrier warfare that marked the beginning of the end for the Japanese Empire at the Battle of Midway during WW!!.
The fame and fortune that eluded this Iowa farm boy, doesn't dim the lights of his accomplishments. All he needed was a good journalist, a windy politician and a puffed up admiral and he'd have been famous worldwide. That didn't happen, so I told his story to you, hoping I did something proper and you will do the same. After all, when we leave this earth, all we leave behind is our good name or the alternative.
Eugene Ely gave us adventure, honor and his accomplishments. What more could a man do for his comrades and his country. We salute him.
< Back to Stories