‘The World’s Greatest Aviator’

Text by Divan Muller
During the early 1900s, he was known as ‘the man who owns the sky.’ A hundred years later, some refer to him as the ‘father of aerobatics.’ Lincoln Beachey was arguably the most famous pilot of whom you have never heard.
It is not often that we examine the life of a pilot who was born in the nineteenth century, yet that is the case with Lincoln Beachey. He was born on 3 March 1887 and grew up in a time when Oscar Wilde and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were writing ‘modern’ literature and Thomas Edison had just started his ‘Electric Light Company.’ In Lincoln Beachey’s world, Old West heroes and villains, such as ‘Buffalo Bill’ and even the infamous ‘Dalton Brothers’ were still alive. Whilst living in San Francisco California, Lincoln and his brother spent much of their childhood earning money to help their father, a blind American Civil War veteran, support his family.

Lincoln took an early interest in aviation and by the time the Wright brothers first took to the skies, Lincoln had already commenced a career in working on airships and gas balloons. He made news headlines in 1906, when he used an airship to complete a maintenance inspection of the White House’s Capitol Dome. By the age of twenty, Lincoln was one of the most famous airship pilots in the United States.

In 1910 Lincoln Beachey realised the advantages of heavier than air flight and began flight training on a Curtis designed aircraft. After a rocky start and one or two crashes, Beachey became a professional pilot. His fame increased at a tremendous rate in 1911. During that year, Beachey became the first pilot to circle the White House in a heavier than air, aircraft. He broke the world altitude record by reaching a height of almost 12 000 ft and performed breathtaking displays in front of massive audiences. In June 1911, the New York Times reported on Beachey’s flight over the Niagara River. “Sweeping down from an immense height in a shower of rain, Lincoln Beachey, an aeronaut in a biplane, today passed over the Horseshoe Falls, under the steel arch bridge, on down the gorge almost to the whirlpool rapids, then rose, mounted again and shaving the wooded cliff, landed safely and unconcerned on the Canadian side.”
One more than one occasion, Beachey wanted to quit flying. Other pilots died whilst attempting to replicate his manoeuvres and Beachey felt responsible for their deaths. However, his adventurous spirit and the continuous temptation to try something new and explore the envelope of flight would not allow Beachey to remain earthbound. He was not the first to complete loops or the only pilot to perform aerobatics, but Beachey truly brought the magic of flight to the masses. During a tour in 1914, over 17 million Americans saw Beachey in action. By the end of his career, about 40% of the U.S. population had seen him perform aerobatic feats. Beachey has been quoted as saying, “I want to show such men as Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and other inventive and manufacturing geniuses how I handle the ‘Little Looper.’ I do not believe they dream such things are possible. Instead of being a reckless chance-taker, I am really the pioneer explorer of the unchartered air lanes of the sky.” Beachey’s performances often included aircraft versus automobile races and he consistently broke the world record for the biggest number of consecutive loops. Inventor Thomas Edison described Beachey’s manoeuvres as the greatest contributions to science since the Wright brothers’ first flight. According to Orville Wright, “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."

In 1914 Beachey replaced his biplane with a Taube monoplane. The first public display in the new aircraft took place on 14 March 1915 over San Francisco Bay, in the presence of a crowd of at least 50 000 people. Beachey initiated a loop and, with the aircraft on its back, realised he was too low. He had to pull hard on the stick to recover, but the resulting G-forces caused a structural failure. The 28 year old aviator plummeted to his death in view of thousands of horrified spectators.
World War I and the aces it produced overshadowed the man who used to be known as ‘the world’s greatest aviator.’ Even so, many of the manoeuvres employed in combat were originally developed by men such as Lincoln Beachey. The pre-war icon of aviation truly understood the magic of flight and introduced it to millions of people. Beachey’s death was a tragedy, but somehow, it seems that is the way he would have chosen to die. In Beachey’s own words, "It is simply the dancing along life's icy brink and the attendant excitement that makes life worth while. Chance-taking is not a business with me. It is a delightful diversion, and no music lover ever is more charmed by listening to the inspiring strains of his favourite opera, superbly sung by a great artist, than I am charmed by the hum of my motor when I am sailing in or out of a loop and upside-down flight. Some hunt lions and tigers for thrills. However, I love the sky and answer its call, because my whole life centres around the sensation of flying.” 
By George McManus, San Francisco Examiner, 15 March 1915

Why is it that the newsies' cry
Is sad and almost stilled?
We hear a sobbing sigh,
Weeping that Beachey's been killed.

Our Viking of the air laid low?
That mighty spirit crushed?
No wonder voices tremble so,
No wonder all seems hushed.

A thousand times we've seen you wheel
And hurtle through the sky.
A thousand times with death at your heel
You've carved your name star high.

Ah, Lincoln, boy, your flight is done-
No more you'll chart the blue.
You've played with death, and death has won,
As death must always do.

You died while on the wing, old chap,
And though we cannot know,
We feel that after all mayhap
You would have wished it so.