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Friends warned Beachey that swirling air currents would slam him into the spume like a tailless kite. The betting line was two-to-one he wouldn't make the attempt and, if he did, five-to-one he wouldn't leave the gorge alive.

Around 6:00 p.m., Beachey climbed into his plane. In the gesture that became his trademark, he spun his cap bill-backwards and shouted, "Contact!" An estimated 150,000 spectators waved umbrellas and roared.

As the biplane gained elevation, Beachey tested air currents. He flew to the brink of Horseshoe Falls but pulled up and circled twice. On his third try, there was no mistake: this was the move.

As his craft picked up speed and made a raspy, nagging clatter few spectators had heard before, Beachey flew south. He crossed American Falls at 2000 feet and did a swan dive over the brink of Horseshoe Falls. For several seconds he disappeared in clouds of white mist. Then he shot out of the spray and, never more than 30 feet from the surging rapids, sped toward the international suspension bridge. To pass under its steel girders, he had to dip the plane's nose-wheel into the whitewater.

He did it!

But Beachey wasn't done. As he went under the arch, a wing caught the wash from a nearby power-drain. The plane teetered — from the weight? Or was Beachey shaking off the unwanted load?

As he neared the whirlpool rapids, Beachey jammed his left foot on the accelerator and pulled the wheel back hard. Water cascaded off the wings as the plane arched upward, just missing the rocky crest of the gorge by a few feet. He landed on the Canadian side. A mob of astonished onlookers almost crushed him and his craft.

The next day 300,000 spectators came to see Beachey and Harry Houdini perform. Two-thirds of the way across the falls, Houdini got marooned for 30 minutes on a slick tightrope. And Beachey, encountering more severe conditions, flew for half an hour before attempting the drop. "The wind was strong," he told reporters, "almost a gale." As he neared the falls, a dangerous suction yanked his machine down toward the river. He fought it and skied to 5000 feet. "Even at that height my machine rocked badly. It rolled and pitched, and I had my hands full managing it." He made no attempt to dive over the falls and even had difficulty landing in the buffeting winds.

Nonetheless, he out-Houdini'd Houdini. Beachey's inability to replicate his feats underscored their difficulty. He "was glad to have accomplished what others thought impossible," adding that he'd never try either again.

A month later, at the Chicago International Aviation Meet, Beachey broke the altitude record. He topped his fuel tank and said he'd fly straight up until he ran out. He climbed so high that, except for those with binoculars, the plane disappeared. People began to wonder how he could prove he'd broken the record. "Complete waste of fuel," one said.

Then the biplane hurtled out of the sky. Onlookers couldn't hear it: the engine was dead. And Beachey was doing barnstorming stunts — lateral slides and fillips with the wings, like a first-time flier or a pro deep in his cups.

Beachey did a clean deadstick landing and exited with a polished wooden box. It was a barograph that recorded changes in air pressure. Beachey had pushed his machine, the barograph testified, to 11,600 feet — a record — and also negotiated an insane two-mile fall on the return.

"His performance," writes Lieutenant Lester J. Maitland, "sounds a thousand times simpler than it was." Beachey became a national hero.

"Birdmen," the name given daredevil pilots, wore leather jackets, helmets with ear flaps, and turtlenecks with a silk scarf flapping in the breeze. To separate himself from the crowd, Beachey dressed like a banker: three-piece pinstripe suit, white shirt, and tie. He wore his tweed cap backwards, a look other pilots soon adopted. "While some argue that he purposely dressed formally to convey the normalcy of flight," writes Frank Marrero, "it also gave him a dapper look, which surely appealed to his audience, especially the women."

America's superstar aeronaut attracted legions of groupies. When he flew down Chicago's Michigan Avenue and tapped his wheels on the roofs of cars, secretaries "screamed with girlish glee" — at least until he made a beeline for their windows and pulled up at the last second. "He had a fiancée" at every stop, writes Don Dwiggins. And when May, his first wife, divorced him, the judge silenced her after she'd recited 32 cities where women claimed her husband's undying adoration.

Depending on what they thought of him, biographers say Beachey was either five feet tall, five foot eight, or six foot one (the same height as Curtiss). His arrogance knew no limit, say some. He had a "sneering, go-to-hell attitude" and "repelled, rather than attracted people." San Diego's Waldo Dean Waterman, an early pilot who knew him personally, said that on the ground Beachey was "taciturn and moody, maybe, but once he took to the air, he earned the admiration of us all."

Beachey's greatest fears, claims a biographer, were that he'd either be forgotten or remembered only as a "crazy fool."

His antics played into the latter. At the second aviation meet of 1912, he stunned Chicagoans by dressing like a woman. He called this persona Madam Lavasseur, an inept French aviatrix, and flew dizzy, perilous routes, including a near-dip into Lake Michigan.

When the governor of California offended him, for unknown reasons, Beachey did an aerial striptease. Each time he passed the bleachers, he tossed down an article of clothing — here a checkered cap, there a starched collar, fluttering down. He landed wearing only shorts and socks and taxied to his hangar. He hopped down and flexed his muscles at the crowd, telling his mechanic, "Now I'd like to hear what that damned stuffed shirt has to say about Lincoln Beachey!"

Beachey inspired many youngsters to take up flying, including a 12-year-old Charles Lindbergh. Beachey also inspired numerous imitators, several of whom lost their lives attempting his stunts.

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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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