Lincoln J. Beachey

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Lincoln J. Beachey
Lincoln Beachy.jpg
Born (1887-03-03)March 3, 1887
San Francisco, California
Died March 14, 1915(1915-03-14) (aged 28)
Panama-Pacific International Exposition
San Francisco, California
Cause of death Aircrash
Resting place Cypress Lawn Memorial Park
Occupation Aviator
Parent(s) William C. Beachey
Relatives Hillary Beachey (1885–1964), brother
Lincoln Beachey, in his business suit he wore for flying
Lincoln Beachey with his plane

Lincoln J. Beachey (March 3, 1887 – March 14, 1915) was a pioneer American aviator and barnstormer. He became famous and wealthy from flying exhibitions, staging aerial stunts, helping invent aerobatics, and setting aviation records.[1]

He was known as The Man Who Owns the Sky, and sometimes the Master Birdman.[2] Beachey was acknowledged even by his competitors as "The World's Greatest Aviator".[2] He was "known by sight to hundreds of thousands and by name to the whole world."


Born on March 3, 1887, in San Francisco, Beachey was a lonely, chubby kid who, according to authors Sam Kean and Frank Marrero, nobody would have suspected of becoming a hero. By the age of 10 he was hurtling down San Francisco’s steep Fillmore Hill on a bicycle with no brakes.

Following in his older brother Hillary's footsteps, he worked as a ground crewman for dirigible pilot Thomas Scott Baldwin. He helped build the dirigible "California Arrow" and made his first dirigible flight in 1905, at the age of 17. Later he helped design a faster, more aerodynamic dirigible known as the "Beachey-Baldwin".

In 1910 he piloted his Beachey-Knabenshue Racing Airship balloon at the 1910 Los Angeles International Air Meet at Dominguez Field, and raced fixed-wing aircraft around a course at an altitude of 100 feet (30 m). Meanwhile, his brother Hillary began flying aeroplanes at the meet (the Gill-Dosh Curtiss-type biplane), and soon began axperimenting with such craft, too.[3] At the 1911 Los Angeles airshow, Beachey got his big break: a star pilot got hurt and Beachey took his place. He shot upwards 3,000 feet into the air…and his motor failed. He went into a nose-diving spin no pilot had ever survived. He did what no pilot had ever done: he turned into the spin, regained control, and landed safe and sound.[4]

After that, Beachey joined the exhibition team of aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss. Unfamiliar with Curtiss' designs, it is said[who?] he crashed three times while learning to fly them, but soon achieved mastery of this new design.

In June the organizers of the U. S.-Canadian Carnival offered $1,000 to the first person to fly an aeroplane over Niagara Falls. Beachey responded in his Curtiss D biplane, and on June 27, 1911 Beachey took off into a drizzle and flew over the lower falls of Niagara Falls, then above American Falls, before an estimated 150,000 spectators. While gradually climbing, Beachey circled his plane over the falls several times. After he completed this performance he dove down into the mists of the falls, within 6 m of the waters surface. Then he flew his plane under "Honeymoon Bridge," 20 feet (6.1 m) above the rapids. (Local papers described his plane as looking like "a beat-up orange crate.")[citation needed]

Although Wilfred Parke is credited with developing "Parke's technique" to recover from a tailspin,[5] Beachey is also cited as having discovered the maneuver.[6] Climbing to 5,000 feet, he forced his plane into the spin and then turned the rudder in the direction of the spin, allowing him to level out. He repeated the maneuver eleven more times to confirm that it worked.[7]

Thus Beachey soon became an aviation superstar. At a time when the entire population of the U.S. was just 90 million people, 17 million came out to see him fly in just one year.[citation needed] He invented figure 8s and the vertical drop, and was the first pilot to achieve terminal velocity by flying straight toward the ground. In fact, what Beachey did was so extraordinary and so dangerous, a wave of pilots died trying to imitate him.[citation needed] After the death of a dear friend of his, Beachey vowed to retire. And he did—for three months. Until he finally gave in and strapped himself back in a cockpit to master the trick of all tricks: the loop. Lincoln perfected it.

