Theodore Gordon Ellyson (1885-1928), nicknamed ‘Spuds’, was the first United States Navy officer to become an aviator, making him ‘Naval Aviator No. 1’. Amongst his many achievements, he is remembered for helping to champion naval aviation in the years before and after World War One, and for his service in the US navy on both ships and submarines.
Tragically, Ellyson lost his life during his service, dying on his birthday in 1928 when his aircraft crashed. During his life, he was awarded the Navy Cross, and posthumously, airfields and ships were named in his honour.
Here’s the remarkable story of Theodore ‘Spuds’ Ellyson, America’s first naval aviator.
He initially worked on battleships
Born in Richmond, Virginia, US, Ellyson entered the United States Naval Academy in 1901. He graduated in 1905, and in the five years that followed he served on the USS Texas, USS Missouri, USS Pennsylvania, USS West Virginia, USS Rainbow and USS Shark.
Having spent some time serving on the Asiatic Station, he returned to the US in 1910 where he commanded the USS Tarantula and was then responsible for fitting out submarines.
Ellyson experimented with different types of plane
In 1910, he travelled to Los Angeles in California for instruction in aviation from Glenn Curtiss, an aviation pioneer who had offered to train a pilot from the navy for free. While at an Aero Club show on 28 January 1911, Ellyson took off in a ‘grass cutter’ plane. However, the ground plane was not supposed to fly, and Ellyson landed awkwardly. However, he was still considered to have made his first flight on that date.
While a student under Curtiss, Ellyson helped design a pontoon for aeroplanes and became the first passenger to go aloft in a hydroaeroplane in 1911, with Curtiss at the controls. He also took part in experiments demonstrating the potential use of floatplanes from ships.
He broke flying records
Ellyson continued to devote all of his time to flying and aviation experiments. He helped establish the Naval Aviation Camps at Annapolis in 1911 when he flew an aircraft from Annapolis to Virginia. The 112-mile flight took 2 hours and 2 minutes, which was a nonstop distance record for floatplanes at the time. He also broke many endurance, altitude and speed records.
He was also the first to advocate for special flight clothing. He suggested for a light helmet with detachable googles or visor, high rubber galoshes, leather trousers and a life preserver. Ellyson was also the first to prepare check-off lists for inspecting an aircraft both pre and post each flight.
He was awarded the Navy Cross
In 1917, he reported for wartime duty aboard the USS Wyoming and USS Kansas, and in 1918 travelled to London before making his way to Plymouth, England, where he joined a submarine chaser squadron at US Naval Base 27.
Ellyson’s service during World War One saw him awarded a Navy Cross for his development of successful tactics for the submarine chaser squadron. He was also awarded the Victory Medal and Submarine Chaser Clasp.
He became a commander
Following the end of the war in 1918, he remained in Europe where he served as a naval commander. Upon his eventual return to the US, he assisted in fitting out the destroyer USS J. Fred Talbott. He then served on the vessel as commanding officer.
In 1921, Ellyson served as executive officer of the Naval Air Station in Virginia. The Bureau of Aeronautics was established in 1921, and Ellyson became the head of the plans division until 1922, when he became the aviation member of the US Naval Mission to Brazil, helping to re-organise the Brazilian Navy. In 1925, he returned to the Bureau of Aeronautics.
He was killed on his birthday
While on a night flight from Norfolk, Virginia to Annapolis, Maryland, Ellyson crashed the Loening OL-7 aircraft in the lower Chesapeake Bay. It was his 43rd birthday, and he was on his way to visit his daughter, who was sick. His body washed ashore in April 1928, and he was buried at the Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis.
An airfield and ship are named in his honour
On 27 February 1941, 56 years after his birth and 13 years after his death, it was announced that an airfield at the Naval Air Station, Florida, would be named Ellyson Field in his honour.
The USS Ellyson was also named in his honour, and went on to become one of the fastest destroyers of any navy in the world at the time.