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AMERICAN ICARUS: LINCOLN BEACHEY LOOPS THE LOOP

(Part One)

Lincoln Beachey was one of America's first superstars. By 1915, the daredevil stunt pilot had performed before more people than anyone in history. An estimated one in six Americans had seen him fly the "figure eight," the "Coney Island dip," and the "Texas Tommy." In the latter, he swooped his biplane down as if to land, touched the right wheel on the ground, then the left, then careened back and forth in a bow-legged, death-defying two-step.

Beachey's biggest stunt, his brother Hillery said, was the "dip of death." He climbed to 5000 feet, shut off his motor, and made a head-first, plummeting spiral, touching down exactly where he wanted. In Dallas, Hillery saw him do the same trick twice, landing the second time "within a foot of the first."

Beachey made more money in a day than most Americans did in a year. He was such a national celebrity that in 1912 Carl Sandberg wrote a poem to the "man-bird." It concludes: "Hold him, great soft wings/ Keep and deal kindly, O wings,/ With the cool, calm shadow at the wheel."

Another shadow haunted Beachey. He performed so many manic, life-threatening stunts, he came to be known as "the Pacemaker for Death." Most of the 17–20 million spectators, who paid up to a dollar a ticket, didn't come to witness his unthinkable acrobatics. "They all predicted that I would be killed while flying," Beachey said. "They paid to see me die."

In 1913, the San Diego Union ran an editorial urging an injunction to ground "the California Flying Fool" who often tested new tricks at North Island. "Should Beachey be prevented from killing himself? For his own sake, is it the duty of society to restrain him?"

Beachey was born in San Francisco on March 3, 1887. Six years later, the Wright brothers soared from the slope of Kill Devil Hill, south of Kitty Hawk, for 12 seconds. Beachey learned to fly when pilots took few chances. They "drove" their flying machines only in the early morning, when winds were down. (They blew cigarette smoke to gauge airflow or trickled pieces of paper to the ground.) They always flew their rickety wood, cloth, and piano-wire crafts low, often just a few feet above terra firma. Crashes — and broken bones — were many, but deaths few.

Beachey changed everything. In 1905 he became a "balloonatic," flying dirigibles and gas balloons in exhibitions. In 1910, as he watched planes dominate the first International Air Meet in Los Angeles, Beachey told his brother, "Boy, our racket is dead."

Beachey tried, but failed, to build a functioning biplane. In the fall of 1910, he applied for the Glenn Curtiss Flying School, at Hammondsport, Upstate New York. In his audition before Curtiss, Beachey crashed twice. Curtiss walked away. But an aide told Curtiss the 23-year-old had a feel for flight and to give him another chance. Within a year, Beachey became the top draw of the Curtiss Exhibition Team.

Driven not just to excel but to demolish the competition, Beachey craved spectacle. At a time when every third flight ended with wreckage, Beachey became as reckless as Curtiss was cautious. He claimed his aerial experiments were scientific; he wanted to demonstrate the capabilities and safety of flight. But the closest he ever came to studying aerodynamics was watching seagulls glide in his youth. And anytime a competitor tried something new, Beachey made a desperate dash to top him.

He invented the "dip of death" by accident. Early in 1911, his motor died thousands of feet above Los Angeles. "Every move for self-preservation flashed before me — I began to drop, drop, drop in a dizzy whirl through space." Tailspins tempted pilots to pull the nose up, which exaggerated the spiral and cost them their lives. No one before Beachey had dared the opposite. Instead, resisting the fall, he tilted "the nose of the plane down and began to glide." The stress almost splintered the wood and snapped the wires, but Beachey held on. Barely able to breathe, he descended at a 45-degree angle. Near the ground, he nudged the nose of the plane upward. "Hysterical applause" from astonished onlookers celebrated his return to the sky.

"My defense of the dip of death," he wrote later, "is that I was forced to make it. When I kept it up I was furthering the interests of science" by "showing airmen it was possible to cheat death when your motor stalled." After Los Angeles, he "held little fear of an engine gone wrong."

To take greater stress, Beachey reinforced the wires of his Curtiss biplane, a Model D "pusher" with the motor behind the wings ("perfect for vision," writes Frank Marrero, "deadly for mistakes"). He began experimenting with steeper and steeper dives. "It was hard to control my senses and get used to the increased air pressure," said Beachey. "Gradually I mastered it." In practice runs he shaved the angle of descent from 45 to 10 degrees.