At the 1911 Chicago International Aviation Meet, Beachey raced a train—and let his wheels touch the top of the moving train as it passed underneath.[citation needed] Here he also won multiple awards for his stunts, and set a new altitude record. To do this he filled his tanks with fuel, then said he would point the plane's nose skyward and keep going until the fuel ran out. For an hour and forty-eight minutes he spiraled upwards until the engine sputtered and died. He then glided in spirals to the ground, and climbed out, numb and stiff from the cold. The barograph aboard the plane showed he had reached a height of 11,578 feet (3,529 m), temporarily setting the world's altitude record.[citation needed]

In 1912, Beachey, Parmelee, and aviation pioneer Glenn Martin performed the first night flights in California with acetylene burners, fuses, and small noise making bombs dropped over Los Angeles.[8] In 1913, Beachey took off inside the Machinery Palace on the Exposition grounds at the San Francisco World's Fair. He flew the plane at 60 miles per hour and landed it, all inside the confines of the hall. His stunt speciality was the "dip-of-death", where he would take his plane up to 5,000 feet (1,500 m), and dive toward the ground at full speed with his hands outstretched. At the very last moment he would level the plane and zoom down the raceway, with his hands off of the controls, gripping the control stick with his knees. In a jest aimed at Blanche Stuart Scott, another member of the Curtiss exhibition team, Beachey dressed up as a woman and pretended to be out of control in a mock terror to hundreds of thousands.[9]

Orville Wright said, "An aeroplane in the hands of Lincoln Beachey is poetry. His mastery is a thing of beauty to watch. He is the most wonderful flyer of all."[citation needed]

Solo career[edit]

In 1913, a Russian pilot, Captain Pyotr Nesterov, made the first inside loop. Frenchman Adolphe Pegoud later that year became the second and more famous person to do it. Beachey wanted to try it himself. Curtiss refused to build him a plane capable of the stunt, and Beachey left the flying team. At the same time, he wrote a scathing essay about stunt flying, stating most people came to exhibitions out of morbid eagerness to see young pilots die. On March 7, 1913, he announced he would never again fly professionally, believing he was indirectly responsible for the deaths of several young aviators who had tried to emulate his stunts.[10] In May, he would cite twenty-four fatalities, all of whom were "like brothers" to him.[11] He felt tremendous guilt about their deaths and the suffering of their families.

Beachey went into the real estate business for a time, until Curtiss reluctantly agreed to build a stunt plane powerful enough to do the inside loop. Beachey returned and, on October 7, took the plane up in the air at Hammondsport, New York. On its first flight, either a downdraft or a loss of speed following a turn caused the plane to dip momentarily. One wing clipped the ridgepole of a tent on the field and the plane then swept two young women and two naval officers off the roof of a nearby hangar, from where they had been watching the flight, contrary to Beachey's wishes. One woman was killed and the others injured as a result of the fall, a distance of about ten feet. Beachey's plane crashed in a nearby field but he managed to walk away from the wreckage with minor injuries. (A coroner's jury ruled the death of the 20-year-old woman as accidental.[12]) Beachey decided for the second time to leave aviation.

Lincoln Beachey flying a loop over the San Francisco Exposition

However, the sight of a circus poster changed his mind. The poster depicted a plane flying upside down, a stunt that had not been attempted yet. Beachey was determined to master the loop and upside-down flight, but decided to go it alone.

He tried making a living demonstrating loops on exhibition grounds, but soon found that people would not pay to see a stunt they could see easily outside the gates. He retired for a third time, but returned when his manager had an idea that he depicted in a poster: the "Demon of the Sky" against the "Daredevil of the Ground." Beachey was to race his plane against a racing car driven by the popular driver Barney Oldfield. The manager made sure there was a high fence around the exhibition grounds, forcing people to pay if they wanted to see the race. Beachey's plane was faster than Oldfield's car, but they took turns "winning," and crowds flocked to see their daily competitions. With the money he earned by racing, Beachey designed and built a new plane, the "Little Looper." He had his name painted in three-foot-high letters across the top wing. Soon he was flying multiple loops. Whenever he heard about another pilot setting a record for flying continuous loops, Beachey would promptly break it, flying as many as eighty loops in a row. Beachey and Oldfield toured the country, staging races everywhere they went. In Dayton, Ohio, home of the Wright Brothers, they performed to a crowd of 30,000.

After he first successfully completed a loop, he wrote a poignant reflection, saying, "The silent reaper of souls and I shook hands that day. Thousands of times we've engaged in a race among the clouds. Plunging headlong in to breathless flight, diving and circling with awful speed through ethereal space. And many times when the dazzling sunlight has blinded my eyes, and sudden darkness has numbed all my senses, I have imagined Him close at my heels. On such occasions I have defied him, but, in so doing have experienced fright which I can not explain. Today, the old fellow and I are pals."

