Eugene Ely, one of Beachey's few close friends, set several flight records in San Diego. He died in 1911 doing the "dip of death."
"God punish you," Ely's wife wrote Beachey. "Gene would be with me now if he hadn't seen you fly!"
No, Beachey allegedly retorted, her "plodding and nagging" killed him.
In Los Angeles on January 23, 1912, Rutherford Page swore he'd "show Linc a trick or two he's never thought of." Minutes later, an "unexpected puff of wind" sent Page's Curtiss biplane plunging 75 feet and smashing into a hundred fragments. He died instantly. Asked for a comment, Beachey said Page was "foolishly brave."
In Ascot Park, Los Angeles newspapers said Beachey threw an "aerial tantrum." When he saw a group of spectators sitting in a tree "to beat the admission charge," Beachey banked his 80-horsepower Curtiss and stormed at them. He clipped the branches. "While making a precipitous escape," three broke their legs, and one fractured his skull.
Beachey swore his "foolhardy" flights were scientific experiments and that he always tried to "make haste slowly." In almost the same breath he advocated a competition with his fellow aviators: climb to 4000 feet and the one who comes closest to the ground before pulling out — if he can pull out — wins.
Although some stunt pilots died because crowds had egged them on — J.J. Frisbie doing an "ocean roll" in Norton, Kansas, among them — newspapers blamed Beachey for the rash of deaths between 1911 and 1913. Horace "Sure Shot" Kearney, who wore his cap backward in imitation of the master (and whose mother urged Beachey to teach her son no more tricks), died off Santa Monica.
On October 12, 1912, Beachey's protégé Charles Walsh, called by some "the greatest trick aviator in the world," attempted the "dip of death" near Trenton, New Jersey. At 2000 feet, a wire snapped and the upper part of his plane came loose. Canvas tore. Wings collapsed. The nose hit the ground first, then Walsh, then the engine, which buried him.
"I felt that I had murdered poor Charlie," Beachey wrote in an article. He could name nine friends who'd died trying to "do a Beachey…. One by one they have hurtled down, clutching the robes of God, to smash on the earth!" Newspapers attributed at least 22 deaths to his "air devilry."
Beachey always wanted to outdo himself with the most unbelievable stunt of all: a 360-degree loop in his biplane. No one had ever flown in a full circle before. Instead, on May 12, 1913, Beachey spoke before the Olympic Club in his home town of San Francisco: "Gentlemen, I am through with flying.
"Fear has driven me out of the skies for all time. Not fear of my own death…but blame and remorse for the death of brother aviators who went crashing into eternity trying to 'out-Beachey Beachey.' I have quit as the Pacemaker for Death."
And he kept his promise — until that September, when Adolphe Pegoud looped-the-loop in France.
Next time: Beachey loops the loop at North Island
Bilstein, Roger E., Flight in America: From the Wrights to the Astronauts (revised edition), Baltimore, 1994.
Carpenter, Jack, and Waterman, Waldo Dean, Waldo: Pioneer Aviator: A Personal History of American Aviation, 1910–1944, Carlisle, 1988.
Dwiggins, Don, "The California Flying Fool," The Air Devils: The Story of Balloonists, Barnstormers, and Stunt Pilots, Philadelphia, 1966.
Maitland, Lester J., Knights of the Air, New York, 1929.
Marrero, Frank, Lincoln Beachey: The Man Who Owned the Sky, San Francisco, 1997.
Sandburg, Carl, "To Beachey, 1912," Chicago Poems, New York, 1916.
Villard, Henry Serrano, Contact!: The Story of the Early Birds, New York, 1968.
Wohl, Robert, A Passion for Wings: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1908–1918, New Haven, 1994.
The Beachey File, San Diego Aerospace Museum.
Articles in the New York Times, San Diego Union, San Diego Sun, and Los Angeles Times.
- Don Dwiggins: "Until Beachey began doing the impossible with flying machines, birdmen had been satisfied to stagger about the sky, mechanically yanking levers to go up or sideways. It was Beachey who invented flying with powered aircraft as an art."
- Lester J. Maitland: "On land he was as gawky and quarrelsome as a gander, but in the air he was an eagle."
- Dwiggins: "He was in perpetual conflict with three negative forces: the sky, the crowds, and himself."
Read American Icarus Part II
Read American Icarus Part III