Beachey, Lincoln (1887–1915)
Lincoln Beachey swoops under Upper Steel Arch Bridge ay Niagara Falls.
Lincoln Beachey in his plane wearing a business suit.
Lincoln Beachey was a pioneering American aviator and early barnstormer. Born in San Francisco, Beachey began tinkering with machines at an early age and opened his own bicycle shop when he was 13. A couple of years later he graduated to fixing motorcycles and their engines, and soon after that joined the performing stunt team run by pioneering balloonist and former circus trapeze artist, Thomas Baldwin, starting out as a mechanic and quickly moving on to becoming a pilot as well. In 1900 Baldwin got into the business of building dirigibles – rigid airships powered by small engines. Beachey helped Baldwin put together a dirigible called the California Arrow, propelled by a motorcycle engine supplied by Glen Curtiss, who would go on to found the US aircraft industry. In 1905, still only 17, Beachey took the controls of the California Arrow and made his first solo flight. There and then he was hooked and shortly after went into the dirigible business himself, advertising his airship in a style that no one would get away with today – flying it around the Washington Monument and down the Mall, before cheekily touching down on the White House lawn.
More and more obviously, though, the future lay with planes and, grasping this, Beachey signed up for lessons at the Curtiss Flying School in San Diego. He quickly mastered the Curtiss Model D biplane – the first aircraft in the world to be built in any quantity – and was put on the company's exhibition team. But like many geniuses, Beachey was as stubborn as he was talented and managed to smash up several planes by not doing as he was told before emerging as the team's star performer and Curtiss' top money spinner. Whenever he flew he dressed like he was on a big night out, complete with pinstripe suit, high collar, fancy tie, and golf cap turned fashionably backwards. Crowds would gasp as he did his signature stunt – the "Dip of Death". In this, he'd climb his plane to 4,500 feet, then plummet toward the ground at full speed with his arms outstretched. At the last moment he leveled out, gripping the control stick with his knees, and waved with both hands to his adoring fans.
No stunt too extreme
Beachey won international fame when, on June 27, 1911, he diced with death above Niagara Falls. Taking off from an airport in New York, he arrived at the falls and circled around several times over an estimated 150,000 spectators before plunging down towards the mist and spray in the gorge. Pulling up just 20 feet above the turbulent river, he then continued down the gorge before astonishing onlookers by flying under the arch of Fallsview Honeymoon Bridge. Later that year, he flew above a speeding train and brushed his wheels against the top of the carriages as they passed beneath him.
With every stunt, Beachey grew more bold and ambitious. In a profession with a devastatingly high mortality rate, he wanted to push himself and his machine to the absolute limit. In 1913, he became the first to fly a plane entirely indoors. Taking off inside the Machinery Palace on the Exposition grounds at the San Francisco World's Fair, he circled his plane around and around at 60 miles an hour before landing again, all within the confines of the hall.
Whenever Beachey heard of others who'd pioneered new stunts he immediately wanted to master the tricks himself and then give them his own special twist (sometimes quite literally). On September 21, 1913, a French aviator, Adolphe Pégoud, working as a test pilot for the great Louis Blériot, performed an inside loop – flying horizontally at top speed before pulling back on the control stick and doing a complete vertical circle. Pégoud thought his loop was a world's first but it turned out that he'd been beaten to it, twelve days earlier, by a Russian military pilot called Pyotr Nesterov at an army airfield near Kiev. Both men had flown monoplanes (single-wing aircraft) that were more maneuverable and equipped with more powerful engines than anything Beachey had access to.
The American was desperate to do the loop himself and urged Glen Curtiss to build him a plane that would make it possible. When Curtiss refused, Beachey stormed out of the flying team and, in what may have been more a fit of pique than anything else, composed a melodramatic essay in which he wrote: "I was never egotistical enough to think that the crowds came to witness my skill in putting a biplane through all the trick-dog stunts. There was only one thing that drew them to my exhibitions... They paid to see me die. They bet I would, and the odds were always against my life, and I got big money for it." On March 7, 1913, he announced he'd quit professional flying because so many young aviators had been killed trying to copy his stunts.
