Stardust

Hoxsey

October 11, 1910. Kinloch Field, St. Louis. As Eugene Ely struggles to make the first aeroplane trip between Chicago and New York, former president Theodore Roosevelt arrives in St. Louis to campaign for Missouri Republican candidates. After initially declining a spontaneous offer to take a ride in an aeroplane by Arch Hoxsey, one of the leading Wright aviators, Roosevelt changes his mind and accepts. Hoxsey and teammate Ralph Johnstone will be dubbed the Stardust Twins within two weeks. Today, Hoxsey is the man who takes a U.S. president into the sky for the first time, performing a series of roller-coaster dips as Roosevelt clings to a strut. The Wright brothers are so incensed by Hoxsey’s recklessness that they consider firing him on the spot.

Archibald Eckles Hoxsey, born in downstate Illinois in April 1879, became fascinated by machinery from a young age. Named after his father, he went by plain “Arch” and was said to dislike the overly familiar “Archie.” His father died when Hoxsey was thirteen. Thereafter he lived with his mother, and would do so until well into his twenties. Eventually they moved to Pasadena, slightly northeast of Los Angeles.

Following the rise to popularity of the horseless carriage in the late 1890s, Hoxsey found employment as a chauffeur, obtaining one of the earliest licenses issued by the State of California. Dirigible pioneer T.S. “Captain Tom” Baldwin then arrived in Los Angeles in 1904 with his California Arrow, fresh off its triumph at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. On February 12, 1905, the Baldwin dirigible, piloted by Roy Knabenshue, won a cross-town race against a Pope-Toledo automobile for a hundred-dollar bet. The finish line was Hoxsey’s home town of Pasadena.

The capacity for speed of the airship fascinated the mechanic in Hoxsey, who began to associate with experienced aeronauts Knabenshue and Baldwin in order to learn all he could about dirigibles. Twenty-five year-old Hoxsey was described in the newspapers as a “boy genius” who spent all his time around machine shops.

In the autumn of 1905 Hoxsey built an airship of his own, based loosely on California Arrow. On January 2, 1906, he attempted his maiden sky voyage. “[F]inding that the gas bag would not raise the framework which he had built for his sky yacht, [Hoxsey simply] attached a [hot air balloon-style] basket, climbed in, cut loose the airship and sailed over the city at an elevation of thousands of feet,” for close to two hours. In the wake of that flight, Baldwin made a prescient comment: “I believe that I will live to see the time when some of we older fellows will have to take off our hats to him.”

Hoxsey gave up dirigibles soon after that first flight, however, sticking to the more remunerative occupation of driving automobiles. He served as chauffeur for Charles G. Gates, son of the oil and steel tycoon (and “barbed wire king”) John Warne Gates. A report published after Hoxsey’s death claimed that he had driven the younger Gates in Europe, which is certainly possible. But, by the end of 1909, Hoxsey was seeking new work.

Knabenshue, his old acquaintance and mentor, initially hired Hoxsey to assist in maintaining the engines of the Beachey-Knabenshue Racing Airships at the international aviation meet held in January 1910 at Dominguez Field, ten miles north of Long Beach. Two months later the Wright brothers were looking to assemble an aeroplane exhibition team, and they hired Knabenshue to manage it. He in turn recommended Hoxsey—who, if nothing else, had experience with flying machine engines, and even some time in the air.

Hoxsey, one of the first Wright students, went to Montgomery, Alabama, to take flying lessons. On April 29 he sent a telegram to his mother reporting that he had enjoyed his first ride in an aeroplane, with Orville Wright himself the instructor. Several weeks later Hoxsey flew for half an hour under the guidance of fellow student Walter Brookins. On May 25 the pair reportedly made two trips by moonlight, “circling, wheeling and going through all the evolutions customary in daytime.”

Hoxsey appeared in public for the first time at the Indianapolis aviation meet that Knabenshue arranged on behalf of the Wrights for the week of June 13. Hoxsey flew uneventfully for nearly three months after that, but early in September he had his first accident when he crashed into a barn in Lincoln, Nebraska. “Treacherous air currents,” rather than reckless flying, was identified as the cause. But in truth Hoxsey, like Johnstone, had grown overconfident and was experimenting with stunt flying.

