Now that it's 2012, the Centennial of Naval Aviation is officially over, but the Navy nonetheless took note this week that 101 years ago, on Jan. 18, 1911, a pilot landed his airplane on a ship for the first time. A temporary platform, 120 by 30 feet, was built across the afterdeck of the armored cruiser Pennsylvania, anchored off the San Francisco waterfront. The ship's crew rigged a series of ropes across the platform to catch hooks attached to the landing gear of Eugene Ely's Curtiss Pusher biplane. Thousands of spectators lined the shore to watch the historic attempt. Ely flew around the ship to set up the landing course, then came in toward the stern. "Ely was prepared to handle the existing tailwind, but apparently did not expect the updraft that struck his lightly-loaded plane just as it reached the platform," says the Navy website. "Fortunately, he responded quickly, dove, and snagged the arresting gear about halfway up its length."
The ropes were weighed down by sandbags, and pulled the pusher to a smooth stop. As a precaution, the ship's crew had also rigged canvas awnings in front and to the sides to catch the airplane in case of an overrun or a swerve off the platform. "This arrangement was a clever one, worked well, and in general pointed the way to the arresting gear and safety barrier system that is employed on the Navy's aircraft carriers to this day," says the Navy. At EAA AirVenture last summer, AVweb's Jeff Van West spoke with retired Navy pilot Bob Coolbaugh, who built a replica of Ely's Pusher and flew it to the airshow. Click here for a video report.