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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

SOURCES:

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.

QUOTATIONS

  1. 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."
  2. Lester J. Maitland: "On land he was as gawky and quarrelsome as a gander, but in the air he was an eagle."
  3. 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

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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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