Naval Aviation Celebrates its 100th Birthday

Glenn H. Curtiss had his hand in everything from motorcycles to engines for airships, but he is perhaps best remembered as the “Father of Naval Aviation.” Although his legacy is prominent in the mind of anyone who has an interest in the history of airplanes, this year marks a special reason to remember his efforts: the centennial of naval involvement with aviation.

Captain Richard Dann has been knee-deep in celebration preparations for several years, and approached Glenn H. Curtiss Museum director Trafford Doherty because of the important role Curtiss played in introducing aviation to the Navy.

“Everything that began in 1910 and 1911 led up to the Navy buying airplanes,” said Dann, director of history for the Navy on the centennial celebration. “It can’t be underestimated.”

In 1910, the Navy assigned Captain Washington Irving Chambers to scope out aviation technology to see if it would have any naval application. He was specifically interested in flying an airplane off a ship.

“He first approached the Wright brothers, who declined to be involved in such a wild scheme,” Doherty said. “Then he came to Curtiss and his pilot Eugene Ely, and they jumped at the chance to be involved.”

Ely, who was terrified of water, wrapped himself in bicycle inner tubes and took off from a 60-foot runway on a ship in calm air. Although the airplane grazed the water and suffered a damaged propeller, Ely managed to steer it to shore and land, marking the first successful flight off a ship.

Curtiss leased some land in San Diego, which would later become the famous naval air station, North Island. There, he offered to train Army and Navy pilots at no charge to pique interest in airplanes. Three Army officers and Lt. Theodore Ellyson from the Navy were sent there to take flying lessons. Ellyson became U.S. Naval Aviator #1 and in July, 1911, traveled to Hammondsport to take delivery of the first naval aircraft, the Curtiss A-1.

What really sold the Navy on the idea of aviation, however, was the hydroplane, Capt. Dann said. “The Navy didn’t want an airplane that could land on a ship, they wanted one that could land alongside a ship,” he said, because no airplane carrier ships yet existed. “When (Curtiss) landed alongside the USS Pennsylvania, they hoisted it up, Curtiss stayed for lunch, they lowered it back down, and he taxied to shore – that’s what finally convinced the Navy to buy an airplane.”

The Curtiss Museum held an evening celebration July 2 to remember Curtiss’s strides in naval aviation. Although a crash of the A-1 Triad replica into Keuka Lake two days earlier put an abrupt halt to its planned flight demonstration, the dinner gala with speakers Capt. Dann and Captain Chuck Downey, the youngest naval aviator in WWII, went off without a hitch. “This is really a celebration of history above all else,” said Doherty.

Visit the exhibit “Glenn Curtiss, Father of Naval Aviation,” on display through the end of the year at the Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport.


by Kimberly Price