Two days after Wilbur Wright ordered Johnstone and Brookins to quit all dangerous maneuvers at the Harvard-Boston meet, Hoxsey’s takeoff in Milwaukee went wrong when he was caught in a side wind. He crashed into the grandstand, without harming himself but injuring seven spectators. Immediately after the accident Wilbur Wright, having dispatched Hoxsey and Johnstone to Detroit for an unsupervised exhibition, felt the need to memorialize his strictures. He wrote to Hoxsey: “ I am very much in earnest when I say that I want no stunts and spectacular frills put on the flights there. . . . Please let Mr. Johnstone see this letter so that both may have the same instructions.” His final sentence underscores the extent to which the rivalry between the pair of flyers was genuine.

The Detroit exhibition passed without incident. A few days later Hoxsey flew nonstop from Springfield, Illinois, to St. Louis, a distance he estimated as 104 miles (point to point, it was closer to eighty-five, but he spent time circling in the air). His accomplishment was hailed as an unofficial American sustained flight record, no doubt much to the Wrights’ satisfaction. In his enthusiasm, Hoxsey capped the feat by giving the unauthorized ride to Roosevelt.

The problem the Wrights faced, notwithstanding their opposition to risky maneuvers, was the popularity of their star flyers—and the amount of money the sensational flights made. During the Belmont Park meet, the Stardust Twins alone brought to the company over $10,000 in prizes within a ten-day period (the equivalent of a quarter million in today’s dollars). Every penny in prize money went to the Wrights, while Hoxsey and Johnstone were paid twenty dollars each for the whole week, plus fifty dollars for every day they were in the air—days that excluded Sundays, by order of the pious brothers. So the Twins kept their employment, even as they continued to make spectacular flights.

Ralph Johnstone died in the crash at Denver on November 17, within three weeks of his Belmont Park triumph. As it happened, the Wright team was next scheduled to appear in Los Angeles, so Hoxsey went home to Pasadena for a rest. While he was there, Georges Legagneux, a French aviator, set a new world altitude record of 10,499 feet.

The Wrights did authorize altitude flights, and on Christmas Day 1910 (unaccountably, a Sunday), Hoxsey flew up to just short of eight thousand feet with ease. When he returned, he “descended so rapidly that he seemed to be falling.” All told, he remained in the air nearly two hours, performing various stunts “while the crowd went wild in its appreciation of his efforts.” On the following day, before a crowd of seventy-five thousand, he flew to 11,474 feet—well over two miles high—surpassing Legagneux’s mark by nearly a thousand feet and reclaiming the world record for the Wrights.

Hoxsey also, for the first time in his career, participated in a mock bomb-dropping accuracy contest that day, rising two hundred feet higher than any of his competitors and demonstrating a cavalier attitude toward the contest by eating one of the oranges to be used as “bombs.”Even with a three-point penalty for “malicious waste of ammunition,” he took second place in the event. His playful attitude manifested itself as well when he dive-bombed the judges on the ground.

Hoxsey established a new American endurance record on December 30, staying aloft for three and a quarter hours as he sought to break his own altitude record. His mother was said to be in the stands, watching and waiting, as he fought his way through some “air holes” at seven thousand feet that nearly caused his engine to stop.  He figured to have easily eclipsed his own altitude mark, but it turned out he had misread the barograph, believing he was at 12,575 feet when he was exactly two thousand feet lower. Somewhat ominously, he told newsmen that he had found it difficult to breathe even as low as seven thousand feet.

On the final day of the year, certain that no one would eclipse any new mark he set for 1910, Hoxsey rose high into the sky, chasing the twelve thousand foot barrier he thought to have shattered the day before. By some accounts, he was concerned that his December 26 record might not be accepted by European officials.

Hoxsey was gone an hour and a half when spectators spotted him descending, first in circles and then—from roughly five hundred feet up—in an uncontrolled tumble to the ground. Unlike Johnstone, he did not appear to have been attempting any aerobatics. Still in his seat, Hoxsey was crushed beneath the engine. An apocryphal story maintained that the news of his death was going out by telegraph even before he hit the ground.

