“They call me the Master Birdman,” he said once, “but they pay to see me die.” He hated his audience. He loved his audience. He was bitter, contradictory, expansive, and fatalistic. Foremost in the first generation of daredevil pilots, he flew in a natty pin-striped suit with a two-carat diamond stickpin keeping his necktie in place. His fellow pilot Beck-with Havens, one of his very few close friends, described him as “a strange, strange man.” He was also, according to Orville Wright, who knew something about it, “the most wonderful flyer I ever saw and the greatest aviator of all.” He claimed to have flown for twenty million people—and he flew wide enough and far enough for that to be possible.
Lincoln Beachey was born in San Francisco in 1887. While still in his teens, he made his way east to Toledo, where he got a job in the balloon factory of a man named Charles Strobel. He wanted to fly, but Strobel refused to let him, so Beachey started spending his nights in the factory, sneaking out at dawn to take up the airships. After a few weeks of ghosting around over the sleeping town, he told Strobel what he had been doing, and demanded an aviator’s contract. He got it.
By 1905 he was the best in the business, and sometime in 1910 he decided to shift from airships to airplanes. It was a typically reckless Beachey decision; more than thirty pilots died that year trying to put their wood, wire, and canvas machines through paces beyond their capabilities. Impressed by his reputation as a balloonist, the Wright brothers offered to take him on as an exhibition flyer, but the money wasn’t good enough, so he went to Hammondsport, New York, where a gifted inventor named Glenn Curtiss was building airplanes. Curtiss gave him a tryout, but Beachey immediately wrecked the plane. “His big trouble,” his brother Hillery said, “was that he wanted to stick it right up into the air. There wasn’t enough power to do it. … He broke up several of Curtiss’ planes. … Curtiss was afraid to look—just turned away when he first saw him fly.” But Curtiss’ exhibition manager saw something in Beachey’s Sailings and browbeat Curtiss into sticking with the impetuous would-be pilot. It turned out to be the best publicity investment Curtiss ever made, for as soon as Beachey got the hang of handling an airplane, he flew like a drunken angel.
In an era when most people were awed just by the sight of a plane in the air, Beachey could make his primitive machine do almost anything. Bucking and twisting across a field, he would angle down to pick up a handkerchief off the ground with his wing tip. Then he would climb a mile up, cut his engine, and go into his “death dip,” a vertical dive that had women in the crowd fainting.
Beachey’s first summer’s record is an indication of his ability. In June of 1911, with 150,000 people watching, he dove into the gorge of Niagara Falls, came out through the spume at the base, and flew under the International Bridge. With his carburetor sucking spray and his engine failing, he barely managed to scramble up from the boiling rapids to the safety of the Canadian shore. He never tried that particular stunt again, and neither has anybody else.
A month later he picked up a five-thousand-dollar prize for flying from New York to Philadelphia. Two weeks after that, he set the world’s altitude record by topping his fuel tank and then simply climbing as fast as he could until, in the arctic air currents more than two miles up, his gas ran out.
If he celebrated after he glided back to earth, it wasn’t with liquor. “One glass of champagne, and he’d be tight,” Havens recalled, surprised by Beachey’s abstemiousness in an age when at least one of his fellow pilots drank so hard his mechanics had to lift him into his plane. Beachey’s failing, “a real strong weakness” according to Havens, was women; he left a string of disappointed “fiancées” behind him as he barnstormed around the country.
Suddenly, at the height of his fame in 1912, Beachey announced his retirement. “I have defied death at every opportunity for the last two years,” he said. “I have been a bad influence, and the death of a number of young aviators in this country can be traced, I believe, to a desire to emulate … my foolishly daring exploits. … You couldn’t get me in an airplane again at the point of a revolver.”
This moody resolution was short-lived. Beachey had spent a few miserable months on the vaudeville stage when he got word that a Frenchman had looped the loop. “If he can do it, so can I!” Beachey shouted, and told Curtiss to build him a special stunt plane. Soon he was barnstorming again, charging five hundred dollars for his first loop and two hundred for each that followed. “That was … in the Middle West where William Jennings Bryan was talking,” his brother remembered proudly. “I think they both got a thousand dollars a day, Bryan and Lincoln Beachey.”
He had baited what he called the “scythe-wielder” more than most of his generation by the time he came to San Francisco for the Panama Pacific Exposition of 1915. “The old fellow and I are pals,” he said, but he was obviously feeling strain, and occasionally behaving erratically. Once, when the governor of the state stepped forward to congratulate him after a flight, Beachey turned away, went back up, and, circling the field, stripped off his clothes. When he landed, he snarled to his mechanic, “Let’s hear what he has to say about me now.”
On March 14 he came out to his machine looking grave and troubled. His mechanics thought he had some sort of premonition of disaster, but fifty thousand people had come to see him, and he went up. He looped over the bay, then lowered the plane’s nose for the death dip. Aviators among the spectators said he was dropping at nearly three hundred miles per hour when the wings tore away.
While the stunned crowd watched silently from the shore, a diver from the battleship Oregon located the plane, and thirty-five minutes later it was hoisted from the bay. They found Beachey tangled in the wreckage, his hands torn from his desperate struggle to free himself. America’s greatest stunt pilot had drowned.