America’s “Master Birdman” makes his final flight

lincoln_beachey_in_looper_1914March 15, 1915:
“The Man Who Owns the Sky”

It was the year of the legendary Panama-Pacific International Exposition. San Francisco had once again earned that phoenix on her flag by rising from the ashes of the 1906 earthquake and fire — and just nine years later, the city celebrated its rebirth by winning the right to host the World’s Fair. Visitors from every point on the compass swarmed towards California to visit the resurgent city.

You probably know that the site of the Fair was the neighborhood now called the Marina, that acres of shoreline mudflats were filled in to create space for a grand and temporary city, and that the mournfully elegant Palace of Fine Arts is its lone survivor. The exhibits and attractions on offer were endless and famously enchanting, but one of the most spectacular events took place in the air above the Fair.

On March 15, a quarter of a million people gathered in the fairgrounds and on the hills above them to see a man in an ultra-modern experimental airplane perform unparalleled feats of aeronautical acrobatics.

That man was Lincoln Beachey, and in 1915 he was the most famous aviator in the country — known from coast to coast as “The Man Who Owns the Sky”.

Lincoln Beachey, home-town boy

Lincoln Beachey was born in San Francisco back in 1887. It was the age of technology and tinkering, and young Lincoln was a kid of his time. The family was a poor one — his civil war veteran father was blind — so Lincoln had acquired a small bicycle shop and was learning to ride and fix motorcycles by the time he was thirteen years old.

But speeding along the ground was one thing. At the turn of the century it seemed as though the whole world was trying to get into the air, and Lincoln was no exception.

By the time the bicycle-tinkering Wright Brothers had made aeronautical history at Kitty Hawk in 1903 — Lincoln had already pinned his aerial hopes to a rival technology, the balloon.

At age 17 he joined Thomas Scott Baldwin’s already famous powered-dirigible troupe, and then built his own airship. To the consternation of Congress, he flew it around the Washington Monument and parked on the White House lawn. Though occasionally crashing the thing into buildings, rivers, and trees, Lincoln toured the country demonstrating his balloon-piloting prowess and becoming one of America’s most best-known aeronauts.

Introducing the aeroplane

He was a little behind the times. Several years earlier, the Wright Brothers had demonstrated their fixed-wing aeroplane in Europe, and in 1908 the United States Army ordered one. This was the beginning of the end of the Airship Era.

Lincoln himself was finally convinced after a 1910 race with an aeroplane. He and his balloon were beaten badly, and — remarking to a pal that “Boy, our racket is dead!” — he switched, never flying an airship again.

Off to a questionable start

His first two attempts at Glenn Curtiss’ flying school ended very quickly in piles of twisted aeroplane wreckage. Somehow he talked his way into making try number three, which was a successful solo flight. In fact, he showed such aptitude for flying — specifically that combination of fearlessness and skill necessary for stunt flying — that by the end of 1911 he was a member of Curtiss’ official team.

Over the next few years Lincoln would pull off an amazing series of aerial stunts.

In New York, he flew over Niagara Falls, down the gorge and under Honeymoon Bridge. In Chicago he dove down into the skyscraper walled streets and skimmed the roofs of cars with his landing gear — then set an altitude record by climbing until his fuel ran out. At the under-construction World’s Fair grounds in San Francisco, Lincoln actually took off, accelerated to 60 mph and landed his plane — all inside the huge Palace of Machinery!

He was the first to fly a plane inside a building, the first to figure out how to pull out of a spin; to tail-slide on purpose, nose dive with the engine off from 3000 feet, and he could pick a handkerchief off the ground with a wing-tip. And all of this while wearing a three-piece suit!

The man had style.

lincoln_beachey_flying_a_loopThe stuntman retires — not!

Lincoln owned every stunt that could made in an airplane, but after learning that something new had been accomplished in Europe — the inside loop — he couldn’t live without giving it a try.

Glenn Curtiss refused to build Lincoln a plane capable of the act — so he retired from flying. And he stayed retired until Curtiss gave in. On his first attempt with the new plane — Lincoln made a speed-related mistake that actually killed a spectator. He retired again.

This time it was only until spotting a circus poster showing a plane flying upside down — and he was lured right back into the sky. When he climbed into the cockpit of his Curtiss biplane, he became the first flyer in the United States to accomplish — and master — the inside loop.

Barnstorming, 1914

In 1914, he set off on his own for what would become the most celebrated barnstorming tour in American history. He cavorted in the air above 126 cities that year, also working up a series of staged airplane-motorcar “races” with the famous driver Barney Oldfield.

Somewhere along the way, Lincoln ordered a custom biplane he called the “Little Looper”. Instantly recognizable by the gigantic capital letters spelling out BEACHEY on the upper wing, he could loop-the-loop until the cows came home, setting records almost every time he went into the air. At one exhibition he Ferris-Wheeled through the sky 80 times in a row!