The condition of the corpse made specifying the cause of death impossible, although the barograph showed that he hadn’t gone above seven thousand feet. Hoxsey might, perhaps, have lost consciousness after climbing at an unusually steep rate while attempting to conserve fuel. At seven thousand feet, he shouldn’t have been affected, but it’s worth recalling that he had reported trouble breathing at that exact altitude twenty-four hours earlier. Also possible is that the machine somehow malfunctioned and that, by diving too quickly in an effort to get to the ground, he blacked out.

Hoxsey was cremated three days later, after a service in Pasadena. Reports of the funeral listed Ely and Curtiss among the pallbearers and recorded that thousands of people came to pay their respects. A true national celebrity, Hoxsey had enjoyed a flying career that lasted barely eight months. He was thirty-one, and he died a bachelor.

A more extensive article about Johnstone and Hoxsey is due to be published in the Summer 2016 edition of the American Aviation Historical Society Journal.

Save

Advertisements
Stardust

The Reckless King of Bicyclists

Johnstone

October 31, 1910. Belmont Racetrack, Long Island. Wright aviator Ralph Johnstone sets the world altitude record by ascending to 9,714 feet in a Wright “Baby Grand” biplane. His achievement marks the culmination of a week of spectacular performances by the Wright team. Five days earlier, Johnstone and teammate Arch Hoxsey ascended into the gathering darkness and were lost to sight for ten minutes; journalists who speculated that they had “gone up to light the stars” dubbed the pair the “Heavenly Twins” or —the label that stuck—the “Stardust Twins.” They landed safely. The next day, strong winds pushed their lightweight aeroplanes backward, with Johnstone landing forty miles behind the place he started. But the altitude record outshines the earlier feats. And Johnstone is annoyed with himself for not having broken the ten thousand-foot barrier.

 

Born in eastern Kansas in September 1879, Ralph Johnstone discovered bicycles around the age of twelve. Within five years, as Norman DeVaux bicycled across the country, Johnstone was endorsing Oriental brand wheels and booking paid engagements in which he held himself out as the “champion trick bicycle rider of the world.” He toured the east coast in vaudeville shows, drawing praise and astonishment. Described as a “daredevil,” “the premier of all trick cyclists,” “phenomenal” and “the reckless king of bicyclists,” Johnstone developed a signature stunt in which he ascended a flight of stairs while balanced on one wheel (presumably the rear, although that was never specified) and then dropped twelve feet to the stage, still mounted, to ride away unscathed. Reviewer after reviewer marveled that he hadn’t yet broken his neck.

By the time he was twenty-two, Johnstone was married and performing in Europe. “There are cyclists and cyclists,” said a London reviewer, “and I am not going to start comparisons, but there is no doubt, in his trick jumping, Johnstone can justifiably announce himself as the Champion Trick Rider of the World.” Among other marvels, he could pirouette casually on his bicycle or play a tune by landing his front wheel sequentially on the keys of a specially-designed piano. His signature staircase stunt evolved to seventeen upward steps with three drops, including a final “dead drop to the stage.”

Around the end of May 1910, Johnstone gave up his bicycle performances and began learning to fly at the Wright brothers’ Huffman Prairie flying field, near Dayton. Wilbur Wright would later call Johnstone “the quickest pupil we had”—and small wonder, given his exquisite sense of balance. Within three weeks the Wrights were confident enough in Johnstone’s flying to add him to the program for the first public appearance of their exhibition team, at the Indianapolis motor speedway.

For Johnstone, an aeroplane was a bicycle he could ride in the sky. He noted that the Wright brothers were

the creators of the machines. I am in another class. I find these aeroplanes ready to be used for my purpose just as I found the bicycle. I couldn’t invent either a bicycle or an aeroplane, but I can use them, and use them better than the men who made them. Moreover, I can go on and on in discovering new methods of controlling and handling them, because I have the vaudeville performer’s instinct.

He had spent his entire adult life as a paid performer; impressing crowds was what he did.

