It Began at Belmont: The Birth of Naval Aviation

By William F. Trimble

In the fall of 1910, the elites of New York descended on Belmont Park, the horse-racing mecca in Long Island’s Nassau County, to be part of the International Aviation Tournament. One of the biggest and most sensational airmeets in the country at that time, the event attracted nearly 30 aviators from five countries vying for more than $72,000 in prizes for distance, altitude, speed, and endurance.

Glenn H. Curtiss, 32 years old at the time of the aviation tournament at Belmont, founded the G. H. Manufacturing Co. in 1905, building and racing bicycles and then motorcycles. After establishing a relationship with the Navy in 1910, Curtiss’ company would go on to produce many of the Navy’s early aircraft. (Photo from Glenn H. Curtiss Museum)

One of the featured competitors at Belmont was 32-year-old Glenn Hammond Curtiss. A native of the village of Hammondsport on Lake Keuka in upstate New York, Curtiss had burst on the aviation scene the year before at an aviation contest in Rheims, France, where he established a new speed record in winning the prestigious Gordon Bennett trophy. He further burnished his reputation as one of the world’s most celebrated aviators in May 1910 by flying more than 150 miles down the Hudson from the state capital of Albany to New York City, adding a distance record to his resume and capturing a lucrative prize offered by the New York World. Curtiss was as accomplished an entrepreneur as he was a flier. He built on his lofty reputation and his winnings to create the Curtiss Exhibition Company in July 1910 and hired some of the nation’s premier aviators to perform at aviation events across the country.1

When Curtiss arrived with his squad two months later on 22 September for the official start of the events, his chief rivals, Wilbur and Orville Wright, were already there with three machines. From France came a three-member Blériot team, and from England came Claude Grahame-White (also flying a Blériot), who was certain to place high in the competition. Determined to defend the Gordon Bennett prize, Curtiss entered a new V-8-powered machine, to be flown by one of his most promising young fliers, Eugene Ely. Prepped for the contest, too, were Curtiss’ long-time friend J.A.D. McCurdy and team members James C. Mars and Charles F. Willard. The Belmont meet also attracted three naval officers from Washington, D.C.: Lt. Nathaniel H. Wright, who was selected to survey aviation for the Bureau of Steam Engineering; Lt. William McEntee, representing the Bureau of Construction and Repair; and Capt. Washington Irving Chambers, recently detailed as assistant to the aide for material in the Office of the Secretary of the Navy to advise the Navy Department on the potential applications of aviation.2

An 1876 Naval Academy graduate, Chambers earned a reputation in the service as an engineer knowledgeable about torpedoes, mines, submarines, and the design of all-big-gun dreadnought-type battleships. He also had operational experience, having come to Washington, D.C., in December 1909 fresh from command of the battleship USS Louisiana. Far from a dreamer, and with a clear vision of what advanced technology could bring to the service and its missions, Chambers had the full support of Adm. George Dewey, president of the Navy’s General Board, who endorsed his appointment and insisted that “the value of aeroplanes for use in naval warfare should be investigated without delay.”3 If the Navy wanted someone who could provide a thorough and unbiased appraisal of the present state of the art in aviation and an honest assessment of its implications for the future, the service needed to look no further; Chambers was the ideal person for the job.

Chambers arrived at Belmont on 28 October to find a veritable aeronautical bazaar jammed with foreign and homegrown airplanes, aviators, and manufacturers, both amateur and professional. He liked the French Blériots, speedy monoplanes, and the Antoinettes (also monoplanes, which he found “the most graceful of all” and models of expert craftsmanship). Among the American airplanes, Johnstone’s powerful Wright Baby Grand set a new altitude record, while Walter Brookins’ Wright machine suffered from chronic engine problems. The Curtisses also drew Chambers’ attention, although regrettably they did not perform up to expectations. McCurdy failed to complete one of the distance events, and the new Curtiss airplane was a disappointment, considered too tricky and dangerous to fly. Curtiss wisely decided to withdraw from the Gordon Bennett contest, won by Grahame-White on 29 October in one of the Blériots.4

No one would have been surprised had Chambers looked to one of Curtiss’ rivals to introduce aviation to the Navy given the poor showing of the Curtiss machines at Belmont, but that was not to be the case. Chambers attended another big air meet at Halethorpe, Md., a short distance southwest of Baltimore, featuring Wright, Antoinette, Blériot, and Curtiss machines. There, on 2 November, he finally met Curtiss, who was present with Eugene Ely and Charles Willard. Chambers watched the fliers drop flour-bag “bombs” on a target and saw Willard put on a show of speed over a mile-long course. Chambers came away from the Halethorpe exhibition “deeply impressed with what he saw” and confident the Navy leadership could be convinced of the efficacy of the new technology “demonstration by demonstration.”5

Chambers found Curtiss receptive to the idea of working with the Navy on an experiment showing the feasibility of flying an airplane from a ship. In fact, Curtiss and McCurdy were already involved in just such a project. Following the Belmont exhibition, Curtiss arranged with the Hamburg-American Line to have McCurdy try for a prize offered by the New York World by flying from a liner at sea and landing in Manhattan with a bag of mail from the ship. Curtiss oversaw construction of a platform over the bow of the Hamburg-American SS Kaiserin Auguste Victoria. He told the press that he was “confident of the success of the experiment,” which if implemented on a regular basis, would save a day each way on priority mail deliveries. Chambers was to be an official observer. Bad weather postponed the tests, forcing Curtiss to transfer the platform to the smaller SS Pennsylvania. Damage to the airplane while testing the machine’s engine ended any chance to effect repairs before the ship sailed.6

There was some consolation in the cancellation of the experiment, for now Chambers had the opportunity to pursue his own plans for a takeoff from the deck of a ship; this time with the Navy’s full support. Chambers contacted Capt. Frank F. Fletcher, aide for material to the secretary of the navy, to borrow the 2,750-ton scout cruiser USS Birmingham for the experiments. Chambers also secured the use of Curtiss’ record-setting Hudson Flier and the services of Ely for the planned tests. On 9 November, workers under McEntee’s direction at the Norfolk Navy Yard began erecting a wood deck over Birmingham’s bow. Generally resembling the Hamburg-American platform, the structure was 83 feet long and 24 feet wide, with a slope of five degrees. It was 37 feet above the water at its extreme end.7

As soon as the Halethorpe exhibition ended on 12 November, Ely headed for Norfolk, arriving with the airplane the next day. Chambers’ plan was to have Birmingham stand out into Chesapeake Bay, and at about 50 miles offshore launch Ely while making about 10 knots. Four torpedo boat destroyers would be stationed along the flight path back to the Norfolk Navy Yard. On the morning of 14 November, sailors lifted Ely’s airplane onto the platform, and Birmingham got under way about 1130. As the ship pulled up not far off Old Point Comfort, the big question was the weather. The wind was light and chilly, with fog, a few rain showers, and even some hail moving through the area. Because the forecast called for even worse conditions, the consensus was to go ahead with the demonstration as soon as possible, but heavy rain through the early afternoon held things up until about 1500, when it finally let up. Ely quickly got into the machine, and decided to make the attempt even though the ship was still at anchor. Sixteen minutes later, Ely rolled down the deck and off the forward edge of the platform. As he dove to gain as much flying speed as possible, his wheels and propeller touched the water before he climbed to a safe altitude. It was a near thing, because the impact damaged the propeller and Ely was partially blinded by the salt water spray.8

Designated “Naval Aviator No. 1,” Lt. Theodore “Spuds” Ellyson participated in the first floatplane experiments with Curtiss aboard USS Pennsylvania in February 1911, and would establish the first air station, at Annapolis, later that same year. (Photo from Glenn H. Curtiss Museum)

Ely was experienced enough to know his limits; he would not attempt the flight to Norfolk with a potentially crippled airplane and under such poor weather conditions. Nearly getting lost as the rain “beat into his face,” Ely first turned out into the bay, and then back toward the shore. He spotted the beach on the north side of Willoughby Spit, not far from Fort Monroe, and landed without further damage to the airplane. A launch from the torpedo boat destroyer USS Roe quickly picked him up. The flight lasted only about four minutes and covered two and a half miles, nothing close to the original ambitious objectives.9

