Cruiser Pennsylvania Made Naval History In 1911
By James Donahue
The naval cruiser USS Pennsylvania is best remembered as the ship used to successfully demonstrate the possibility
of using aircraft carriers as war machines on the high seas. In was on January 18, 1911, that barnstormer Eugene B. Ely successfully
landed a fragile double-winged aircraft on a temporarily constructed 133-foot wooden landing strip on the ship’s afterdeck
and gun turret.
The experiment was conducted in San Francisco Bay, less than eight years after the Wright Brothers made their historic
first flight of an aircraft at Kitty Hawk in December, 1903. The aircraft Ely flew to the deck of the Pennsylvania and then
lifted off again appeared almost as fragile and primitive as the Wright Brother’s machine, with some innovations to
make it more maneuverable.
The interesting thing was that Ely’s aircraft, a Curtiss Model D Pusher, was fitted with a tailhook that caught
on one or two of 22 rope lines strung across the runway. It is a principle still used aboard modern aircraft carriers to this
day to bring aircraft to a quick stop within seconds after they land on the deck.
On the Pennsylvania the rope lines were propped about a foot over the deck and each were held in place by 50-pound
sandbags tied at each end.
Ely’s craft was a biplane operating on a 60 horsepower V-8 engine that gave the craft a speed of 50 miles an
hour. Just to add one more element of safety, Ely strapped on a rubber, air-filled life preserver for the flight.
On the morning of the experiment, Ely took off from Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, California (now Selfridge Field)
and flew about 10 minutes before reaching San Francisco Bay.
After spotting the Pennsylvania among other fleet vessels, Ely brought his craft directly down on the tiny wooden runway,
cutting his engine when only 75 feet from the fantail. He glided onto the landing deck at a speed of about 40 miles an hour
and made a perfect landing at 11 a.m. The tailhook arrangement worked perfectly, bringing the aircraft to a quick halt.
Cheers went up from the people and military people gathered to watch. After several interviews, Ely was among the honored
guests at an officers luncheon on the Pennsylvania. Then after posing for photographs, Ely boarded the plane and made a perfect
take-off, returning to Tanforan where his flight began.
It wasn’t until 1919 that the U. S. Navy commissioned its first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley. This vessel
began its life as the collier Jupiter in 1911 and was converted for use as a carrier after the end of World War I. The carriers
were a major part of the Naval warfare that occurred during World War II and remain a major force at sea to this day.
When compared to today’s carriers, the Pennsylvania was a relatively small ship. At 13,680 tons, this ship measured
just 504 feet in length. That the temporary wooden landing strip was built on the ship’s fantail made Ely’s feat
seem somewhat incredible. It means that his aircraft needed to make an almost immediate stop after landing.
The tiny landing deck was designed with a slight tilt downward off the end of the stern of the ship, which allowed
the aircraft to gain enough lift as it began to drop to take flight. Thus Ely was able to take off successfully in what appeared
to be an almost impossible situation.
As with the other navy ships of that day, the Pennsylvania was a four-stacked coal burner designed for brute warfare
at sea. Commissioned in 1905, she was powered by two triple expansion engines that gave her a speed of 22 knots. She was manned
by 829 officers and men, carried four eight-inch 40 cal. Guns, 14 six-inch 50 cal. Guns, 18 three-inch 50 cal. Guns and two
After 1911 Pennsyvania was used as a training ship while in reserve at Puget Sound. Then when a new battleship was
launched and named Pennsylvania in 1912, the cruiser was given a new name, the USS Pittsburgh. Under this name she served
as flagship for Admiral William B. Caperton, Commander of the Pacific Fleet during World War I.
After an active career that took the ship into virtually all of the oceans of the world, the Pittsburgh was decommissioned
and scrapped in 1936. It is doubtful that she ever fired one of her many guns in an act of war.