Lincoln Beachey is widely regarded as America’s first great stunt pilot. But for a man who earned his fame in such a dangerous profession, Beachey was actually very concerned with safe flying. In the early days of aviation the tailspin was a familiar flight emergency from which no one knew how to recover. Beachey, determined to find a solution, climbed his plane to 5,000 feet and forced the aircraft into a deadly spin. As the plane plummeted earthward, he kicked the rudder hard in the direction of the spin. Gradually, the plane slowed its spin and leveled out. He tried his theory 11 more times before he was satisfied with the solution. While his aerial antics appeared to scorn death, he studied every accident in detail to learn its cause and remedy.
- He was a member of the Curtiss Exhibition Team and became their ace pilot.
- In 1911 he made a breath-taking flight over Niagara Falls and through its gorge, setting a world altitude record.
- Gained fame racing his aircraft against Barney Oldfield in an automobile.
- He made the first inside loop in America and later become a fanatical looper.
Lincoln Beachey was one of America’s greatest acrobatic pilots. While he became famous for his early dirigible flights, he would later became legendary for his breath-taking loops and dives in the airplane.
Born in San Francisco on March 3rd, 1887, Lincoln Beachey learned early the necessity of earning money for the family. His father, a Civil War veteran, was blind and unable to work, a situation that added strain to the family’s already poor financial situation. Beachey started his own bicycle shop at the age of 13, and by the time he was 15, he was also repairing motorcycles and their engines.
Growing up in San Francisco, Beachey was familiar with aerial experimentation and by the time the Wright brothers made their first flight, he was already building and flying his own balloons. While he was staging aerial exhibitions, Beachey was noticed by Capt. Thomas Scott Baldwin, who was starting an aerial exhibition team, and he hired Beachey for his skills and theatrics.
Using Beachey’s balloon experience, Baldwin commissioned Beachey to help him construct a dirigible named the California Arrow. The dirigible, a large gas bag with a gondola framework below for the pilot and engine, was controlled by the pilot simply moving backward or forward on the gondola to ascend or descend. The first flight of the California Arrow took place on August 3rd, 1904 over the San Francisco Bay, making it also the first dirigible flight in America.
Beachey made his first actual powered flight in a dirigible at the age of 17 in February 1905. He convinced George Heaton, the pilot, to allow him to take the controls of Heaton’s new dirigible. Beachey had the typical qualities of the aerial exhibitionists: youth, arrogance, a love of thrills, and a reckless disregard for danger. Beachey soon became the top aeronaut with the Baldwin troupe and traveled to East Asia and other countries showcasing the California Arrow, a flying machine never seen in most countries.
As 1905 drew to a close, Beachey decided to go into the exhibition business on his own and hence build an airship. He came east to Toledo soliciting the aid of A. Roy Knabenshue, an aerial exhibitionist he met through Baldwin. He promptly bought the silk for the dirigible’s gas bag and laid it out on the floor of the loft of an old street car barn and cut it into sections. He hired a seamstress to sew the bag together, and then wove a rope net to contain the bag and to prevent it from slipping out when the dirigible made a sharp ascent or descent. Below the bag was a wooden framework gondola suspended by cords from the bag’s net on which he mounted a Curtiss engine-driving propeller, and at the rear of the gondola was the steering rudder. When the dirigible was complete, Beachey viewed it with pride and shipped it to Luna Park, an amusement park in Pittsburgh. There he had secured a contract to make exhibition flights in 1906.
Sensing the value of newspaper headlines to his exhibition business, Beachey hit upon a simple but natural idea to stir the imagination of the public and to create newspaper headlines across the nation. He shipped his dirigible to Washington and flew it around the Washington Monument, then down the Mall to the White House where he landed on the grounds and marched in to see President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. The President was not there but Mrs. Roosevelt greeted him on this historic occasion in June 1906. After the Washington sensation, he was booked for appearances throughout the country.
Beachey’s most embarrassing flight occurred when he piloted his Rubber Cow over New York City. Millions witnessed Beachey’s flight from their skyscrapers as he took off from Staten Island, circled over Brooklyn and landed in Battery Park. From there he chugged through the air across lower Manhattan, then collided with one of the buildings. When rescuers fished him from the East River, Beachey was soaked, but unscathed except for the blow to his ego.