Two months after Johnstone took up flying, a Wright exhibition at Asbury Park, New Jersey, ushered in the heavily advertised competition between “[i]mmaculate Archie Hoxsey, the dude of the Wright aviators, and his rival, Ralph Johnstone, the former trick bicycle rider.” Newspapers reported that the “deadly rivalry . . . provoked an exhibition of the most reckless flying that has ever been seen in America.” The two flyers staged “a thrilling aerial duel of sensational performances” and “flirted gaily with death in order that no one might be able to say that one was more skillful than the other.” Wilbur Wright confirmed much later that, for Johnstone at least, the competition was no act: “He was dissatisfied,” Wilbur said, “with merely equaling another’s achievements—he wanted to excel.”

But the Wrights were unhappy with the stunt flying of their aviators. Wilbur showed up in person at Asbury Park to caution his flyers against reckless performances. Notwithstanding his orders, Johnstone and Hoxsey began to take increasingly greater risks—including flights made in the rain (against the wishes of promoters, who would have preferred a postponement) and simultaneous night flights. Johnstone, starting at a reported fifteen hundred feet, routinely “lunged toward the earth, whirled his craft around almost in its own length, and then swooped down in front of the grand stand with all the grace of a giant bird.” Hoxsey “made a number of his scant perpendicular turns, hur[d]led over invisible fences, pirouetted like a ballet dancer and did an aerial hop, skip and a jump.” All of this occurred in an era when aviators wore no safety restraints.

The following month, while Johnstone was “grinding around and around the course” at the Harvard-Boston meet for a duration flying contest, he became aware that President Taft was on the ground. The aviator threw in gratuitous “graceful dips and tip-tilted air turns” as a salute. Then he and teammate Walter Brookins [see22 Apr 16 post] engaged in a little “fancy aeroplaning”:

Johnstone’s favorite act was to indulge in steep slides, shutting his engine almost off, then suddenly shooting down until he almost touched the ground, then sweeping up like a bird in flight.

 Brookins performed the most daring feat of the afternoon in making his famous short turns, standing his biplane almost on edge as he made a complete circle in scarcely more than six seconds. His machine reached an angle of more than 80 degrees at times.

Brookins’ signature stunt, popularly known as the “spiral glide,” was being copied by Hoxsey and Johnstone and performed regularly. Crowds showed up expecting to be thrilled by it.

But early aeroplanes were necessarily constructed of lightweight materials, and none of the three flyers seems to have understood the tremendous stresses placed on the fragile wings by such tight turns. Aeroplanes were, after all, built to fly horizontally. By making a turn at even a sixty-degree angle, an aviator experienced a g-force of twice his actual weight—and the spiral glide tipped a machine well past that mark. Wilbur Wright fully realized the danger: when Brookins and Johnstone persisted in their stunts at the Harvard-Boston meet, he “feared for their safety and ordered them to desist.” Johnstone achieved his greatest fame at the Belmont aviation meet in late October, confining himself to altitude flights and eliminating the dangerous spiral glides.

As autumn arrived with its unsettled weather, the Wrights decided to move their exhibitions to the west coast. Having been lectured again by Wilbur about the need to avoid “foolhardy risks,” Johnstone made his leisurely way across the Midwest, stopping to visit relatives in Moberly and Kansas City, Missouri. When asked about the future of aeroplanes, he was quoted as saying:

The machines will be much bigger, perhaps a hundred times bigger than those of today. It will require four men to operate them, and they will have four or five engines. They will have a comfortable state room and observation platform. They could do all that now if they had the engines.

He offered his opinion as well that the practical altitude limit for aeroplanes, given the engines of the time, was roughly fourteen to fifteen thousand feet.

Johnstone promised reporters he would attempt “no tricks” in the thin air at his next exhibition, in Denver. But on November 17—three days after Eugene Ely made the first flight off a warship—he did. Some accounts attribute his behavior to the sight of Hoxsey making a “daring flight far over the foothills.” Whatever the cause, Johnstone threw in a spiral glide toward the end of his first exhibition. He went on to make a safe landing, but the  recklessness of the stunt was sufficiently apparent that Brookins, nominally in charge of the other flyers, fired off an ominous telegram to manager Roy Knabenshue [see 4 Mar 16 post]: “Johnstone flies as he pleases.”

