Aviation history was made in San Francisco Bay in 1911, when Eugene Ely, a pilot for fledgling Curtiss Aviation Company, made the first landing of an airplane on a deck of a ship.

The battleship USS Pennsylvania was the selected ship. A wooden platform 130 feet long and 32 feet wide was built on her fantail. A ramp-like extension hung down over the stern of the ship and at the other end of the platform there was a canvas barrier to prevent Ely's plane from plowing into the ships massive steel mast.

The morning of January 18 was frigid and overcast as Ely took off from *Tanforan Field in his Curtiss "Pusher" biplane. Made from wood and fabric, there was no cockpit surrounding Ely. He literally sat on the lower wing of the plane with a huge automobile-like steering wheel as his main control. As the clock struck 11:00 am, Ely flew out over the bay, turned around and began descending toward the platform on the Pennsylvania.

Throughout the planning stages for the landing, one seemingly insurmountable problem had been how to stop the plane in just 130 feet. It had no brakes. A cleaver but suspect system was devised just days before the landing. A set of rails, about 20 feet wide, was built the length of the deck. Lines were stretched across the rails and sandbags were tied to the ends of the lines. It was hoped that the lines would catch on the plane's wheels and stop it.

It took three tries, but on the third attempt Ely set the plane down on the deck. It rolled over the rows of lines without slowing. Fortunately the last rope caught the wheels and held fast. The plane stopped just a few feet from the canvas barrier.

Ely was actually blue from the bitter cold air that had buffeted him for nearly an hour. He was carried to the ship's wardroom and revived with several cups of hot coffee.

But when newspaper reporters questioned him about the landing, Ely claimed, "It was easy. I could do it every day".

Although Glenn Curtiss had to convince Navy officials that a plane could land on a ship, the landing was viewed more as a stunt than anything significant. Nevertheless, it represented the birth of Naval Aviation…

Richard Bauman is a freelance writer from West Covina, California.... I have been unable to locate Richard Bauman, if anyone knows how I can get in touch with him would you please email me

This article was found in the Fedco Reporter of all places,
Another first for the Pennsy..............

Ken Munro, 1999


To learn more about Eugene Ely:



* Thank you to George Van who sent this:

Your short bio on Ely and his historic flight is a little off.  You have him taking off from Selfridge Field and landing aboard the Pennsylvania.  Selfridge Field was just outside Detroit.  The Pennsylvania was at anchor in San Francisco Bay.  Long flight!!  Actually he took off from Tanforan Field which became a racetrack and is a little west of the current SFO.
George Van



Special thanks to the San Diego Historical Society