“It hard to imagine the admiration that that followed Beachey everywhere. He was Lindbergh at his prime, DiMaggio, all the stars of stage and screen combined, with Superman thrown in.” ~ Frank Marrero, author of Lincoln Beachey: The Man Who Ruled The Skies.
Lincoln Beachey is the most famous person you never heard of. He was acclaimed as:
The Genius of Aviation
The Aerial Master
The Divine Flyer
World’s Greatest Aviator
Alexander of the Air
Father of Aerobatics
The Flying Fool
Seventeen million Americans witness Beachey dazzle the sky with his Little Looper aircraft in a 126-city tour in 1914. That’s one of every six Americans. The press coverage is immense.
Beachey is credited with an array of aviation firsts:
~ Successful recovery from a nose-diving spin from an altitude of over 3,000 feet. No previous pilot had survived that effort.
~ Flying indoors. He swoops into a giant hanger through the entrance and departs through the exit.
~ Flying upside-down.
~ Navigating a plane over the Niagara Falls. He is answering a challenge…$1000 ($25,000 today).
~ Invention of the figure 8 and the heart-stopping vertical drop.
~ Invention the stall recovery, whereby the engine is turned off at the height of the flight, the plane begins to spiral down, and then the engine restarted and the plane pulled up just in the nick of time to avert crashing into the ground.
~ Making a complete rotation on both the longitudinal and lateral axis while maintaining the original direction, called a barrel roll. The Blue Angels love that trick.
Keep in mind that the Wright Brothers’ revolutionary first flight was only a decade earlier. That feat consisted of keeping their craft aloft for 120 feet.
“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. ~ Orville Wright, circa 1912. The inventor of the airplane was not an original Beachey fan, regarding him as a reckless showboat, but became one of his most ardent admirers.
Several pilots perish trying to imitate Beachey’s daredevil tricks. After the death of a stunt diver he knew personally, and harassed by some wives of fellow pilots who accuse him of luring their husbands to death, Beachey briefly retires in sorrow, but soon reappears with a new and dangerous trick: the “loop.” Here he shoots up vertically and then heads back in the same direction from whence he started – a 360-degree turn. The pilot is up-side down at the top of the loop.
But Beachey is always more than an audacious barnstorming stuntman. He is keen to promote flying as a science, spread knowledge of the new phenomenon, and alert the U.S. government to its potential. He distributes tons of pamphlets urging citizens to write politicians and newspapers to enact “aviatic” investment.
When his solicitations to Washington lawmakers seem to fall on deaf ears, Beachey does what Beachey did best: daredevil his way to attention. In 1914, without warning, he dive-bombs the White House and Congress with BEACHEY emblazoned on his lower wings, performing incredible aerial maneuvers. He catches the attention of Woodrow Wilson, who is sitting in his office at the time. Congress adjourns to marvel at the show along with street crowds. The stunt is national news and Beachey is invited to testify before Congress. There he informs the nation of an astounding fact: Russia has over 1500 military planes; Germany and France each built more than 1000; even Mexico has 400. The U.S. maintains a military fleet of 24.
He hopes a lighter and more maneuverable monoplane will make his loops and maneuvers even more spectacular. Promoters at the 1914 Pan Pacific International Exposition held San Francisco, Beachey’s hometown, plead with him to fly his new aircraft on “Beachey Day.” Although not as tested as Beachey may have wanted, on March 14 he performs in front of a crowd of 50,000 at Expo Fairgrounds – with perhaps 200,000 more watching from Bay Area hills – and lands to tumultuous ovations. The medal designed for him has not yet arrived. “Please, do one more flight to kill time,” he is urged. More than time is killed. Pushing the plane to its limits during a daring fall, the wings suddenly break back, and he slams into the water at 210 miles per hour. Miraculously, Beachey survives the crash but is unable to extricate himself from the straps. He quickly sinks to the bottom of the Bay, trapped in his craft. A Navy trawler frantically tries to grapple the plane to the surface, but fails. A diver descends. One hour and forty-five minutes later Beachey, just turned 28, and his machine are pulled to the surface.
The Beachey funeral in San Francisco is said to be the largest in the city’s history. An additional thirty million people see him on a nationwide funeral procession. Yet today, Lincoln Beachey remains an obscure and largely forgotten figure. Other stunt flyers took his place, and many of the daring maneuvers become common place in the barnstorming 1920s. But more significantly, his many feats are topped by a single great feat that obscured his accomplishments: Charles Lindbergh’s non-stop trans-Atlantic flight in 1927.
Factoid: Lincoln Beachey was a notorious womanizer. As a rich celebrity, he had plenty of young ladies willing to fly the friendly skies. He was known to keep an engagement ring is his pocket at all times, which he would offer to special admirers. Beachey never married.
Location at Cypress Lawn: Section D, Lot 23
Terry Hamburg, Cypress Lawn Heritage Foundation