In 1914, he dive-bombed the White House and Congress in a mock attack, proving that the US government was woefully unprepared for the age that was upon it.[citation needed]

In 1915, he had a large wooden model made of the battleship Oregon and had it anchored a mile offshore of San Francisco just before the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The Navy loaned him 100 sailors to man the fake vessel, which was loaded with explosives. Beachey flew his plane over the model, dipped, and dropped what looked like a smoking bomb. One explosion grew into fifty as Beachey swooped over the model dreadnought. The crew had already escaped aboard a tugboat, but 80,000 people onshore screamed and some fainted in the belief that Beachey had just blown up the Oregon.[citation needed]


It was at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition that Beachey made his final flight. Prior to the exposition, in 1914, he had the Beachey-Eaton Monoplane[13] built. The plane was similar to the Morane-Saulnier H with the addition of tricycle landing gear and large ailerons trailing the wing, which made the wing shape similar to, and caused some to refer to it as a Taube. Using the same 80 horsepower (60 kW) rotary engine he had been using in his Beachey Biplane in the lighter and more maneuverable monoplane allowed for the top speed to increase from 80 mph to 100 mph., thus making his loops and maneuvers even more spectacular. It would also be the first exhibition of inverted flight in a monoplane. He had tested it at higher altitudes, and on March 14, 1915, he was ready for his first public flight.

He took the plane up in front of a crowd of 50,000 (inside the Fairgrounds—with another 200,000 on the hills), made a loop, and turned the plane onto its back. He may have been so intent on leveling the plane inverted he failed to notice he was only 2,000 feet (610 m) above San Francisco Bay. He pulled on the controls to pull the plane out of its inverted position, where it was slowly sinking. The strain caused the rear spars in wings to break, and the crumpled plane plunged into the bay between two ships. Navy men jumped into action, but it took 1 hour and 45 minutes to recover Beachey's body. Even then, rescuers spent three hours trying to revive him. The autopsy found he had survived the crash and had died from drowning.[1]

His funeral in San Francisco was said[citation needed] to be the largest in the city's history up until then. Vast crowds had followed his tours and it has been estimated 30 million people saw him in his career, 17 million in 1914 alone.


  1. ^ a b "Beachey Killed in a Taube Drop". New York Times. March 15, 1915. Retrieved 2009-08-26. Air Pressure Crumples Monoplane's Wings as Airman Tries to Resume Glide. Crowd of 50,000 horrified. Machine and Aeroplanist Fall Into San Francisco Bay. Recovered by Navy Diver. Brother saw his plunge. Fatal Perpendicular Drop from 3,000 feet (910 m). Like Feat Beachey Often Had Executed in Biplane. Lincoln Beachey, noted as an aviator the world over and perhaps the greatest rival of the Frenchman, Pegoud, in the execution of hair-raising aerial feats, fell to his death here today in the new German Taube monoplane in which he had been attempting to duplicate the spectacular performances of which, in the biplane, he was the acknowledged master. ... 
  2. ^ a b Marrero, Frank. Lincoln Beachey: The Man Who Owned the Sky Scottwall Associates (1997) ISBN 978-0-942087-12-3
  3. ^ LINCOLN BEACHEY - A Brief Biography.mht
  4. ^
  5. ^ August 25, 1912
  6. ^ Bruno, Harry. Wings over America: The Story of American Aviation (Halcyon House: Garden City, New York, 1944).[page needed]
  7. ^
  8. ^ Aero and Hydro: 376. February 10, 1912.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  9. ^ "Air Eddies." Flight, February 24, 1912, p.171
  10. ^ "Beachey to Quit Flying." New York Times, March 9, 1913
  11. ^ "Beachey Will Fly No More". New York Times. May 13, 1913. Retrieved 2012-10-23. Lincoln Beachey the aviator, will never fly again, according to what he himself said last night at the Olympic Club. 
  12. ^ "Aeroplane Sweeps Roof, Killing Girl", New York Times, October 8, 1913; "Beachey Explains Accident", New York Times, Oct. 13, 1913.
  13. ^ Gray, Carroll (1998–2006). "Lincoln Beachey: The Beachey-Eaaton Monoplane". Retrieved 2012-10-05. 

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