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.)