At the first International Air Meet in Los Angeles in 1910, Beachey sensed the end of an era for his dirigible as the star attraction of meets. When an airplane roared overhead Beachey remarked to a friend: “Boy, our racket is dead!” The intrusion of the airplane was the death of the dirigible. Beachey probably had more dirigible experience and hours in the air than any other American.
The glamor of the airplane began to draw big money for the fliers as the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss opened flying schools training a growing list of pilots and sponsoring exhibition teams to compete in aviation events across the country. An incredible new age was dawning when daredevil antics in the air thrilled thousands at fairgrounds, ball parks, and farm pastures. The crowds watched in awe as pilots stunned them with their frail aircrafts. But premature death haunted every pilot in those days. Flying was a new and dangerous, if exciting, endeavour, and aviation knowledge was limited.
In the fall of 1910 Beachey began flying lessons at the Curtiss Flying School. On his first attempt to solo, he struck his plane’s nose straight into the air, stalled, and came down tail first. He walked away from the wreckage unscratched as Glenn Curtiss turned his back in disbelief. Curtiss thought he should go back to flying his Rubber Cow. The team manager, however, thought Beachey had potential and convinced Curtiss to give him another chance. After more instruction, he took off in another airplane and promptly crashed again. Curtiss, now angry, threatened dismissal, but the manager calmed the situation and for the third time, Beachey soloed. To the chagrin of Curtiss, by the end of 1911, Beachey had become his greatest moneymaker.
Beachey joined the Curtiss Exhibition Team touring the nation, almost immediately became the star of the team. Once in the air he became a “Wild Man,” by making a series of “death-dips” followed up by a drop toward the ground. To accomplish this feat, he put his plane into a full vertical climb and held it there until it stalled. Nosing over into a series of scoops, he then plummeted straight to the ground in a power dive that threatened to sheer off the plane’s fragile wings. The crowd gasped as Beachey plunged earthward let out a sigh of relief when he leveled out only inches above the ground. Capable of feats no other person dreamed possible, Beachey had more tricks in his flying repertoire and showcased them with the finesse of an artist.
It was his flirtation with death at Niagara Falls that made Beachey a household word only six months after he had learned to fly. Taking off in a drizzle, he flew over the lower Niagara Falls, then swept high over the American Falls. Circling back from the Canadian side, Beachey plunged deeply into a roaring gorge. He flew under the giant arch of the lower suspension bridge with his engine wide open, then right down the cataract’s narrowing gorge, almost to the rapids. He was no more than twenty feet above the jagged rocks and churning torrent before he pulled back on the controls and soared skyward again, his wings dripping wet from the spray.
The tailspin was one of the greatest causes of disaster from which no pilot knew how to recover, but Beachey believed that there was a way. One morning he climbed his plane to 5,000 feet and, mustering all of his courage, nosed over forcing his plane in to the deadly spin. Down and down the aircraft twirled, whipping its pilot around inside the pivoting nose. Beachey kicked the rudder hard in the direction of the spin and slowly the plane responded leveling out. Astonished, he conquered his first deliberate spin. Had he been lucky? Or did he really solve the elusive spin? Climbing skyward again, Beachey attempted the feat eleven more times, each time successfully recovering. He had really conquered the spin!
In the second International Aviation Meet held in Chicago in 1912 Beachey showed a humorous side. After presenting a series of thrilling stunts, unbeknownst to the spectators he donned a silk dress, a wig, an opera cape, and unlimited quantities of chiffon fleece and ribbons, becoming Madam Lavasseur, a French aviatrix who knew almost nothing about flying. Making a wobbly take-off, he darted first in one direction then in another with apparent lack of ability to keep the plane level. He dipped dangerously close to the lake, pulling up a scant few feet from the water and sending automobiles and carriages on Michigan Avenue scurrying in all directions for safety as he fluttered helplessly above the boulevard. Only after bringing utter havoc among the spectators he landed and revealed his true identity.
In September 1913, the French pilot Pegoud made the world’s first inside loop in France. This disappointed Beachey because he had thought of attempting it himself for he recognized its value as an aerial attraction. But Curtiss had refused to build him a plane capable of the feat. Infuriated and disgusted, Beachey quit the exhibition flying business for the first time. In a blistering statement he also accused the public of morbid eagerness to see him fall from the skies to his death. He also listed the names of 22 pilots who had died in exhibition flights trying to copy stunts that he had made famous. Their lives were of deep concern to him and he felt he and the thrill-seeking public were in many ways responsible for their deaths.
