America's First Aircraft Carrier
USS Birmingham 14 November 1910


Thanks to Ford Murray, USS Missouri tour guide, for finding this:

While arguably not the first 'Carrier' takeoff, it certainly was the first takeoff from a warship and lead to the development of what we now know as the Aircraft Carrier.

In October 1910 Captain Washington I. Chambers, who was responsible for aviation matters at the Navy Department, traveled to Belmont Park, New York, to inspect the flimsy aircraft and meet with pioneer aviators at the International Air Meet. While discussing the prospects for the taking aircraft to sea, he was impressed by the technical abilities of Eugene Ely, Elya demonstration pilot working with airplane builder Glenn Curtiss. Early the following month, the Captain visited another air show, near Baltimore, Maryland, and again saw Ely. Upon hearing that Chambers was interested in having a plane fly from a ship, Ely volunteered for the task.

In less than two week's time, with financial help from wealthy aviation enthusiast John Barry Ryan, official backing from Assistant Secretary of the Navy Beekman Winthrop, and Eugene Ely's drive and initiative, Chambers managed to generate a historic achievement that marked the physical beginning of U.S. Navy flying. At the Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia, a wooden platform was quickly constructed over the foredeck of the scout cruiser Birmingham. Designed by Naval Constructor William McEntree and paid for with a few hundred dollars of Ryan's money, this structure sloped down five degrees from the cruiser's bridge to her bow to provide a gravity-assisted 57-foot takeoff run for Ely's Curtiss pusher airplane.

The plane, placed on board by the morning of 14 November 1910, had its engine installed by Ely and his mechanics as the ship prepared to leave port. Shortly before noon, Birmingham steamed down the Elizabeth River toward Hampton Roads, where the flight was to take place. However, the weather was dreadful, with squalls rolling by and threatening to thwart the affair. Birmingham anchored to await improved conditions. In mid-afternoon, with things looking somewhat clearer, she began to raise her anchor chain. Eugene Ely, warming up his plane's engine and checking its controls, waited impatiently during this lengthy process. Noticing that visibility was again deteriorating, he concluded that the attempt had to be made immediately, even though the ship was still stationary. At 3:16 PM he gunned his engine, gave the release signal, rolled down the ramp and was airborne, almost.

The Curtiss briefly touched the water, throwing up enough spray to damage its propeller, and vibrated heavily as it climbed. Ely, a non-swimmer, realized that a quick landing was essential. He touched down on nearby Willoughby Spit after some five minutes in the air. This two and a half mile flight, the first time an airplane had taken off from a warship, was something of a stunt. However, it received wide publicity. On 18 January 1911, on the opposite side of the Continent in San Francisco Bay, Eugene Ely would again operate from a ship, landing and taking off from the armored cruiser Pennsylvania. One day later, Lieutenant Theodore G. Ellyson began the flight training that would make him the U.S. Navy's first aviator.

A floating crane lifts Eugene B. Ely's Curtiss pusher airplane from the Norfolk Navy Yard pier, Virginia, in preparation for placing it on board USS Birmingham (Scout Cruiser # 2), shortly before the flight.
Birmingham is partially visible at left, behind the crane.


placing Sailors and civilians crowd around Eugene B. Ely's Curtiss pusher airplane as a floating crane places it on board USS Birmingham (Scout Cruiser # 2). Photographed at the Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia, shortly before the flight.
Another view of Eugene B. Ely's Curtiss pusher airplane from the Norfolk Navy Yard pier in preparation for his first flight.
on runway


USS Birmingham (Scout Cruiser # 2) steams down river from the Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia, with Eugene B. Ely's Curtiss pusher airplane on board, at about midday on 14 November 1910.

Ely and his plane made their historic flight later that afternoon.

Preparing for the takeoff preparing
runway The view down the "runway"

Eugene B. Ely flies his Curtiss pusher airplane off the deck of USS Birmingham (Scout Cruiser # 2), in Hampton Roads, Virginia, during the afternoon of 14 November 1910.
USS Roe (Destroyer # 24) is visible beyond Birmingham's bow, acting as plane guard.
Note that Birmingham's anchor is in the process of being hoisted.



  Off the deck, before touching the water and recovering to a successful landing.  He touched down on nearby Willoughby Spit after some five minutes in the air.


On October 19, 1911, while flying at an exhibition in Macon, Georgia, his plane was late pulling out of a dive and crashed.  Ely jumped clear of the wrecked aircraft, but his neck was broken, and he died a few minutes later.  His body was returned to his birthplace for burial.

In 1933, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross posthumously by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in recognition of his contribution to naval aviation. An exhibit of retired naval aircraft at Naval Air Station Norfolk in Virginia bears Ely's name, and a granite historical marker in Newport News, Virginia, overlooks the waters where Ely made his historic flight in 1910 and recalls his contribution to military aviation, naval in particular.


Check back for a page in progress detailing the First Carrier Landing