The Screeching Halt

Orville and Wilbur Wright had barely touched down on the North Carolina sand when military strategists began plotting ways to fight in the air. There had already been a few experiments with hot-air balloons as scouting devices. While the U.S. Army contracted with the Wright brothers for the first military airplane, the navy appointed a captain, Washington I. Chambers, to invent naval aeronautics. His problems were the most basic: how to enable pilots to take off from, and land on, a floating ship's small runway? The landing was solved first. A civilian pilot, Eugene Ely, flew a 50-horsepower Glenn Curtiss plane onto the armored cruiser Pennsylvania on Jan. 18, 1911. The landing platform had been rigged with ropes attached to sandbags. Aviation pioneer Curtiss had suggested a hook on the tail of the plane that would snag the ropes and stop the plane. Thus the "tailhook," now greatly strengthened to stop jets, was born. Chambers's idea for the takeoff was a catapult, driven by compressed air, that would help toss the plane into the air. In July 1912 came the first test; the plane immediately crashed into the sea. The first aircraft carrier was commissioned in 1918, but catapult launches were not perfected until the 1930s.