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.
“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.
Dwiggins, Don, The Air Devils: The Story of Balloonists, Barnstormers, and Stunt Pilots, Philadelphia, 1966.
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 II