AMERICAN ICARUS: LINCOLN BEACHEY LOOPS THE LOOP (Part Three)
“Aviators are not born like poets,” said Lincoln Beachey, who claimed that anyone could fly a plane but that he, and only he, was the natural-born poet of the air.
When “a mere lad,” Beachey told the U.S. Congress in 1913, he stood on a mountain in Southern California and looked across a sweeping green valley to another mountain. He longed for the wings of a bird to fly to the opposite peak. As sunlight speared through the clouds, the Pacific and several islands suddenly glittered in the distance. “And I wanted to fly there too. And so I decided that someday I would build me a flying machine.”
A world-famous stunt pilot and possibly America’s first superstar, Beachey urged Congress to give military pilots better training. Many had died from meager instruction and ramshackle machines. North Island’s aviation facility, Camp Trouble, had earned its nickname from tragedy. “The airplane of the future,” pilot Ralph Johnson said at the time, “will be created from our crushed bodies.”
Even senators could fly, Beachey told Congress. “Will you not journey with me?” No? “Oh, very well, I will call you a coward and forget and forgive you. And I will dare to say you will [not] experience life to its fullest until you have taken a trip to the clouds and to the skies.”
By 1913, Beachey had become, writes Frank Marrero, “a national hero of colossal proportions.” Millions had seen him “ocean roll,” 180-degree rotations, one after another in a wavelike pattern; or tailspin from a mile up, pulling out at the last second; or snatch a handkerchief off the ground with a wingtip. Except for his tweed cap, which he wore backwards during exhibitions, Beachey, in his three-piece suit, flew with the audacity, and the precision, of a swallow.
One hundred newspapers declared him the “eighth wonder of the world.” At his divorce proceedings his wife began naming women Beachey had promised to marry. When she reached number 32, the judge held up a hand and said, “Enough.”
In 1913, the deaths of at least 22 pilots, trying to “outdo Beachey,” forced him into retirement. Called “the Pacemaker of Death,” he had done everything a “birdman” could do with one exception: he had never flown a circle in the sky. No one had and, Beachey boasted, only he could. But if he “pulled off this loop the loop,” then others would die trying “because I have done it.”
On September 21, 1913, four months into his retirement, Beachey got a shock: Adolphe Pegoud flew a complete loop in France. In a cable, Beachey accused Glenn Curtiss of “cheating me out of my dearest ambition…looping.” Beachey demanded a specially made “pusher” biplane, the engine mounted in the rear, so he could “out-Pegoud Pegoud.”
On November 15, Beachey began testing the new craft at Curtiss’s San Diego teaching facility at North Island. At first, Beachey just practiced his familiar “air devilry”: rolls and figure eights and his famous dip of death — making a stone-dead drop from 5000 feet, lifting the nose at the last second, and touching down as softly as a cat.
On November 18, over Camp Trouble, at the northeast corner of North Island, Beachey became the first American to fly upside-down. So everyone would know he’d done it, Beachey painted his name in long, blood-red letters on the top wing. When he landed, he pretended to lose control. The biplane jerked and yawed, skidding to a stop within a dozen yards of horrified spectators.
On Thursday, November 20, Beachey invited people in the crowd to fly with him. All heads turned away, paying serious attention to a cloud or a wristwatch. Eighteen-year-old Lillian Dixon volunteered. Strapped to the left lower wing’s leading edge, she flew with Beachey for a cautious, 15-minute jaunt. When they came in to land, children, picnicking families, even horseback riders clogged the runway. Beachey swerved off course, mowing down heavy brush and finally stopping near an Army tent.
“I thought North Island’d be free of flying fans,” he fumed as he helped Dixon down. “From now on I’m practicing off Point Loma!”
The next day he was back flying over North Island and wondering why crowds were smaller. To generate more, he “accidentally” dropped gold coins over “the Rocky Road to Dublin,” a gusty area at the south end of North Island named after an Irish song. When he inverted his biplane, the coins tumbled from his shirt pocket and clinked past his chin.
On Monday, the 24th, 500 people watched Beachey take his picture upside-down. Not far away, Camp Trouble re-earned its grim nickname. Eighty feet above the ground, the engine of a Wright C No. 14 idled, misfired, and suddenly accelerated. The plane shot downward, and Lieutenants E.L. Ellington and Hugh Kelly crashed and died.
An angry Beachey said the military had “only three good machines” at North Island; the rest were repatched junk. Beachey announced that, out of respect for the dead, he wouldn’t fly again until the big Thanksgiving air show on November 27. He’d had it, he said, with uncontrolled crowds, badly trained military pilots, and the government’s “radical mistakes” in aviation policy.
The next day, Tuesday, November 25, Beachey abandoned his vow. At 3:00 p.m. he boarded his biplane. Since he’d given his crew two days off, an Army mechanic twirled the propeller. Unlike previous afternoons, when watchers jammed the bay in boats and lined the sandy runway, fewer than a dozen witnesses noticed Beachey take off into partly cloudy skies.
This was by design. “Beachey chose the time he thought would give him the most privacy in his trial at the loop,” the Union wrote the next day — also that “he simply did not want to fail before a crowd.”
But there was more: throughout Beachey’s career, betting pools formed at each exhibition, the odds — usually around five-to-one he’d perish — posted on placards.
“I was never egotistical enough to think that crowds came to witness my…trick-dog stunts.” Only one thing drew them: “the desire to see ‘something happen’ — meaning, of course, my death.