After retirement, Beachey entered the real estate business in San Francisco, but only temporarily. Reluctantly, Curtiss built him a new high powered plane and coming out of retirement Beachey set out to learn how to make a loop. While landing his fast little plane on its initial flight he misjudged its speed and his wing clipped a tent on the field and struck two girls who were watching his flight, killing one. Sadly, he stepped out of the plane and retired from aviation for the second time. For over a week he sulked, until one morning he woke to a large poster plastered on the sidewall of his bedroom by his manager depicting him flying upside down–something he hadn’t done yet. The next day they were on their way by train to San Diego for an exhibition with his repaired new plane in the baggage car. The afternoon of November 25th, 1913, America witnessed their first looping the loop at 2,500 feet. In fact he made two loops that day and on Thanksgiving day he made three loops. At first one was enough to satisfy the crowds, but eventually he had to become a fanatical looper to please them – raising the number to ten. But then an Englishman did twenty-seven, the next week Beachey did twenty-eight just to retain the laurels for America. When a Frenchman did sixty-four loops, Beachey did sixty-five. Finally he was doing eighty loops in one afternoon.
Beachey retired for a third time, but once again it wasn’t for long. This time the posters depicted the “Demon of the Sky” versus the “Dare-Devil of the Ground” for the championship of the earth, air, and water. Beachey entered the exhibition business for himself teaming up with Barney Oldfield, the famous race car driver. Oldfield is legendary for being the first race car driver to go 60 m.p.h. and the first to complete a 100 m.p.h. lap at the Indianapolis Speedway. The pair turned out to be one of the greatest outdoor attractions ever known staging shows in cities across the country throughout 1914. In an incredible display of plane agility and pilot accuracy, Beachey would swoop down and actually knock off Oldfield’s hat. In their first year of exhibition flying together, the duo made a quarter-million dollars!
Beachey looking to add more thrills to his act, laid plans to build a special airplane for exhibition looping-it was the first specifically designed exhibition plane. The Little Looper, as it was affectionately known, was powered by a Gnome rotary engine which he purchased in France in 1914. Across the top wing were three-foot high letters which spelled his name for all to see at the top of his loops. The plane was sensitive to his gentle touch, yet it performed and responded in almost every abnormal flight altitude.
One of Beachey’s most exciting exhibitions was on New Years day in San Francisco Bay. As a prelude to the opening of the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915 Beachey blew up the battleship USS Oregon. Actually it was a model made of wood and painted canvas and stood on two barges topped with masts and smokestacks, but it had a crew that the Navy loaned. Positioned a mile off shore, it looked like a real ship. Flying over the ship offshore, he dipped his plane as if dropping a bomb, and a puff of smoke appeared, followed by an explosion that echoed across the bay. In quick succession he dove and swooped at the dreadnought as 50 explosions filled the air and the Oregon was blasted into oblivion. The crowd of 80,000 reached a state of panic, men and women fainted for they believed he had killed the sailors aboard the Oregon. While the smoke of the planted smoke pots and ground bombs hit the wreck, a tug boat swept the crew to safety. It was a thrilling realistic exhibition and Beachey walked off with half the gate receipts.
On Sunday March 14th, 1915, Beachey prepared for an extraordinary flight to showcase his new, more powerful monoplane. Gunning his engine and lifting off in less that fifty feet, Beachey made a loop, then flipped the plane over on its back for an upside down flight. Apparently so intent on exhibiting the ability of his new plane, Beachey failed to realize he was now only 2,000 feet above the water, too close to complete his stunt. Yanking the controls to whip the plane out of its sinking inverted flight, the strain on the plane caused the left wing to snap off, then the right one to do so. The monoplane went into a screaming, twisting dive. The mortally injured plane struck the water at terrific speed with Beachey strapped helplessly in the fuselage. Ultimately the crash embedded the plane and Beachey in thirty feet of mud and water in San Francisco Bay. Ironically, 16 divers from the real battleship Oregon, the same ship he bombed, raised the monoplane and found him still firmly strapped in his seat.
Beachey was the first man to fly upside-down, he performed the first loop-the-loop in America, and later perfected it. Beachey was also the first to tail slide on purpose, the first to figure out how to pull out of a spin, deadly for so many pilots, and he was the first person to fly through a building.
For more information on Lincoln Beachey, you may want to visit these websites: