“I made up my mind that if I did tumble from the air, I did not want my final bump to stamp me as a piker. I wanted to drop from thousands of feet. I wanted the grandstands and the grounds to be packed with a huge, cheering mob.… And when the ambulance, or worse, hauled me away, I wanted them all to say as they filed out the gates, ‘Well, Beachey was certainly flying some.’ ”
Beachey, writes Martin Caidin, developed a “sneering, go-to-hell attitude” toward his myriad fans. Several times during a show he’d fly at them just for kicks. He rarely, if ever, signed autographs and often huffed away after an exhibition.
For his first attempt at looping the loop, Beachey didn’t just want privacy. He refused to share the historical moment with what was to him a bloodthirsty horde. As he took off from North Island unannounced, San Diegans heard, at best, the buzzing of a far-off bee.
Scientists swore the stunt was impossible: Beachey’s upright motor would stall at the top of the circle. The machine would flop from the sky like a tailless kite.
Beachey powered straight up. Before beginning the loop, he had to make a hard dive to pick up speed. In case the engine did stall, Beachey flew over Spanish Bight, the shallow channel between North Island and Coronado.
He began the dive at 2700 feet. At 2000 he kept the throttle at full power but pulled back on the stick. The biplane began an upward crescent, arching backward like a gymnast. At the apex, “BEACHEY” in red letters flashed that he was upside-down.
He pulled harder on the stick. A new pressure slammed his neck and shoulders. His feet rose above him. The world spun. The plane made an inverted swan dive and completed a 150-foot diameter loop.
Then history: without pausing, Beachey arched up again, turned his back to the ground, then his head. He watched the horizon flip-flop — blue sky, blue-green bay, blue sky — and drew a second circle in the air, lower than the first but just as perfectly round. While others had looped before him, no one had done two in a row. Beachey didn’t just beat Pegoud, writes Frank Marrero. At that moment, Beachey knew he “could outfly the birds.”
When he landed, a few Army pilots shook his hand. “All the time they’ve been saying, ‘Beachey is a fool flier and lucky to be alive,’ ” he barked through clenched teeth. “I tolerated them. Now I’m going to get angry. It is not a joke any longer.… I am not going to quit until I make all the scientific fellows — and rocking-chair aviators — take to their holes. I am the happiest man in the world.”
Then he ferried across the bay and attended a memorial service for Ellington and Kelly. Within half an hour all of San Diego knew what he had achieved — and a day later, the world.
On Thanksgiving 1913, Beachey looped three times before 10,000 paying customers at the Coronado Island polo grounds. They gave him, a Union headline proclaimed the next morning, the “Mightiest Tribute Ever Accorded Hero in History of City.”
A year later, also on Thanksgiving, Beachey came back to San Diego to perform his 1024th loop. The miracle had become so commonplace that fewer than 1500 paid to watch. The short-lived era of the “birdmen” was coming to a close. Crowds bored with ocean rolls, Texas two-steps, and loops wanted greater spectacles.
In 1914, Beachey raced Barney Oldfield, the world-famous racecar driver, around at least 35 oval tracks, often knocking off Oldfield’s hat with a wing tip. Beachey flew through the Palace of Machinery Building in San Francisco. He made eight loops in a row. He dressed like a woman and pretended to fly out of control, with no hands, coming within inches of trees and spectators.
Audiences demanded more. At Sacramento, infuriated by something the governor said, Beachey did a striptease. Every time he passed the stands, an article of clothing fluttered down. He deplaned in his underwear, astonishing some, offending many.
On March 15, 1915, Beachey had built his dream ship, a silver monoplane with bright yellow wings and an 80-horsepower Gnome Monosoupape rotary engine that flew twice as fast as his biplane.
He would test it before 50,000 spectators at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. The aluminum fuselage gave him such unmatched quickness that a friend, Ted Macaulay, warned Beachey against looping.
“It’ll be okay,” Beachey replied, “as long as I don’t pull out too tightly.”
His mechanic, Arthur Mix, removed the chocks, and Beachey took off with an instrument, he felt, finally worthy of his abilities. For ten minutes he flew low-level loops over the bay, an ocean roll, and a mock tailspin. Then he came in for a landing.
“She’s a homesick angel,” he told Mix. “Gas her up. I’m going back again.”
“Take it easy,” Mix replied. “This baby’s a lot faster than anything you’ve flown.”
“Don’t worry,” Beachey winked through oil-streaked goggles. “But keep your eyes open. I’ll wring her out this time.”
Beachey arrowed upward for a dip of death. At 3000 feet he hurtled out of the sky faster than any pilot had ever flown. Too fast.
At 500 feet, two cracks echoed across the bay. The left wing folded upward, then the right. The plane became a trembling yellow V. As he nose-dived toward the water, Beachey shut off the engine and fuel line. His last gesture, which thousands witnessed from the grandstand, was a small good-bye wave with the fingers of his right hand. — Jeff Smith
Adamson, Hans Christian, “The Man Who Owned the Sky,” True magazine, December 1953.
Beachey, Lincoln, “The Genius of Aviation,” pamphlet, 1914, archives division, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
Caidin, Martin, Barnstorming, New York, 1965.
Dowell, Jared Ingersoll, “The Spectacle of Progress: Lincoln Beachey and the Stunt Flying Epoch,” senior thesis, Haverford College, 2003.