This is “Eugene Ely Day” in Williamsburg, honoring a local hero who made aviation history. One-hundred years ago today, Ely became the first person to land an airplane on a ship. The biplane was called a Curtis Pusher while the ship was an armored cruiser, the U.S.S. Pennsylvania, outfitted with a wooden landing platform.
Ely was a self-taught stunt pilot and a Williamsburg native. Former postmaster Al Haworth is an expert on Ely’s achievement on January 18th of 1911. “He came in on his plane at about 40 miles an hour, dead stick, so if something went wrong he had no power to take off again, he just had to land, and he did land,” Haworth says. “His plane landed in 30 feet. He went in had a bottle of champagne and a little dinner and turned around and took off.”
To attempt the landing, Haworth says Ely pulled on a leather football helmet and used an inflated inner tube to cushion a possible crash, but landed his biplane safely on a ship in San Francisco Harbor. “They designed and came up with the first restraining cables which they use on all aircraft carriers now,” Haworth says.
“He and his crew designed them and they mounted them on the deck and they had three hooks on the bottom of his plane and so as he came in, he caught the ropes and the sandbags and dragged them about 30 feet and he stopped. He was the first one to do it and it turns out he came from a very small town in eastern Iowa.”
Ely won instant fame but nine months later, just shy of his 25th birthday, he was killed in a plane crash at the Georgia State Fair. Buffalo Bill Cody sent flowers to his funeral and years later, President Herbert Hoover honored Ely with the Distinguished Flying Cross. A plaque on the city square in Williamsburg commemorates the feat and two paintings hang in the local post office.
Efforts to have a modern aircraft carrier named after Ely have not yet succeeded.