To cinch his conquest, Beachey made a "dead drop" from 5000 feet. He fell from the clouds "straight down like a stone," then pulled the plane upward and landed "as gently as a bird.… No living thing has ever gone through the air at the rate I went," an estimated 156 miles per hour.

On June 27, 1911, approximately six months after he learned to fly, Beachey garnered national attention. A joint U.S.-Canadian International Carnival had been planned at Niagara Falls. Harry Houdini would walk a tightrope. Bobby Leach would go over the falls in a barrel. Beachey would dive over them and, if he dared, for an extra $1000 in gold would fly under the steel-arched International Bridge just 400 yards from the cataracts.

It had drizzled all day. Beachey paced back and forth before his plane, parked at a baseball field on the American side. The rain prevented Houdini from performing. Around 3:30 p.m., Leach's eight-foot steel drum got stuck at the base of Horseshoe Falls. Tons of water per second pinned it down. He broke both kneecaps and fractured his jaw.

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Comments

dorseyland Aug. 14, 2008 @ 2:14 a.m.

Excellent story except for one thing: I would dearly love to be proved wrong on this and get the details, but I'm quite sure Houdini gave up tightrope walking when he was a kid.

Houdini walking a tightrope at Niagara Falls is an oft-repeated myth, almost always a mix-up with the Great Blondin.

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Jeff Smith Aug. 15, 2008 @ 10:44 a.m.

Jeff Smith responds:

dorseyland: Glad you liked the story.

It was Houdini, at least according to the paper of record. New York Times, June 29, 1911, headline: WHIRLED FOR HOURS BY NIAGARA RAPIDS. Subhead: HOUDIN [sic] MAROONED ON WIRE. "Houdin was within a hundred feet of the American shore on the wire on which he slid from Canada when he was marooned. The wire was too slack to allow him to reach the shore. There he stayed until hauled ashore by ropes. Houdin made a similar trip at last year's carnival and was marooned in the middle of the wire for forty-five minutes." The Niagara Falls Gazette and Cataract Journal (same date as above) also say it was "Houdin." He would have been 37 at the time.

--Jeff Smith

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geoffpage Aug. 25, 2008 @ 12:36 p.m.

I want to second that, it was an excellent piece and I was looking forward to the next installment. Very well written. Haven't read the second piece yet, but I plan to do so today. Fascinating that a guy like that isn't known by the public today. Lindbergh flew across an ocean and he is the best remembered but the exploits you described Beachey doing make Lindy look tame.

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dorseyland Aug. 30, 2008 @ 3:38 a.m.

Jeff, sorry for picking up on your reply so late. Thanks very much for that information. I remain dubious that it was Houdini at the Falls, but that's what the paper says, although as you've noted, the name is given as Houdin, indicating possible confusion with Blondin, both famous stunt entertainers in their day, even if Houdini's prime came later. Neither of the Houdini biographies I have mentions this event, but I'm going to keep looking.

None of this detracts from your great piece on Beachey, of course. What an amazing guy!

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Jeff Smith Aug. 31, 2008 @ 3:16 p.m.

JEFF SMITH RESPONDS: Geoffpage: a belated reply to your comparison of Beachey to Lindbergh. It turns out Beachey inspired the 12-year-old Lindbergh to take up flying - and Eddie Rickenbacker (the first to make an "outside loop"; over the falls, so to speak, then tuck under) as well.

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dorseyland Sept. 7, 2008 @ 11:13 a.m.

Hi again, Jeff. The Houdini mystery seems to be resolved at http://www.niagarafrontier.com/devil_frame.html ...

"Oscar Williams (aka Oscar Wilson) came to Niagara Falls in June of 1911. Williams called himself 'The Great Houdini'."

It was Oscar who got stuck on the tightrope. Still odd that the papers of the day all referred to "Houdin". Also, I note with embarrassment that Blondin's last Niagara stunt was in 1860!

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Jeff Smith Sept. 7, 2008 @ 1:13 p.m.

JEFF SMITH RESPONDS: Hey Dorseyland, that could be it! My only reservation: the crowd, estimated between 15 and 30,000, paid to see the three great daredevils of the day strut their stuff: crazy Leach go over the falls in a barrel, Houdini walk a tightrope, and Beachey (the upstart) dive into the chasm. That's how the event was marketed. Now if Williams called himself the "great Houdini" (or "Houdin"), then case closed. Maybe my sources cling to Harry Houdini because it makes the event more jazzy (and maybe Houdini doesn't mention it because it was such an embarrassment). I must admit, you've got me siding toward Williams.

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