AMERICAN ICARUS: BEACHEY COMES TO SAN DIEGO (Part Two)
“Death was always my opponent,” said Lincoln Beachey at a celebration in his honor, “and I gave tremendous odds.”
He spoke at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, May 12, 1913. In three years he had risen from a fledgling pilot who’d smashed three planes trying out for Glenn Curtiss’s flying school to “the greatest birdman of all.” He’d flown over and down Niagara Falls and between skyscrapers on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, tapping the tops of cars with his wheels. Often practicing over Coronado’s North Island, he perfected the art of “aerobatics,” inventing at least ten unimaginable stunts.
One became known as the “dip of death.” From 5000 feet, Beachey shot straight down and pulled out at the last second. Twenty-two pilots died trying to imitate the maneuver. Shortly before he spoke at the Olympic Club, newspapers called Beachey “the Pacemaker of Death” — and accused him of murder.
At the end of his speech, Beachey declared that he’d never fly again. He
didn’t fear dying but dreaded “the blame and remorse for the death of brother aviators who went crashing into eternity trying to ‘out-Beachey Beachey.’ ”
“I am tormented with a desire to loop the loop in the air,” he added. But were he the first to fly a complete circle, others “will be taken to death in trying to do the same thing because I have done it.”
Beachey got the idea of looping from Hugh Robinson. While testing planes for Glenn Curtiss’s flying school at North Island, Robinson went to the circus in San Diego. He watched a clown in a rusty jalopy swoop down a track, from the top rear of the tent, and into a giant metallic hoop. Going at least 40 miles an hour, the car went up, upside-down, around, and out — a circle — then stopped dead, without brakes, inches from the bleachers.
Robinson urged Beachey and Eugene Ely, one of Beachey’s few friends, to catch the act. They did, in Riverside. On the ride back, Ely was amazed not at the loop but how fast the car had stopped. Eight ropes had been stretched across the end of the track, each with bags of wet sand at both ends. A meat hook on the rear axle caught the ropes: 16 weights lugged the jalopy to a standstill.
Ely was the first pilot to take off from a ship, but landing on one stumped him until he saw the meat hook gather the taut ropes. On January 18, 1911, using a “tail hook” designed by Robinson, Ely became the first pilot in history to land on a ship: the USS Pennsylvania, in San Francisco Bay.
Nine months later, Ely crashed in Macon, Georgia, and became one of the 22 pilots who died attempting the dip of death. Days later, Ely’s wife shot Beachey a letter: “God punish you, Lincoln Beachey! Gene would be with me now if he had not seen you fly!”
Her “prodding and nagging” took his life, Beachey retorted, but he confessed in private that Ely’s death began his thoughts of retirement.
On September 21, 1913, four months after Beachey’s announcement, Adolphe Pegoud looped the loop at Marseilles, France. The news made international headlines and struck Beachey like a heart attack. (Unknown to the world, a Russian named Petr Nesterov had looped on September 9 at an aerodrome in Kiev. But censors refused to publicize or even allow him to repeat the “foolhardy death loop.”)
Beachey telegrammed Curtiss, demanding the “smallest, strongest, and fastest” biplane the company could build. It needed twice the strength of his former craft — beams, turnbuckles, wire cable stays — but it could not be too heavy. Pegoud flew a monoplane with a “tractor” propeller mounted in the nose and an engine designed to fly upside-down, so gas wouldn’t leak from the carburetor.
“Me, I stick to my old formula,” boasted Beachey. “Give me enough power and I’ll fly a barn door upside-down.”
Curtiss built a biplane with a “pusher” propeller mounted behind the pilot and an eight-cylinder, water-cooled motor. To withstand the stress of inverted flight, Curtiss’s engineers designed one-piece wings and covered them with doubled layers of shellacked canvas.
Beachey abandoned his old-school approach in one regard: to hold him in when upside-down, he added safety belts, two nailed to the seat bottom, which crisscrossed his lap, and a shoulder strap.
He tested the machine on October 7, 1913, at Hammondsport, in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Although the flight was supposed to be a secret, Navy pilots training in the area got word and came to watch. Lieutenants Bellinger and Richardson brought their girlfriends, sisters Ruth and Dorothy Hildreth. To get a better view, all four inched up a hangar ridgepole.
Even before a mechanic cranked the propeller, the plane felt too heavy to Beachey. The extra buttressing and large, blaring motor, like a gigantic dentist’s drill, made it seem not lighter than air, but more like Ely’s tail-hook plane.
As he took off, Beachey realized this clumsy, blunt-winged toad would never loop. It could barely lift. At the end of the runway, he had to yank the stick back full to his chest to clear a stand of oaks.
He flew out over Lake Keuka, turned, and came back to land. But the plane was so bulky the question became, how? The sole possibility, he realized, was to swoop down fast, at over 70 miles an hour, so the engine wouldn’t stall. But that speed would fry his wheels and could mean certain death. Beachey practiced landing approaches in the air but after several experiments realized that a crash was inevitable.
Witnesses below, thinking that he was preparing to loop, shouted approval each time the test plane roared overhead.
As Beachey approached the runway, the engine sputtered, the plane dipped. He hit the throttle. A wire twanged above him. The wings veered toward the hangar. In a blind panic, the lieutenants and the Hildreth sisters scrambled down the ridgepole.