EAAer Flies Curtiss Pusher Replica in Navy Centennial Ceremony
Bob Coolbaugh pilots his replica Curtiss-Ely Pusher aircraft over Naval Station Norfolk at a ceremony commemorating the first takeoff from a ship 100 years ago. U.S. Navy photo
Bob Coolbaugh poses in his replica airplane aboard the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier as a Navy “shooter” feigns the launch sign. Photo by Paul Glenshaw
Heritage static: Coolbaugh in his Curtiss-Ely Pusher replica with an FA/18 fighter lined up behind. Photo by Paul Glenshaw
November 18, 2010 —On November 14, 1910, barnstorming pilot Eugene Ely made what’s recognized as the first takeoff from a ship, the USS Birmingham, near what is now Naval Air Station Norfolk, Virginia. Nearly 100 years later to the day, last Friday, November 12, retired Naval Commander Bob Coolbaugh, who built a replica of the plane Ely flew that day, was at NAS Norfolk to take part in a commemorative ceremony for that occasion.
Although he did not make a carrier takeoff - the Navy would not allow that - his Curtiss-Ely Pusher replica took part in the ceremony as Coolbaugh performed a pair of flybys for the attendees over Willoughby Bay. Three days later the plane was lifted onto CVN 77 – the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier anchored there – for some yesterday-and-today photos.
Coolbaugh, who has confirmed his attendance at Oshkosh to take part in the celebration, described his participation in Norfolk this past week.
“We flew down to Norfolk, with Andrew King and Steve Roth in the chase Cessna 172 – A 100-year-old replica and a 172 flying into the NAS – quite a sight,” he said. They landed at Chambers Field, which is the landing facility at NAS Norfolk. On November 12, Coolbaugh decided to fly as scheduled, although the 12-20 knot winds were a concern. It was only a 12-minute flight, which Coolbaugh termed “interesting,” but in retrospect decided it was probably “too windy to fly, but we ultimately found the risks acceptable” to fly for the centennial ceremony.
While flying over Willoughby Bay/Willoughby Spit, Coolbaugh realized he was doing the same thing, in the same kind of aircraft that Eugene Ely had done only two days shy of 100 years ago. But Ely didn’t have a rescue boat loaded with divers in position “just in case” he said, along with a rescue helicopter standing by.
Fortunately neither was pressed into service, but Coolbaugh was impressed by just how prepared his hosts were – just in case things went wrong.
Before taking off, Coolbaugh said the 12- to 20-knot crosswind was too strong for a safe takeoff, so he found a grass patch that ran due north into the wind and offered to take off and land there. But you can’t just go ahead and do things like that without permission, especially at a NAS. So he made the request and, to his surprise, it was approved.
“There probably hasn’t been a grass takeoff there since the 1920s,” he joked.
After the flybys, when Coolbaugh rolled final to land on the makeshift grass strip, he looked down and saw Steve Roth running to where he planned to land. Suddenly a large flock of pigeons took flight, flushed twice by Roth to clear the way. “I was laughing so hard I almost crashed myself,” he joked.
On Monday, Coolbaugh and his plane were brought aboard the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier. He had originally hoped to perform a takeoff and landing on the carrier, but the Navy would not allow that. So instead, the airplane was brought to the carrier and craned aboard for some commemorative photos.
“As soon as we got there, the plan was put into action,” he said. Sailors had built a steel cradle on which the airplane was placed and lifted to the flight deck. “They really took ownership of the project,” he said. “And this was on their own time. It told me what the centennial of aviation means to those guys.”
They placed the Curtiss/Ely Pusher on Cat 4 with an FA-18 positioned right behind. Then, as if it was being readied for takeoff, a Catapult Officer, or “Shooter,” mocked the go/launch signal.
On Wednesday this week, Coolbaugh saw the airplane loaded onto a C-17 transport bound for San Diego to pre-position for the official Centennial of Naval Aviation Kickoff & Aerial Review slated for February 10-13, 2011. The actual centennial is marked from the first successful landing on a ship, which Ely accomplished on January 18, 1911, on the USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco.
The Navy has designated 34 “Tier 1” events to celebrate the centennial, including EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2011. To learn more about the centennial, click here.