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Too late. Beachey’s right wing speared the roof. The plane spun, cartwheeled, and slammed into the ground with an iron thud. The remains looked like warped monkey bars.

As he unhooked the safety harness that had probably saved his life, Beachey recalled people scurrying down the pole. A crowd, forming at the hangar, confirmed his worst fear: Dorothy Hildreth had sustained serious injuries; Ruth Hildreth had fallen to her death.

“She’s dead, Linc,” said Beachey’s mechanic Arthur Mix. “You killed her.”

Beachey, several witnesses attest, limped behind the hangar and vomited.

The tragedy, writes Don Dwiggins, “left Beachey numb inside, not with the chill of fear. That was gone…,” but with “a sense of futility, of inevitability, that edged his flying technique with an almost morbid desire to see how far he could go.”

It also confirmed a “loathing, a hatred of the sea of upturned faces that had lured him to go too far.” Beachey became convinced that people came by the tens of thousands not to see him carve graceful, death-defying shapes and figures in the air but to watch him flail and burn.

Three weeks later, Curtiss’s engineers rebuilt and refined the test plane. It felt right, said Beachey, but since winter was coming, he ordered the plane crated and shipped by train to California. “We’ll pull the first loop at the San Diego meet on Thanksgiving Day,” he said. “Tell the newspapers!”

Along with “Pacemaker of Death,” two other accusations hounded Beachey: that he was insane, “the California Flying Fool”; and that he was a fraud, his heroics mere tricks. (One reason he performed lower to the ground than any of his rivals was to prove that his art was genuine.)

His train pulled into the San Diego depot on November 15, 1913. As the ferry shipped the crates to Coronado, he checked into the U.S. Grant Hotel and phoned the newspapers. “The Genius of Aviation” — his preferred title — “is here to loop the loop. I will stay at North Island for about a week or ten days. I want to have the stunts down letter perfect by the time I show them to the public.”

On Sunday the 16th, Beachey made an inch-by-inch inspection of the assembled biplane. He checked every Roebling wire cable and turnbuckle. Finally, he climbed in and ordered workers to start the 100-horsepower engine. Eight men had to hold the wings. The machine, making such a raucous blare it gave them earaches, warmed up.

Beachey climbed to 3000 feet, shut off the engine, and nose-dived out of the sky. The crew, along with nearby Army pilots who’d ceased work to watch, held their breath. Then, only 200 feet from disaster, somehow Beachey leveled off. He rose, did a second dip, this time with a double spiral, and landed.

Beachey made three flights that day. What seemed miraculous to onlookers were actually his basic stunts: letter Z’s and S’s, controlled tailspins, and perpendicular flybys over the field, the low wing, inches from the ground, raising a wake of dust. He concluded his day with a dip of death so swift that the San Diego Union received numerous calls asking if yet another Army plane had crashed at Rockwell Field.

“This was plain flying today,” Beachey told awed reporters. “I’m not taking any chances and will not go to the limit until I know just what the limit means.” He pronounced the plane fit to try the “somersault stunt” in the near future. But before looping the loop, he first had to master flying upside-down.

On November 18, around 4:00 p.m., Beachey spun his cap backwards and yelled at a photographer, “Grease up your camera, and keep your eyes open!”

He took off into blustery skies. At least 50 people played hooky from work to watch. He ascended to 4000 feet, dropped downward, and shut off the engine. Suddenly he flipped the plane over on its back, becoming the first American to see the sky above his feet. To make sure onlookers knew he was upside-down, he’d painted his last name across the top wing in blood-red letters: “BEACHEY.” He traveled a mile, inverted, flying from the Curtiss and Army aviation camps on North Island, past Spanish Bight, and over the polo field at the northeast end of Coronado Island. When the plane began to lose altitude, Beachey half-corkscrewed to right-side-up and flew straight to — many feared straight at — the spectators.

Flying inverted was “much easier than I thought,” he said. It wouldn’t be long before he’d “pick up a handkerchief from the ground while flying upside-down.”

On Thursday, he called San Diego “the perfect spot in all America for aviation” — and demanded that the Signal Corps, which had chosen San Antonio, Texas, as a site, should relocate its main flying school at North Island, with its “uniformly good flying conditions.”

To prove the point, Beachey took 18-year-old Lillian Dixon, “a slip of a girl with a mass of brown curls,” for a spin. They improvised a seat and, after flying a cautious route, came in to land. But the crowd had become so thick on the runway — including six riders on horseback — that Beachey had to swerve away, skidding to a halt in thick brush and just missing an Army tent.

“I’m through trying to fly over the aviation field,” he said, shaking his fist at the mob. “I will not risk my machine on the lives of foolish spectators.” From then on, he swore, he’d only fly off from Point Loma.

The next day he forgot his vow and “accidentally” dropped $200 worth of gold coins over North Island. He’d cashed a draft at the U.S. Grant, he said, and forgotten he’d stuffed them in his shirt pocket. When he flew belly-up, a “rush of metallic discs” trickled past his head. Searchers found only four five-dollar gold pieces. But since he’d promised to loop at North Island on Thanksgiving, the advertising was priceless.

On November 24, Beachey took a picture of himself flying upside-down. But a tragedy grabbed the headlines. Lieutenant E.L. Ellington, an experienced Army Air Corps pilot, was teaching Lieutenant Hugh Kelly in a dual-control Wright C biplane. Eighty feet above the Army tents on North Island, the engine quit, then fired back on. Propeller wash raised the tail section and gunned the craft downward. It was still accelerating when it hit the ground, killing both men.

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Comments

shirleysmithburke Aug. 24, 2008 @ 1:42 p.m.

Very engrossing story. I enjoyed it .... can't believe it's been 100 years!

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Jeff Smith Aug. 25, 2008 @ 12:40 p.m.

JEFF SMITH RESPONDS. Only 100 years. No matter how many times I go to the Aerospace Museum, and I go often, I'm always astonished at how small and fragile those early planes look. The Wright brothers flew in that flimsy amalgam of wires and popsicle sticks? Beachey dipped and looped in THAT??

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