March 25th, 1898
Beginning of the Navy’s Interest in Aviation
In 1898, Theodore Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, ushered in the beginning of Naval Aviation, with a proposal that the Navy investigate Samuel Langley’s flying machine for military purposes. However, as an article printed in the January 1971 issue of Proceedings notes, a long time passed between Roosevelt’s proposal and the first use of planes by the Navy. The article excerpted below, written by Thomas Ray, documents the first application of Roosevelt’s proposal, beginning in 1910.
Prior to September 1910—when the Navy Department appointed an officer to keep abreast of world aviation developments—the U. S. Navy had manifested little interest in aviation except to send token representation to certain aeronautical test flights and meets. And the only reason Captain Washington Irving Chambers, the officer so appointed, was given this duty was because the U. S. Aeronautical Reserve (a private organization composed of military, naval, and civilian aviation proponents) requested the Navy Department to designate an officer with whom the Reserve could correspond on matters relating to aeronautics.
But the Navy Department actually had good reason for not embarking on an aviation program prior to the autumn of 1910. For one thing, the aircraft of this period were not designed to operate in conjunction with Navy ships. They were frail, underpowered vehicles comprised of a patchwork of fabric and bamboo barely capable of taking one or two persons aloft. They were yet in experimental stages of development, and at best were hazardous to fly. Worse still, they could not operate from water. Except for a pontoon-equipped airplane, test-flown in France during the spring of 1910, no water planes had been constructed and flown. The navies of the world, therefore, had decided not to risk adding aircraft to their forces before 1910. Indeed, the armies of the world had only recently begun to add aircraft. The U. S. Army, for example, had obtained its first airplane from the Wright brothers only one year before Captain Chambers’ appointment to represent the Navy Department on aeronautical matters.
Captain Chambers, then in his mid-fifties, was a skilled engineer and by reputation an aggressive officer. His conviction that aviation could materially improve the Navy’s ability to conduct warfare inspired aviation enthusiasts to believe that naval aviation was virtually under way.
When the Navy’s General Board proposed, on 1 October 1910, that “the subject of providing space for a dirigible or aeroplane (whichever is deemed most advisable) as well as means for exercising them be taken up by the technical bureaus in connection with the design of scouts,” the Bureau of Steam Engineering recommended that an airplane be purchased for use on board the USS Chester. Although the General Board concurred with this recommendation, the Office of the Secretary of Navy was not disposed to purchase an airplane at this time.
The Bureau of Construction and Repair; on the other hand, met with better success on 11 October when it recommended that an officer from the Bureau of Construction and Repair, and another from the Bureau of Steam Engineering investigate the subject of aviation. Acting Secretary of the Navy Beekman Winthrop approved and directed that any officers so appointed should keep Captain Chambers informed of their investigations and findings. Naval Constructor William McEntee and Lieutenant Nathaniel H. Wright were thus appointed by the Bureau of Construction and Repair and Bureau of Steam Engineering, respectively. . . .
As a prophet advocating the marriage of aircraft to naval ships, Captain Chambers was faced with a double task. First, he was obliged to win Navy converts by promoting and sustaining interest in aviation among officers of the Navy Department; second, he was impelled to experiment with airplanes, which hitherto had operated solely from the ground.
The earliest demonstration flight engineered by Captain Chambers evolved as the world’s first successful takeoff of an airplane from the deck of a ship. In November 1910, during the aerial meet at Halethorpe, Maryland, Captain Chambers requested the Wright brothers to risk a takeoff from the deck of a ship. Wilbur Wright considered such an experiment too hazardous and declined the invitation. Eugene Ely, however, a 25-year-old Curtiss-trained pilot who had flown without particular distinction in the Belmont and Halethorpe air meets, volunteered to attempt the takeoff, even though he knew that the Navy Department had no funds to pay him.
On 14 November 1910, Eugene Ely readied his 4-cylinder Curtiss pusher biplane, which was especially equipped with auxiliary floats in case Ely should be forced to alight on the ocean. . . .
The U. S. destroyers Terry and Roe accompanied the Birmingham to retrieve Ely—if he should fall into the sea—thus becoming the first “planeguards.” . . .
It was originally planned for the Birmingham to steam at ten knots into the wind to assist Ely’s takeoff, but owing to a drizzling rain, hail, and a heavy overcast, the ship remained anchored while awaiting better weather. Then at 3: 16 p.m., while the ship was weighing anchor, Eugene Ely roared down the makeshift deck and took off. . . .