As Johnstone prepared to make his second flight of the day, a small dog stood in front of his machine and barked furiously, much to the amusement of the crowd. Johnstone avoided the dog on takeoff, rose to a height estimated at 500-800 feet, and went into the famous spiral glide expressly forbidden by Wilbur Wright.

The wire service account of what happened next includes this vivid description:

The machine tilted at an angle of nearly 90 degrees and [Johnstone] swooped down in a narrow circle, the aeroplane seeming to turn almost in its own length. As he started the second circle, the middle sp[a]r, which braces the left side of the lower plane, gave way, and the wing tips of both upper and lower [left] planes folded up as though they had been hinged. For a second Johnstone attempted to right the plane by warping [i.e., twisting] the other wing tip. Then the horrified spectators say the plane swerved like a wounded bird, and plunged straight toward the earth.

For more than a decade, those who watched Johnstone perform had marveled that he didn’t break his neck. Now it had happened, and in a most gruesome fashion: his back, neck, and both legs were broken, “the bones of his thigh being forced through the flesh and the leather garments he wore.” Less than six months after learning to fly, 31-year-old Ralph Johnstone had become the first American aviator-pilot to die in a crash. Walter Brookins accompanied the body of his teammate home to Kansas City.

The Reckless King of Bicyclists

Vin Fiz

Cal Rodgers

September 17, 1911. Sheepshead Bay, Long Island. Three years to the day after the world’s first aviation fatality, Cal Rodgers lifts off in a modified Wright B Flyer, intending to fly all the way across the country. Newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst has a standing offer of $50,000 to the first aviator who flies from coast to coast in either direction within thirty days, using start- and end-points at New York (or Boston) and Los Angeles (or San Francisco) and passing through Chicago. For eleven months after Hearst’s announcement of the prize, which will expire on October 10, no one has even tried. Cal Rodgers, 32, is the third aviator to start an attempt in September 1911. Rodgers has fewer than one hundred days of experience in the air. And he is completely deaf.

Calbraith Perry Rodgers was born in 1879 into a family that had already produced a number of high-ranking American naval officers, but scarlet fever contracted as a child led to a profound hearing loss that rendered him unfit for military duty. The wealthy Rodgers developed a fondness for sailboats, racehorses, fast cars, and cigars.

A younger cousin, John Rodgers, happened to be serving as a lieutenant and assistant gunnery officer aboard U.S.S. Pennsylvania when Eugene Ely made his historic landing on that warship in January 1911. John volunteered for aviation duty shortly thereafter, was assigned to learn from the Wright Brothers at Huffman Prairie (near Dayton), and would soon be formally designated Naval Aviator No. 2. Cal went to Dayton to visit his cousin in June, became enthusiastic about aviation, learned to fly, and bought an aeroplane of his own.

The next major international meet in America would be held at Chicago in mid-August 1911. To be eligible for prizes, each competitor had to hold a license from the Aero Club of America. Rodgers obtained his license on August 7 and headed off to Chicago, where he won more than $11,000, including a substantial prize for endurance flying after logging a cumulative twenty-seven hours in the air. His experience in that event persuaded him that a transcontinental flight was feasible, and he determined to go after the Hearst prize.

With no dedicated airfields along the way, and in anticipation of needing numerous repairs, Rodgers knew the undertaking would be expensive. He persuaded Armour & Company, the producer of a new Vin Fiz (loosely, “bubble wine”) grape soda, to sponsor his attempt. The aeroplane was christened the Vin Fiz Flyer, and the soda’s name was prominently lettered on the wings and tail. In return for turning his machine into a flying billboard, Rodgers received from Armour a support train, reimbursement of all his expenses, and an additional payment of $5/mile from New York to Chicago and $4/mile thereafter—the thought being that, because the country was more sparsely populated west of the Mississippi, the advertising was less valuable. Rodgers generated an additional source of income by charging to carry air mail, for which he had special twenty-five cent stamps printed. His wife Mabel served as his postmistress.