Ins and outs and loop-the-loops
It proved to be a brief retirement, however. Within a few months Curtiss relented and stumped up the funds to build a plane powerful enough to tackle the loop. On October 7, Beachey was behind its controls at Hammonsport, New York, ready to add to his aerobatic prowess. But the flight went badly wrong. As Beachey banked around over the airfield, shortly after take-off, a downdraft or possibly a mechanical glitch caused the plane to dip and sweep two naval officers and their lady companions off the roof of a hangar from which they'd been hoping to get a perfect view of the event. Beachey's plane ended up a mangled wreck in a nearby field, although the aviator himself escaped with only minor injuries. Not so fortunate was one of the women, who died from her fall.
Beachey quit aviation a second time after the accident but, again, only temporarily. A circus poster depicting a plane flying upside-down – a stunt never before attempted – fired his imagination. He simply had to get back into the cockpit and master both the loop and flying horizontally with his head pointing at the ground. This time he opted to go it alone, without the backing of a big company. After conquering the loop, which he went on to repeat many hundreds of times, he wrote in his usual theatrical style: "The silent reaper of souls and I shook hands that day. Thousands of times we've engaged in a race among the clouds. Plunging headlong in to breathless flight, diving and circling with awful speed through ethereal space... I have imagined Him close at my heels. On such occasions I have defied him... Today, the old fellow and I are pals."
Beachey's problem was that he needed to make a living by charging people to come to his displays, so he did his flying only over exhibition grounds to which there was an admission fee. But because the stunts took place well off the ground, people could just as easily watch them for free from a distance – which is exactly what many of them did. Frustrated by his lack of income, the imperious airman retired for a third time. But, unsurprisingly, not for long.
Race to fame
It so happened that Beachey shared a publicity agent with a well-known racing car driver called Barney Oldfield. The agent hatched an ingenious plan that would put both Beachey and Oldfield firmly in the public eye and force people to pay if they wanted to see the action. Eye-catching posters were printed in which the "Demon of the Sky" was shown pitted against the "Daredevil of the Ground". All over the country, on courses surrounded by a high fence to ensure there were no freebies, Beachey and Oldfield raced for "The Championship of the Universe" – Beachey flying a new plane he'd designed and built himself, called the "Little Looper," which had B-E-A-C-H-E-Y painted in three-foot-high letters on its upper wing, against Oldfield's famous red 100-horsepower Fiat. Crowds flocked to see the spectacle – 30,000-strong in Dayton, Ohio, home of the Wright brothers – and thrilled as the two vehicles, throttles open wide, unmuffled engines roaring, sped past the grandstand, with clouds of dust billowing from the wheels of the big car. Although Beachey's plane was faster, the whole affair was staged so that the stars of the show knew exactly who'd "win" each time. After the pair crossed the finishing line, always nearly neck and neck, Beachey would soar up into the sky and put on a breathtaking aerobatic display – adding more and more loops as time went on to keep ahead of the records set by other stunt pilots. Eventually, he was doing as many as eighty loops, one right after the other.
As well as his mock races with Oldfield, Beachey took his solo aerial shows to no less than 126 cities around the US between May and December 1914. In total, 17 million Americans turned out in that frenetic seven-month period to watch the Little Looper put through its paces, and everywhere he went the "Alexander of the Air," as the press hailed him, was given superstar treatment. In the summer of '14, Beachey also achieved another of his long-held ambitions – to fly in front of the great Thomas Alva Edison.
"I want to show such men as Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and other inventive and manufacturing geniuses," he said, "how I handle the Little Looper. I do not believe they dream such things are possible... I want to open the eyes of the people to the possibilities of the aeroplane. My tour this summer will help advance the science of flying by ten years."
He certainly made a lasting impression on Edison. "I was startled and amazed," said the inventor, "when I saw that youngster take to the sky and send his aeroplane through the loop and then follow that feat with an upside-down flight. I could not believe my own eyes and my nerves were a tingle for many minutes."
Another famous engineer who came in for a surprise that summer was Orville Wright (see Wright brothers). He'd earlier doubted that Beachey actually flew loop-the-loops or upside-down. "It is probably done high in the air," said Wright, "3,000 feet or so, an optical illusion and promoter's hype." Some of his skepticism probably stemmed from a feud that had been going on between the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss for several years and that had come to a head after Wilbur's death in 1912 – an event that Orville attributed to stress from the dispute. But all doubt about what Beachey could do evaporated when he saw the stuntman fly first-hand and watched the incredible finale to his show. Loop after loop Beachey performed, then flipped his craft over, flew it upwards until it stalled, fell backwards, tail first and upside-down, brought his tail up until he stalled backwards upside-down, and repeated the whole maneuver, again and again, falling out of the sky as he tipped back and forth – all with his arms stretched wide, operating the plane with his knees and body alone. Wright couldn't believe his eyes: "An aeroplane in the hands of Lincoln Beachey is poetry... His performance not only surprised me, but amazed me as well. He is more magnificent than I imagined."
