Tale of the tailhook

Eugene B. Ely’s flying career lasted only 18 month, but it was enough for him to produce a number of firsts

January 19, 2015 05:38 pm | Updated November 10, 2021 12:31 pm IST

Read this week's 'An eye for an i' to find out more about naval aviation

Read this week's 'An eye for an i' to find out more about naval aviation

From the subject of insulin that we discussed last week, we move to one that produces an adrenalin rush. We have seen before that the first decades of the 20th century saw prolific growth in aviation. Crowds gathered in huge numbers to experience the thrill of flying, merely by witnessing it.

Eugene B. Ely’s flying career lasted for only about 18 months. A short span, you might think, but it was enough for him to produce a number of firsts. That included being the first man to take off and land on a naval vessel.

Having grown up in Davenport, Iowa, Ely’s mechanical inclination soon made him an expert driver of automobiles. He then tried his hand at flying in 1910, and smashed the plane on his first attempt. Ely bought the wreck, repaired it and then taught himself to fly.

Outstanding feats

His talent didn’t go unnoticed and he soon began to do exhibition work in flying. The two feats for which he is remembered happened in the span of three months at the end of 1910 and early 1911.

The first of those took place on November 14, 1910 when Ely successfully took off from the deck of Birmingham on his Hudson Fulton Flyer. His five minute flight after taking off using a runway that was only 83 feet long, however, wasn’t what was planned.

As the plane plunged downward once Ely had cleared Birmingham ’s bow, its wheels dipped into the water, splashing it onto Ely’s goggles. So instead of circling the harbour as per plan, Ely decided to land, once he wiped his goggles and saw a stretch of land.

And then on January 18, 1911, Ely performed the first landing on a naval vessel when his Curtiss pusher came to rest on a special platform on the deck of the cruiser Pennsylvania . He managed this by having a landing gear that included hooks that caught ropes stretched across the platform and secured by sandbags.

How tailhook works

This system, termed as tailhook, was suggested by Hugh A. Robinson, an aviator and circus performer. Robinson is said to have got the idea after having employed a similar mechanism of ropes to stall the progress of an auto in which he performed a loop-the-loop.

What is interesting to note is the fact that the tailhook system has largely remained the same with time. An extended hook attached to the plane’s tail is used to snag on one of four arresting wires. These wires, sturdy cables woven from high-tensile steel, are stretched across the deck and attached on each end to hydraulic cylinders below the deck. When the tailhook snags an arresting wire, the plane comes to a stop and the energy is absorbed by the hydraulic cylinder system.

As for Ely, in October 1911, in front of thousands of spectators, he plunged his plane towards the ground, but didn’t level off and come out of the dive. He did manage to jump clear off the plane, but broke his neck and died minutes later. Ely had “kept at it” until he was killed, as he had himself predicted.

(Reach the author at ganesh.a.s@thehindu.co.in)

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