The ship experiments were only one dimension of Curtiss’ plans to bring aviation into the Navy. On 29 November, he wrote to Secretary of the Navy George von L. Meyer: “My own experiences and the results attained by several of the aviators operating machines for me justify me in venturing to prophesy that the military branches of the government, in the very near future, will find an aeroplane equipment absolutely essential.” Curtiss explained that he was “prepared to instruct an officer of the navy in the operation and construction of the Curtiss aeroplane,” adding that “I am making this offer with the understanding that it involves no expense for the Navy Department” other than what it would cost to assign such an officer to aviation duty. The Navy accepted the offer on 13 December.10

The Navy’s quick and positive response to Curtiss’ proposal was not surprising. Less than two weeks earlier, Lt. Wright had proposed the Navy buy two airplanes each from the principal American manufacturers, and Chambers made it known he wanted to have officers trained by Wright and Curtiss before the Navy took possession of its first airplanes.11

Chambers’ choice for flight instruction with Curtiss was Theodore C. (“Spuds”) Ellyson, a 1905 Annapolis graduate who was just entering the submarine service. Kenneth Whiting, a friend and fellow Academy classmate and a convert to flying, had sounded him out on aviation earlier in December. Discouraged by delays in completing the sub he was slated to command, and figuring he had nothing to lose at that stage of his career, Ellyson put in for aviation duty on 16 December.

Chambers wanted an officer who was young, technically inclined, energetic (preferably with athletic ability), and who would help establish the legitimacy of aviation. “I remind you,” he wrote to Ellyson in early 1911, “that you were selected because you were not regarded as a crank but as a well balanced man who would be able to assist in building up a system of aviation training in the Navy. I’ve no doubt you see the importance of avoiding the hippodrome part of the business and will not do stunts just for the sake of notoriety or to thrill the crowd.” Ellyson was available immediately to travel to the West Coast to join Curtiss, who, among other things, was getting his team ready for two major California aviation exhibitions.12

Ellyson arrived in Los Angeles on 2 January 1911 and went straight to Dominguez Field outside the city, where he met Curtiss for the first time. He found Curtiss busy with the Los Angeles meet and another one in San Francisco, as well as with plans to lease a portion of North Island in San Diego Bay, where he planned to continue his aviation experiments and flight instruction in a more salubrious climate than wintertime Hammondsport. Ellyson liked Curtiss from the start and relished the opportunity to gain firsthand knowledge of airplane construction and operation.13

Eugene Ely prepares to take off after landing successfully aboard USS Pennsylvania on 18 January 1911. Ely wore an impromptu life-saving device in the form of two bicycle inner tubes—a precaution he ended up not needing.

While Curtiss made arrangements for his aviation camp at San Diego, he began working with Chambers on another dramatic Navy ship-flying experiment to be held in conjunction with the San Francisco air meet beginning 7 January at the Tanforan racetrack south of the city. Curtiss and Chambers understood that for the airplane to prove itself in naval warfare not only did it have to take off from a ship at sea, it also had to be recovered. There were two alternatives. The first, and the most hazardous, was to land on board the ship, which involved expert flying and a specially constructed platform. The second was easier: land on the water next to the ship and be hauled aboard. This required a craft, later known as a hydroairplane, that was capable of taking off from and landing on the water. Curtiss was hard at work on a hydroairplane, but it was far from perfected. So both he and Chambers agreed that, despite the risk, the first experiment should be to land on a ship with a conventional airplane. Because Curtiss and Ely had committed to perform at the San Francisco exhibition and since Ellyson was also there, it made sense to plan a ship flight at the same time. Ely, the only aviator in the world to have flown off a ship, was the natural choice for the challenging new assignment, which Curtiss understood to be “most difficult of accomplishment.”14

The ship this time was USS Pennsylvania, a five-year-old, 13,400-ton armored cruiser commanded by Capt. Charles F. (“Frog”) Pond. The ship went into the Mare Island Navy Yard in Vallejo on San Francisco Bay on 4 January, where workers erected a wood platform over the cruiser’s stern. The 31½-foot-wide deck was gently inclined toward the stern and stretched more than 119 feet from the superstructure to the fantail. It fully covered the aft 8-inch gun turret and had a 14-foot extension angled at 30 degrees that overhung the stern. One-foot-high rails and awnings, stretched from the sides of the platform to the boat davits, provided some protection from going overboard. The slope of the deck was intended to help slow the airplane, and canvas screens at the end of the platform ensured against the possibility of colliding with the ship’s superstructure. Still, Curtiss, Ely, and others were uncertain about bringing the airplane safely to a halt. Ellyson may have suggested a method that bore a striking resemblance to later carrier arresting gear—22 lines, stretched between pairs of sand-filled sea bags and held a few inches above the deck by longitudinal wood runners spaced 12 feet apart, were to engage hooks attached to a skid on the bottom of the airplane. Pond vetoed the idea of having his ship under way for the test, fearing a collision in the crowded anchorage.15

Poor weather delayed the attempt until 18 January, by which time Curtiss and Ellyson had left to get the North Island operation going. Dawn brought clouds and mist with light winds, and there was an iciness in the air that Ely found “uncomfortable.” Donning a pair of bicycle inner tubes as a substitute for the pneumatic life-preserver Chambers had lent him for the Birmingham flight, and with “never a doubt” that he could pull off the dangerous feat, Ely took off from Tanforan at 1045. He found a “good stiff breeze” at a height of about 1,500 feet and some haze obscuring Pennsylvania as he sped along at 60 miles per hour. A half mile or so from the ship, Ely wheeled toward Pennsylvania, dropped down, and lined up with the deck when he was about 100 yards out. As he cleared the end of the platform Ely encountered a wind gust that tipped the airplane slightly, but he quickly adjusted, cut the engine, and touched down, the hooks seizing the 11th athwartships line and bringing the machine to a rest in about 30 feet. The time was 1101. Ely had made the whole evolution look easy, but Chambers knew better. In his follow-up report, he remarked on the “marvelous skill, accuracy of judgment, and quickness of brain” the aviator needed to pull off the landing.16

Capt. Washington I. Chambers was the first officer to be placed in charge of all matters concerned with Naval Aviation, and would prepare the requisitions for the Navy’s first aircraft on 8 May 1911: two Curtiss Triad biplanes capable of taking off from land or water.

Sailors, officers, and civilians alike applauded and cheered, and the ships let out blasts from their sirens as Ely triumphantly set foot on the deck. His wife Mabel was the first to congratulate him; Pond remarked that Ely was the “coolest man on board” his vessel. Following interviews, photographs, and lunch with Pond in his quarters, he climbed back into his airplane and took off just before noon on the return flight to the Tanforan field, landing at 1213. Ely told reporters that the flight had been “easy enough. . . . I think the trick could be successfully turned nine times out of ten.” Curtiss wrote to Ely to “congratulate you on your success with the flights to and from the PENNSYLVANIA and regret very much I was unable to be there.” Later, Curtiss reflected: “I don’t think there has ever been so remarkable a landing made with an aeroplane as Ely’s. . . . [A] few feet either way, a sudden puff of wind . . . or any one of a dozen other things, might have spelled disaster for the whole undertaking, deprived the daring aviator of a well earned success, and the world of a remarkable, spectacular demonstration of practical aviation.”17

Ely’s Birmingham and Pennsylvania flights, though obvious successes, were in reality little more than stunts. Superficially resembling modern carrier takeoffs and landings, Ely’s flights took place under circumstances unlikely to occur in wartime or even in peacetime maneuvers. Moreover, the platforms were rudimentary affairs that interfered with the vessels’ armament and would have been, at minimum, nuisances during routine operations at sea. No one understood this better than Chambers, who saw the hydroairplane as more promising for the immediate future. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that the Pennsylvania experiment was enough for him “to place myself on record as positively assured of the importance of the aeroplane in future naval warfare.”18

Eugene Ely, flying the same Curtiss pusher used for his flight two months earlier, landed aboard USS Pennsylvania at anchor in San Francisco Bay.

Ely’s ship flights of 1910 and 1911 heralded things to come. What had begun only three months before at the Belmont racetrack as an informal partnership between Curtiss and Chambers had grown into a full-scale collaboration aimed at determining where and how the new technology of the airplane would fit into the Navy’s immediate and future requirements. At Belmont a century ago, the aviator from Hammondsport and the senior officer from Washington, D.C. had set in motion a chain of events that within a generation would yield one of the Navy’s and the world’s most powerful weapons.

(Endnotes)

1 For Curtiss’ early career, see the author’s Hero of the Air: Glenn Curtiss and the Birth of Naval Aviation (Annapolis, MD.: Naval Institute Press, 2010). Parts of this article are derived from that book, with permission.

2 Clifford L. Lord, “The History of Naval Aviation, 1898-1939,” microfilm, Office of the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Air) (Washington, D.C. Naval Aviation History Unit, 1946), p. 24; Louis S. Casey, Curtiss: The Hammondsport Era, 1907-1915 (New York: Crown Publishers, 1981), p. 72; Hammondsport Herald, 19 Oct. 1910; New York Times, 21, 22 Oct. 1910.

3 Stephen K. Stein, From Torpedoes to Aviation: Washington Irving Chambers and Technological Innovation in the New Navy, 1876-1913 (Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 2007), esp. pp. 1-2, 59-66, 117-25, 134-45, 155-59; Dewey endorsement, 7 Oct. 1910, on H. I. Cone to SecNav, 7 Oct. 1910, Corresp. 1910-1919, Aviation Progress folder, box 10, Gen. Corresp., Washington Irving Chambers Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (hereafter cited as Chambers Papers, MDLC).

4 New York Times, 26, 27, 29 Oct. 1910; Washington Irving Chambers, “Aviation and Aeroplanes,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings 37 (March 1911): pp. 163-69.

5 Lord, “History of Naval Aviation,” pp. 24-25, 90; New York Times, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10 Nov. 1910.

6 New York Times, 3, 4, 5, 10, 12, 13 Nov. 1910.

7 Lord, “History of Naval Aviation,” p. 28 ; Chambers, “Aviation and Aeroplanes,” p. 174.

8 New York Times, 12, 14, 15 Nov. 1910; Chambers, “Aviation and Aeroplanes,” pp. 174-76.

9 New York Times, 15 Nov. 1910; Chambers, “Aviation and Aeroplanes,” p. 176.

10 Lord, “History of Naval Aviation,” p. 32.

11 Chambers, “Aviation and Aeroplanes,” p. 184; Archibald D. Turnbull and Clifford L. Lord, History of United States Naval Aviation (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1949), p. 11; C. R. Roseberry, Glenn Curtiss: Pioneer of Flight (Reprint, Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1991), pp. 257-58, 337-38.

12 Chambers to Ellyson, 11 Jan. 1911, Corresp. 1910-1919, Ellyson, T. G., 1911, Jan. 3 to Feb. 27 folder, box 14, Gen. Corresp., Chambers Papers, MDLC; George van Deurs, Anchors in the Sky: Spuds Ellyson the First Naval Aviator (San Rafael, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1978), pp. 13-14, 54-56.

13 Van Deurs, Anchors in the Sky, p. 56; Hammondsport Herald, 30 Nov. 1910; Roseberry, Glenn Curtiss, p. 310; Jerome S. Fanciulli to Chambers, 10 Dec. 1910, Corresp. 1910-1919, Curtiss, Glenn H., Nov. 1910-Dec. 1911 folder, box 13; Ellyson to SecNav, 31 Jan. 1911, Corresp. 1910-1919, Ellyson, T. G., 1911 Jan. 3- Feb. 27 folder, box 14; both in Gen. Corresp., Chambers Papers, MDLC.

14 Ellyson to Chambers, 18 Jan. 1911, Corresp. 1910-1919, Ellyson, T.G., 1911 Jan. 3- Feb. 27 folder, box 14, Gen. Corresp., Chambers Papers, MDLC; Glenn H. Curtiss and Augustus Post, The Curtiss Aviation Book (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1912), p. 120.

15 Chambers, “Aviation and Aeroplanes,” pp. 191-93; Ellyson to Chambers, 18 Jan. 1911; Ellyson to Chambers, 1 Feb. 1911; both in Corresp.1910-1919, Ellyson, T. G., 1911, Jan. 3-Feb 27 folder, box 14, Gen. Corresp., Chambers Papers, MDLC; New York Times, 19 Jan. 1911.

16 New York Times, 19 Jan. 1911; Chambers, “Aviation and Aeroplanes,” pp. 193-95.

17 New York Times, 19 Jan. 1911; San Diego Union, 19 Jan. 1911; Curtiss to Ely, 9 Feb. 1911, Corresp.1910-1919, Ely, Eugene folder, box 15, Gen. Corresp., Chambers Papers, MDLC; Curtiss and Post, Curtiss Aviation Book, p. 122.

18 Lord, “History of Naval Aviation,” p. 33; Washington I. Chambers, “Aviation in the Navy,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings 38 (June 1912), p. 745.