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Subdeacon Joe

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Navy Style



The first shipboard landing of an aircraft via arresting gear occurred aboard the Pacific Fleet’s armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania (ACR 4) off the coast of San Francisco, Calif. on 18 January 1911, by Eugene B. Ely aboard his Curtiss Pusher biplane. Capt. Washington I. Chambers, the Navy’s aviation officer, capitalized on Ely’s earlier historic success following “successful” launches from the scout cruiser USS Birmingham (CL 2) and Pennsylvania, and proposed to Ely that he double-down in the history books by becoming the first pilot to both launch and land an aircraft on a ship. (Ely actually damaged his aircraft during the launch from Birmingham, as the plane buzzed the water, damaging his propeller, and forcing him to land on nearby Willoughby Spit after nearly five minutes of flight.)

A showman to the end, Ely saw an opportunity to generate interest and fanfare for his aerial exhibitions, as he was also a test pilot for aircraft manufacturer Curtiss Pusher. Ely excitedly accepted Chamber’s offer and plans were made to turn Pennsylvania from the first ship altered to launch an aircraft, to the first ship altered to land one.

First, a landing deck aboard Pennsylvania had to be designed and built. The design wasn’t complex: ropes, anchored at their ends by 22 pairs of sandbags, each weighing approximately 50 lbs., were stretched across the ship’s 120-by-30 ft. deck. The aircraft’s landing gear was equipped with hooks to catch the ropes stretched across the deck, where the weight of the sandbags would slow the plane down until it eventually stopped. In case of an overrun, or a swerve off the ship’s edge, canvas awnings were rigged in front and to the sides to catch the plane and pilot.


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