By the end of 1914, he was the most popular and well-known flyer in the country, earning a quarter of a million dollars, and performing in front of nearly 20 million people. And here’s some perspective — that’s nearly a quarter of the population of the entire country!

Among those millions who saw the man fly was Orville Wright himself, who earlier had dismissed Lincoln’s acrobatics as “optical illusions”. After seeing the show for himself, Orville opined that

“An aeroplane in the hands of Lincoln Beachey is poetry. His mastery is a thing of beauty to watch. He is the most wonderful flyer of all.”

He was declared “the eighth wonder of the world” by newspapers, and writer/philosopher Elbert Hubbard declared that

“Each art has its master worker — … its Michelangelo, its Milton. There is music and most inspiring grace … in flight by man in the heavens, and posterity will write the name of Lincoln Beachey as the greatest artist on the aeroplane. The deftness of stroke of any of the old masters cannot exact his touch. He is truly wonderful.”

Lincoln was also a handsome devil. His biographer Frank Marrero writes that the airman’s only vices were “an extreme boldness … (and) … too many women”. The blonde and firm-jawed airman was a magnet for young, female admirers, and he didn’t exactly beat them off with a stick. Intimacy outside the bonds of marriage — or at least engagement — was, let’s say, “frowned upon” in those gilded days — so Lincoln bought “diamond engagement rings by the dozen”, and always carried one in a vest pocket for amorous emergencies.

World War I

Europe was in the throes of the first World War by now, and the aerobatics that Beachey and others had pioneered — once derided as needlessly dangerous and self-aggrandizing — were being put to deadly use. The climate of the times was such that, working with the Army and Navy to get Congress interested in creating an Air Force, Lincoln added demonstration bombing to his repertoire. He criss-crossed the country dropping smoke bombs in exhibitions, culminating in a dive-bombing run at the White House itself.

Back to San Francisco, 1915

All right. All of this flying and fame brings us right back up to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Lincoln Beachey, as one of San Francisco’s favourite sons, was delighted to take part.

The “Master Birdman” added to the frenzied spectacle leading up to the opening by bombing a huge scale model of the Battleship Oregon floating a mile offshore. As multiple explosions rocked and sank the wood-and-canvas vessel, spectators screamed and even fainted, imagining that the real battleship had just been sent to the bottom of the Bay.

But that wasn’t enough for Lincoln. For him even the old loop-the-loop was becoming old hat, and he had stunts in mind that required a new-fangled kind of plane. Sleek and speedy single-winged aircraft were just starting to appear in workshops around the world, and Lincoln had been knocked out by seeing one airborne in France.

Though it’s often reported that his model was an Austrian-made Taube, other sources indicate that he had actually collaborated in the design of a brand new machine — a one-of-a-kind, extra-small, high-performance monoplane. It was built in San Francisco, and what better occasion to give it a debut than at the World’s Fair?

lincoln_beachey_takeoff_1915The fateful day

The 250,000 people watching on that fateful March 15th knew Lincoln’s reputation well, they knew about the cool new plane, and they were primed and ready to see something.

The tiny plane taxied along in front of the grand exhibition halls and accelerated, rapidly disappearing into the sky at the unheard of speed of 100 mph. As the crowd craned their necks, Lincoln took the plane into one of his famous inside loops, then climbed up to 3000 feet.

And then …

And here’s where history becomes somewhat confusing. I’ve found eyewitness accounts, newspaper stories, read the fun-filled Wikipedia article, and so on — and I cannot for the life of me decide which of the conflicting stories to believe.

Some say it happened as he performed the “Dip of Death”, his dive-from-the-sky-and-pull-up-at-the-last-second routine; others, at the end of an inside loop: still others, at the very end of his performance, flying back towards the landing strip. One school of thought even conjectures that he was about to — or even in the act of — trying to become the first aviator to fly a plane upside down.

Whatever the story, the ending is the same. To the horror of all present, including Lincoln’s friends and family, what happened was this: the slender wings of the little plane snapped right off; first one, then the other — Lincoln Beachey plunged helplessly downward, and vanished beneath the surface of the Bay.

Divers, ironically from the real Battleship Oregon, entered the water — and as the spectators held their collective breath, the bodies of both plane and pilot were brought to the surface. The greatest airman on the planet, three-piece suit and all, was still strapped into his cockpit — drowned.

A pioneer forgotten

The City mourned. And somehow in the intervening years, one of the greatest of the air pioneers, our own Lincoln Beachey has been forgotten. I suspect the daredevil would like to be remembered in his own words — this comes from an interview given shortly before his death.

“It is simply the dancing along life’s icy brink and the attendant excitement that makes life worth while. Chance-taking is not a business with me. It is a delightful diversion, and no music lover ever is more charmed by listening to the inspiring strains of his favorite opera, than I am charmed by the hum of my motor when I am sailing in or out of a loop and upside-down flight.

Some hunt lions and tigers for thrills. But I love the sky and answer its call because my whole life centers around the sensations of flying. It feels like being in love.”