January 18, 1911
San Francisco, California
Mike: Mr. Ely, it is a pleasure to speak with you. Congratulations—amid all this noise and celebration—on your significant contributions, not only to aviation, but to the world, as the first person to take off and land on a ship! How did events unfold to bring us to this point?
Eugene Ely: I was traveling the air show circuit, performing what the promoters called “feats of great danger and thrill” when I met Captain Chambers of the U.S. Navy. That was last October. He was convinced it would be possible to take off and land an airplane on a ship, and he’d been appointed by Navy Secretary Meyer to look into how they could use aeroplanes for the military. So he approached me about doing it.
Linda: People have said that if there is one person in the world who would do it, you would be the one. Would you tell us what it’s like to achieve these accomplishments?
Eugene Ely: Of course. First, the takeoff. That was back in November. The 14th. I took off from the USS Birmingham, in a Curtiss Pusher. The Birmingham is a light cruiser, you see, and they built an eighty-three-foot sloping wooden platform for me. It went over the bow like a runway and was just long enough for the Pusher to get airborne (mostly). I flew off the ship and stayed barely above the waves. In fact, my wheels dipped into the water just a little bit, but I was able to pull it up. I wasn’t able to see too well though, because ocean spray splattered all over my goggles. So instead of circling the harbor and landing at the Norfolk Navy Yard as we had planned, I landed on the beach. But it all went well, and we proved what we set out to prove.
Mike: It was amazing you kept the airplane flying!
Eugene Ely: Yes, well, thank you. Then, of course, we didn’t try to do the landing that same day. I mean, I didn’t land on a ship the same day I took off of one. You see, we wanted to really think this through, the landing part, because landing on a ship is a huge challenge.
Linda: Yes, a moving target! And now here we are just two months later, in the San Francisco Bay, and you’ve done it! Congratulations, again!
Eugene Ely: Right. Thank you. Well, eventually we will land on a moving target, but today, since we’re just here to prove we can, they anchored the USS Pennsylvania to the bay. And the Curtiss Pusher came through again – it’s a wonderful aeroplane built by Glenn Curtiss, a great designer and builder.
Mike: And where did you take off from today?
Eugene Ely: I took off from the horse track down in San Bruno. Tanforan. Not far, about ten miles south of here.
Mike: And this isn’t only the first successful shipboard landing for an aeroplane, is it? There’s something else special about it, too. Would you tell us what that is?
Eugene Ely: Oh yes, we just tested out a new system that Hugh Robinson built called “tailhook.” It caught the hooks on the bottom of my aeroplane to stop me from going into the bay. It was easy enough. I think the trick could be successfully turned nine times out of ten.
Linda: Mr. Ely, even with your reputation as a daring and natural flyer, we understand that most onlookers could not fathom a successful outcome to today’s landing attempt.
Eugene Ely: That’s true. I think many people gathered here expecting to never see me fly again.
Mike: But indeed you will, and thankfully so. So what’s next for you?
Eugene Ely: Well, I’d like to go to work for the Navy, but we’ll see. They need to get organized with an aviation department, and I think I’d be the best candidate to make that happen. So far, Captain Chambers says he’ll keep me in mind, but I think he’s a little uneasy about the kind of exhibition flying I do. But you know, I love this stuff. It’s what I’m made of. I guess I will be like the rest of them, keep at it until I am killed.
Linda: Well, we’d say you’ve had a successful day and a successful career so far. Sirens and whistles are going off on all the ships in the bay. We’re celebrating the birth of Naval Aviation—delivered by a civilian. And it has all begun with a great pilot named Eugene Ely. Thank you, Mr. Ely, it’s been an honor speaking with you.
Mike and Linda Ely’s “Ely Air Lines” (Paper Airplane Publishing, LLC, January 2020) is a collection of 100 short stories selected from the first ten years of the couple’s weekly newspaper column about aviation – but written specifically for the non-flying general public – YOU! The Elys aim to put a face to the flyer’s world.
Mike Ely has logged thousands of hours over more than forty years as a professional pilot. He holds an airline transport pilot certificate with multiple type ratings and a flight instructor certificate. Mike has taught people to fly in small single engine airplanes, gliders, turboprops, and corporate jets. As a freight pilot and an international corporate pilot, he has flown through all kinds of weather, to many places, both exotic and boring. His love for writing was instilled by his father at an early age.
Linda Street-Ely is an award-winning, multi-genre author and playwright. She also holds an airline transport pilot certificate, a commercial seaplane certificate and a tailwheel endorsement. She has air raced all over the U.S., including four times in the historic all-women’s transcontinental Air Race Classic. Besides flying, Linda has a keen appreciation for great storytelling. She loves to travel the world, meet people, and learn about other cultures because she believes great stories are everywhere.
Together, Linda and Mike are “Team Ely,” five-time National Champions of the Sport Air Racing League, racing their Grumman Cheetah, named the “Elyminator,” and dubbed “The Fastest Cheetah in the Known Universe.” They live in Liberty, Texas.
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Ely Air Lines: Select Stories from 10 Years of a Weekly Column
Volumes 1 and 2 (sold separately)
Delightful stories of flying adventures from around the globe. Adventurous and heartwarming. Written by pilots.
Ely Air Lines is a captivating 2-volume set of 100 short stories that inspire and educate, written by pilots Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely. Step aboard to enjoy a collection of stories that explore the vast realm of the flyer’s world.
Buckle up and fly with Mike and Linda to discover amazing people, interesting places, and the conquest of flight.