Rodgers left Sheepshead Bay on September 17, well aware that the Hearst prize would expire by its terms hardly three weeks later, but believing he had a chance to beat the deadline. Because he had no navigational instruments, he planned to follow railroad tracks, with the white-painted Vin Fiz support train alerting him to any confusing route issues. Unfortunately, a combination of navigational errors, mechanical difficulties and repeated crashes slowed his progress to such an extent that he didn’t reach Chicago until October 8; there’s even some thought that his deafness may have prevented him from hearing when the engine misfired. Nonetheless, motivated by his contract, as well as a desire to see the thing through, he kept on.

Rodgers flew with his pockets full of cigars, which he chain-smoked to give himself a bit of warmth. He wanted to avoid the Rocky Mountains, so he flew south from Chicago to Texas, and he was in Dallas on October 19 when he learned of Ely’s death that day in a crash. Although Rodgers himself wasn’t flying a Curtiss machine, as Ely had, the news reportedly made him concerned about possible mechanical issues with the Vin Fiz Flyer. He made a special inspection and discovered frayed wires that, it was said, would have caused a potentially fatal crash had they not been replaced.

Although Rodgers had by then already covered nearly three thousand miles in the air, he had taken more than the allotted thirty days to do it. Two days after Ely’s death, Rodgers formally gave up on the Hearst prize but continued the transcontinental flight. At Tucson, Arizona, he passed Robert Fowler, an aviator attempting to make the first transcontinental flight from west to east. Fowler had left San Francisco six days before Rodgers took off from Sheepshead Bay, and he would not arrive at Jacksonville, Florida, until February 1912.

Cheered on by crowds numbering in the thousands, Rodgers reached his intended destination of Pasadena on November 5. The trip had covered more than 4100 miles and had taken 49 days—twelve days more than Norman DeVaux needed in 1896 to bicycle across the country.  Rodgers nevertheless predicted that transcontinental air travel in less than three days would become possible just as soon as a way was devised to protect passengers from the cold, by seating them inside some sort of aerial cabin.

The following week, as Rodgers attempted to fly a final twenty-three miles to the ocean at Long Beach, where he had been offered $1000 by the city to land, he was overcome with drowsiness and crashed, badly injuring himself and wrecking his machine. On December 10, he symbolically completed the transcontinental trip by landing on the beach. Rodgers was still using crutches; spectators pushed the machine down wet its wheels in the Pacific Ocean.

Rodgers stayed on at Long Beach for several months, giving passenger rides. On April 3, flying solo, he plunged into the surf within a few hundred feet of where his transcontinental trip had ended. The engine behind him broke loose and crushed him. Earlier in that final flight he had chased a flock of seagulls, and there’s some speculation the fatal crash was caused by a “bird strike.”

Rodgers was 33 and had flown for less than ten months, but he was something of a national hero. His death led Mathilde Moisant to quit flying altogether and others, like Walter Brookins, to call for an end to sensational flights. Within two weeks of his death, Harriet Quimby became the first woman to fly across the English Channel; although she died on July 1, her likeness would be appropriated posthumously and used to market Vin Fiz.

Cal Rodgers was buried in his home town of Pittsburgh. The epitaph on his headstone reads: I endure. I conquer. He was one of the first aviation pioneers to be enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

Save

Vin Fiz

Spuds

Ellyson

July 1, 1911. Hammondsport, New York. On the earliest day authorized by Congress, Glenn Curtiss delivers the first two aircraft ordered by the Navy , which is also purchasing a Wright Flyer. One of the Curtiss flying machines is a standard pusher. The other is called “Triad,” from its ability to operate on land, at sea, and in the air. The acceptance flight for Triad, designated A-1 by the Navy, is made by Lt. Theodore “Spuds” Ellyson, a Curtiss student for the past six months. In the process of making the acceptance flight, Ellyson qualifies for his Aero Club license (No. 28), becomes the first licensed military aviator, and is the first person to qualify for a license while flying a hydroaeroplane. Years later, Ellyson will be formally designated “Naval Aviator No. 1.”

