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.
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.
Once they removed the bodies, workers burned the blood-spattered shambles on the spot. This had become a grim tradition in the early days of flight. “Returning the wreckage to the hangars,” reports San Diego Flying Days, “would be disheartening to everyone.”
“Slaughter! Shameless neglect!” Beachey shouted at reporters, black smoke rising behind him. “There are only two or three machines on the island fit for any service at all. Our government murdered these men.
“Japan spends ten times as much each year on aviation as is spent by the United States. Even Mexico has a larger air force.” Beachey offered to devote three months to training military pilots (ten days later, he was in Washington, DC, urging Congress to provide “better conditions for aviation instruction”).
The coroner’s office claimed that Ellington and Kelly died “as the result of being crushed by the accidental fall of a biplane.” But rumors spread through the city that they had been trying to “do a Beachey.” The commanding officer, Captain Cowan, said, no, it was a routine flight: “There is as much difference between Army flying and Beachey’s as there is between a circus rider and an ordinary horseback rider.”
An incensed Beachey swore he wouldn’t fly again until the Thanksgiving show. The next day, however, he changed his mind. — Jeff Smith
Next time: Beachey loops the loop
Adamson, Hans Christian, “The Man Who Owned the Sky,” True magazine, December 1953.
Beachey, Lincoln, “The Genius of Aviation,” pamphlet, 1914; “The Pacemaker for Death Quits!” 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.
Dwiggins, Don, The Air Devils: The Story of Balloonists, Barnstormers, and Stunt Pilots, Philadelphia, 1966.
Leiser, Edward L., “North Island Wings Its Way into History,” Traditions, November 1994.
Marrero, Frank, Lincoln Beachey: The Man Who Owned the Sky, San Francisco, 1997.
Mix, Arthur, “My 82,000 Miles with Lincoln Beachey,” U.S. Air Services, January 1929.
Peck, Wallace R., “Forgotten Air Pioneers: The Army’s Rockwell Field at North Island,” Journal of San Diego History, summer/fall 2006.
Villard, Henry Serrano, Contact! The Story of the Early Birds, New York, 1965.
Waterman, Waldo Dean, with Carpenter, Jack, Waldo: Pioneer Aviator — A Personal History of American Aviation, 1910–1944, Carlisle, 1988.
Articles in the San Diego Union, San Diego Sun, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times.
Read American Icarus Part I
Read American Icarus Part III