Veteran pilot paying tribute to 100th anniversary of Navy aviation

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) – Bob Coolbaugh did not exactly make aviation history on Oct. 8, 2010, but at least he can imagine what it must have felt like 100 years ago.

On that day in New Market, Va., the 61-year-old retired Navy pilot climbed aboard a replica of a 1911 Curtiss Pusher, an aircraft he had fashioned from wood, bamboo and steel.

The plan: Take off and cruise at a few thousand feet while sitting on a 12-inch wide wooden plank. See how things go.

The flight did not go smoothly. The nose wobbled as he got into the air, and it took a great deal of muscle to maneuver the aircraft.

“I got on the ground, and my arms were worn out,” he said.

Those few bumps were fitting, considering that Coolbaugh was paying tribute to a hell-bent, barnstorming pilot named Eugene Ely.

Ely figures prominently in the 100th anniversary of naval aviation, which the Navy is gearing up to celebrate in a big way. And Hampton Roads is part of that history.

On Nov. 14, 1910, Ely ignored storm clouds and took off in a spindly aircraft from the USS Birmingham, which sat in the waters of Hampton Roads. It was the first time an aircraft had ever lifted off from a ship.

A photograph freezes the moment in time that Ely became airborne. Yes, that would be him, dropping toward the water.

The flight came perilously close to failing. Ely dove toward the water to gain speed and pulled up, but not before his wheels and part of his propeller struck the water. The aircraft climbed into the air, rattling with damage. Steering with his shoulders – aircraft of that day were built by bicycle makers and were steered by leaning – he managed to land on the beach at Willoughby Spit.

Then in January 1911, Ely closed the historical loop by landing on the deck of a ship. This time, the event was in San Francisco and the ship was the USS Pennsylvania.

Later that year, Navy brass became convinced to give these new-fangled flying machines a try, and put in the first order for aircraft.

That makes 2011 the official 100th anniversary of naval aviation.

Many events are planned for next year, but the Navy will get a head start on the celebration come Friday, with a celebration and a display of older aircraft.

Coolbaugh’s replica is closer to the aircraft that Ely landed out in San Francisco in 1911, as opposed to the one that took off from Hampton Roads a few months earlier. Still, he had hoped to fly his aircraft off the deck of the USS George H.W. Bush as a tribute to Ely’s first take-off.

The Navy, while appreciating his gumption, said that probably wasn’t a good idea.

“I was begging them,” he said.

However, Coolbaugh was scheduled to fly as part of the kick-off celebration on Nov. 12. Plans called for him to take off from Chambers Field and cruise around Willoughby Bay before coming back to land.

Last Friday’s ceremony, which was not open to the public, also featured flyovers by other naval aircraft and a list of speakers, including U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner. Adm. Robert Willard, commander, U.S. Pacific Command, will give the keynote address.

Capt. Rich Dann is the director of history and outreach for the Centennial of Naval Aviation Task Force. He and Coolbaugh have talked many times.

“I just love it,” he said, “I think it’s a fantastic achievement personally, and Bob’s got a bigger sense of history, too, which is why I think he did it, to let people know how important naval aviation is.”

It took Coolbaugh two and a half years to construct his Curtiss Pusher with help from Andrew King of Culpeper, Va. King restores antique aircraft for a living, and he’s flown vintage aircraft in movies.

They added a few modern options that Ely’s model left out, including a radio and a more up-to-date steering mechanism than the shoulder yoke that Ely used.

“We wanted an airplane that was reliable, that wouldn’t end up in a pile of sticks in front of an audience,” Coolbaugh said.

Coolbaugh had made hundreds of carrier landings during his Navy career, but there was some excitement about that maiden flight.

“The night before, when I should have been sleeping, I played the flight in my mind,” he said.

For all the fun he’s had, Coolbaugh said his quest has given him a greater appreciation for Eugene Ely and his daredevil peers. They were the Mercury astronauts of their generation.

“What they did was beyond comprehension for me,” he said. “Was it courage? Was it ignorance of youth? What got them to do it, I don’t know.”

What Ely and his colleagues did was more than a technological achievement. It eventually triggered a seismic shift in Navy culture.

Before aviators stormed onto the scene, the Navy made war with battleships, cruisers, corvettes, frigates and other surface ships, said Rear Adm. Richard J. O’Hanlon, commander, Naval Air Force Atlantic.

And they were pretty comfortable with that.

“The culture of the Navy was resistant to change,” said O’Hanlon.

Then around the beginning of the 20th century, Navy Capt. Washington Irving Chambers was put in charge of looking into aviation. Chambers had built a reputation as an innovator, and he proposed launching and landing an aircraft from a ship.

If he could pull that off, Navy brass said they would get serious about the idea.

The USS Birmingham was the first ship to host a launch, and Chambers had to retrofit it with a ramp paid for with private money.

That paved the way for Ely to fly into history.

Today, it is difficult to imagine the world in Hampton Roads or elsewhere without naval aviation, from the E2-C Hawkeyes that steadily cruise above Norfolk to the roar of F/A-18s at Oceana Naval Air Station.

Across the water, Newport News is still the only U.S. site where aircraft carriers are built. And aviation in Hampton Roads is not exactly limited to the Navy, O’Hanlon notes, with the presence of Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, which is the headquarters of Air Combat Command.

“The sea lanes are open today because of the efforts of the United States Navy and other navies,” O’Hanlon said. “It’s something that I think we take for granted. I know I do. If you read history, it hasn’t always been that way.”

Information from: Daily Press,

Copyright 2010 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

AP-ES-11-11-10 1122EST