Theodore Gordon Ellyson was born in February 1885 in Richmond, Virginia. Enthused by the sight of the Fleet at Norfolk, he first tried to enter the U.S. Naval Academy at the age of fourteen, eventually graduating with the Class of 1905. His earliest tours of duty were aboard battleships and armored cruisers, but eventually he was ordered to the submarine service. For six months in 1910 Ellyson commanded the gasoline-powered USS Tarantula, an 82-foot submarine with a crew of one officer and nine enlisted men. He was then ordered to Newport News in connection with the fitting out of a new submarine, USS Seal, twice the size and crew complement of Tarantula.

Ellyson was nominally in command of Seal when he wrote to the Secretary of the Navy in December 1910, a month after Eugene Ely’s successful flight off a platform on USS Birmingham at nearby Hampton Roads: “I request that I be assigned duty in connection with aeroplanes as soon as such duty becomes available.” There was no such thing then as naval aviation, but Ellyson’s timing was fortunate: at that exact moment, the Secretary was deciding to accept of an offer by Glenn Curtiss to provide free flight instruction to an officer—a marketing ploy intended to convince the Navy of the military usefulness of aeroplanes.

Days before Ellyson sent his letter, Captain Washington Irving Chambers, responsible for keeping the Secretary abreast of developments in aviation, had listed what he considered the qualifications of the ideal naval aviator candidate: “A mature man who would make a good instructor later, an athlete with cool nerves, experience with gasoline engines would be helpful, a well balanced, conservative man who would not be a showman, an adaptable man and a seaman.” The description fit Ellyson perfectly.

As it happened, because the standard form response to Ellyson’s request for assignment had barely gone out the door, advising him there was no such position, his name was fresh in the mind of the duty officer. On Christmas Eve 1910, Ellyson learned of his acceptance, and he received his formal orders on December 27, including a directive to keep Captain Chambers informed through monthly reports.

Ellyson arrived in Los Angeles on January 2 and met Curtiss, who impressed him greatly. They traveled together first to San Diego and then to San Francisco, where preparations were under way for Ely’s attempt to land on a warship at sea. Newspapers reported that, the day after Ellyson’s arrival, Ely took the naval officer with him to inspect the platform under construction on Pennsylvania’s aft deck, and that he “made several alterations.” Coincidentally, Ellyson had served as an officer on Pennsylvania and was therefore familiar with the ship, but whether the reported visit ever took place is doubtful, given that the deck log fails to mention it. Ellyson left San Francisco for the Curtiss camp at North Island (near San Diego) prior to Ely’s successful flight, but he later told Chambers that, with respect to the primitive arresting gear first used by Ely: “[I]t was I who suggested the use of the sand bags and the spacing of the same.”

On January 29, 1911, Ellyson made the first ever attempt at flight by a serving naval officer. He covered some two hundred yards after what he described as an accidental dislodging of the throttle block—similar to what Blanche Stuart Scott had experienced at Hammondsport the previous October.

Notwithstanding Ely’s success in landing on a “false deck,” Chambers informed Ellyson of his desire to demonstrate to the Secretary that a warship equipped with an aeroplane could “exercise [i.e., fly] it, have it land alongside on the water and then hoist it in again.” Ellyson quickly reported back to Chambers:

I spoke to Mr. Curtiss today regarding your suggestion that an aeroplane be so developed that it could land alongside a ship and be hoisted aboard. He says that he has done this and tomorrow or the day after, if the necessary arrangements can be made with one of the ships now in the harbor, he will fly from the hangar, land alongside the ship, and be hoisted aboard, then be hoisted overboard again.

USS Pennsylvania, the ship used by Ely in January, happened to be anchored at San Diego. On February 17, Curtiss sent a message to Captain Pond, asking whether he could fly out to the ship and come aboard. Pond readily agreed. Without fanfare, Curtiss flew a tractor hydroaeroplane across the bay, landed beside the ship, and arranged to have it raised by crane to the deck. After reversing the process, he flew back to his North Island camp and wrote laconically to his business manager, Jerome Fanciulli: “I made the trip to the battle ship and they hoisted the machine aboard, today, before they left the harbor. Think this stunt may help in the sale.” Ellyson’s telegram to Chambers was more definitive: EXPERIMENT PROVED AEROPLANE ADAPTABLE USE NAVY.