Beachey did a lot to promote aviation in the US, but more than anything he was desperate to persuade the powers that be to invest more in military planes. In 1914, the Russian armed services had over 1,500 aircraft at their disposal, France and Germany each had over 1,000, and even Mexico had 400, while the US could muster a mere 23. Beachey distributed millions of brochures around the country urging people to put pressure on their representatives to argue for more military investment in aerial forces. He also invited government officials to a demonstration of how effective a plane could be in combat. But when only two members of the cabinet showed up for the event, he decided to take matters into his own hands – and buzz the White House and Congress in a mock attack.
According to one account, President Woodrow Wilson was at work in the Oval Office when he heard a noise that at first he took to be a fly. As the buzzing grew louder he realized it was coming from outside and looked up through the window to see a biplane heading straight towards him. The machine pulled up at the last moment and continued with repeated "attacks" on the White House, Mall, and Capitol.
Some of the details of Beachey's fake assault on the heart of Washington may be apocryphal. But there's no doubt the event took place and that he created a stir that day with his demonstration of how deadly the plane could be as a weapon of war. As news of his antics quickly spread, crowds spilled out onto the streets, including many lawmakers who'd adjourned from Congress to see what was going on. After the flight, Beachey hammered home his message: "If I had had a bomb, you would be dead. You were defenseless. It is time to put a force in the air."
The demonstration had its effect and Congress voted shortly after to boost spending to build up a fledgling air force. Beachey was lauded for his dramatic wake-up call and offered a top post in the government's new aviation set-up. But although he turned this down because of other commitments, he carried on with his military propaganda shows.
In 1915, ahead of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, Beachey had a large wooden model made of the USS Oregon, an elderly battleship, and anchored it a mile out in San Francisco Bay. The Navy was in on the stunt and agreed to let a hundred sailors man the fake vessel, which was loaded with explosives. A crowd of 80,000 on the shore, not realizing that the ship was just a mock-up, gazed in horror as Beachey flew over it in his new, birdlike Taube monoplane and dropped what appeared to be a live bomb, trailing smoke as it sped towards its target. Explosions ripped through the ship – the crew having already secretly departed aboard a tugboat – and many on-lookers thought for a while that they were witnessing a horrible accident or possibly an act of mass murder.
A few days later, on March 14, 1915, Beachey took off on what would be his last flight. With the expo now in full swing, a quarter of a million people thronged the Fairgrounds and surrounding hills. They watched as Beachey rolled his powerful new plane onto its back and began a breath-taking inverted run barely 2,000 feet above the waters of the Bay. Perhaps he was flying lower than he thought. At any rate, it was clear the aircraft was losing height and in an attempt to flip through 180 degrees and gain some altitude, Beachey pulled hard on the controls. So great was the strain on the wings that both of them sheared clean off and the fuselage with Beachey still aboard plunged into the Bay and sank. An agonizing hour and three quarters later, Navy divers were able to drag the airman from his submerged cockpit and, even though it was hopeless, attempts were made for several hours to try and revive him. An autopsy revealed that he'd survived the impact and died from drowning.
News of Beachey's death raced around the world and San Francisco's phone system was jammed for 24 hours. The city's mayor took personal charge of arrangements for the funeral and tens of thousands turned out to pay their respects to one of the greatest names in aerobatics. Preparations were made for a string of grand memorials and ceremonies which ought to have helped immortalize Lincoln Beachey's name. Yet few have even heard of him today. The simple fact is his life and death were largely forgotten because of a string of other events that gripped the public's attention. He died just at the start of World War I and most plans to honor him were delayed by years, by which time memories of his exploits had faded. New heroes emerged out of dare-devil exploits during the European conflict. Then there followed the record-breaking exploits of the likes of Charles Lindbergh, and yet another major public concern – the Great Depression – which helped push the extraordinary adventures of Beachey into obscurity.