SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS)- One hundred years ago Tuesday, aviation history was made on San Francisco Bay, when the first plane was successfully landed onto a warship.

Newspapers in 1911 described Eugene Ely as a “daring birdman.”

“He was first an auto racer, and then he got interested in flying, and said ‘this would probably be just like driving a car,'” said Rolf Noll, a retired naval aviator who is now a docent at the USS Hornet museum in Alameda.

Noll says some noted aviators were not up for the challenge of landing a biplane on a navy cruiser.

KCBS’ Chris Filippi Reports:

“When all this was being thought about, the landing on the ship, the Wright Brothers themselves were asked to do it, and they wouldn’t have anything to do with it,” said Noll.

But on a wet and cold morning one hundred years ago, Ely took off in his Curtiss pusher aircraft from a landing field that is now the home of the Tanforan Shopping Center in San Bruno. His objective was to land his biplane on a platform that measured only 120 feet by 30 feet on the USS Pennsylvania, which was anchored in San Francisco.

Noll says Ely’s biggest fear was a possible water landing, leading him to wearing two bicycle tubes.

“He pumped them full of air and then wrapped them around his body, and they made him feel secure, but it was his fear of the water that caused the ingenuity,” said Noll. “He was thinking ‘this will keep me afloat.'”

But Ely wouldn’t need those tubes, landing safely on the makeshift flight deck.

“He had lunch onboard the ship with his wife, who was from San Francisco. He then turned around and took off again,” said Noll.

The Hornet museum is celebrating Ely’s historic flight with a new exhibit that opens Tuesday.

As for Ely, though the flight was a success, he met an untimely death just nine month’s later in an air-show crash.

(© 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)


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