The appropriations bill passed Congress shortly afterward, authorizing the Navy to spend $25,000 on aviation experiments. Although that was generally understood to encompass the purchase of aeroplanes, Chambers also directed Curtiss and Ellyson to conduct secret experiments with an “aeroplane target” project—an automated machine, roughly half scale and manned by a dummy pilot, that would be capable of climbing into the sky above a ship and circling until its fuel supply ran out, thereby allowing the Navy to assess the relative ease, or difficulty, in shooting down a flying machine that was attempting to bomb a warship. Curtiss offered to supply the Navy with these target machines at a cost of two thousand dollars for one, or ten thousand for ten.

Ellyson’s training proceeded smoothly. On April 11, Curtiss wrote to Secretary Meyer: “I have the honor to report that Lieutenant Ellyson is now competent to care for and operate Curtiss aeroplanes and instruct others in the operation of these machines.” Less than three months later, Ellyson took delivery of the Triad at Hammondsport. Shortly afterward, he and Army Captain Paul Beck successfully demonstrated the new Curtiss dual control system, which allowed either the operator or his passenger to fly the machine. In September, Ellyson made a successful experimental takeoff from an inclined set of wires designed to allow an aeroplane to take off from a ship’s deck without the need for a platform.

Over the winter of 1911-12, the Navy established its own tent camp at North Island, headed by Ellyson and located within a mile of the Curtiss camp. For a little over a year Ellyson continued to fly the machines that were by then being called “hydroplanes.” He survived a crash in early 1912 and, toward the end of the year, participated in experiments with a compressed air catapult designed by Captain Chambers that led directly to replacement of the hydroplane by the “flying boat.”

In January 1913, Ellyson was on the stairs at Washington’s Union Station when he slipped on a “grease spot” and fell, injuring himself severely enough that he brought a lawsuit, claiming he could no longer “pursue his detail in the Aviation Corps of the United States Navy” and was therefore incapable of being promoted. He sought damages of $10,000 for lost opportunities. The outcome of the suit is unknown, but it’s true that, after his accident, Ellyson no longer flew regularly. Whether because of his injury or for other reasons, he wrote to his wife: “I have decided to quit flying for good and all, that is, never to get in a machine again for any reason.”

Ellyson returned to sea duty in April 1913 and was eventually promoted to the rank of commander. After the United States entered World War I, he was detached for duty at the submarine chaser base in New London, Connecticut. He later sailed to Europe and served with a submarine chaser squadron based out of Plymouth, England. His development of tactics for the squadron, based on his prior experience with submarines, earned him the Navy Cross. After the war, Ellyson commanded three successive destroyers, but he was sent home in late 1920 “after nearly precipitating new hostilities between the United States and Germany” when he refused to leave Kiel Harbor, whence he had been formally ordered.

In 1921 Ellyson returned to aviation when he was ordered to Hampton Roads as executive officer of the naval air station there. Following the establishment of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics, he headed its Plans division. For three years, beginning in December 1922, he was the Aviation Member of the Navy’s mission to Brazil. He then commanded an aerial torpedo squadron and a seaplane tender. In 1927 he was ordered to serve as executive officer in connection with the fitting-out of the United States’ second aircraft carrier, USS Lexington, which was then docked at Norfolk.

On February 27, 1928—his forty-third birthday—Ellyson received word that his eleven-year-old daughter was seriously ill at Annapolis, roughly 150 miles up Chesapeake Bay. He was granted permission to fly an amphibious aircraft and two crewmen up the Bay. The plane took off from Hampton Roads that night, but it never arrived. Six weeks later, Ellyson’s body washed ashore at Willoughby Spit, very near the spot where, as a boy, he had first seen the Fleet and had vowed to become a sailor. He is buried in the U.S. Naval Academy cemetery.

In later years, a World War II-era destroyer was named after Ellyson, and he was enshrined into the national aviation hall of fame. The “Gray Eagle,” an honorary recognition created long after his death and awarded to the senior active naval aviator, was presented to his widow in 1960, covering the years 1911-1928.

The sole published biography of Ellyson is Anchors in the Sky, by Admiral George van Deurs (Ret.)

Save

Save

Spuds