Unforgettable: American Icarus


(Part One)

Lincoln Beachey was one of America's first superstars. By 1915, the daredevil stunt pilot had performed before more people than anyone in history. An estimated one in six Americans had seen him fly the "figure eight," the "Coney Island dip," and the "Texas Tommy." In the latter, he swooped his biplane down as if to land, touched the right wheel on the ground, then the left, then careened back and forth in a bow-legged, death-defying two-step.

Beachey's biggest stunt, his brother Hillery said, was the "dip of death." He climbed to 5000 feet, shut off his motor, and made a head-first, plummeting spiral, touching down exactly where he wanted. In Dallas, Hillery saw him do the same trick twice, landing the second time "within a foot of the first."

Beachey made more money in a day than most Americans did in a year. He was such a national celebrity that in 1912 Carl Sandberg wrote a poem to the "man-bird." It concludes: "Hold him, great soft wings/ Keep and deal kindly, O wings,/ With the cool, calm shadow at the wheel."

Another shadow haunted Beachey. He performed so many manic, life-threatening stunts, he came to be known as "the Pacemaker for Death." Most of the 17–20 million spectators, who paid up to a dollar a ticket, didn't come to witness his unthinkable acrobatics. "They all predicted that I would be killed while flying," Beachey said. "They paid to see me die."

In 1913, the San Diego Union ran an editorial urging an injunction to ground "the California Flying Fool" who often tested new tricks at North Island. "Should Beachey be prevented from killing himself? For his own sake, is it the duty of society to restrain him?"

Beachey was born in San Francisco on March 3, 1887. Six years later, the Wright brothers soared from the slope of Kill Devil Hill, south of Kitty Hawk, for 12 seconds. Beachey learned to fly when pilots took few chances. They "drove" their flying machines only in the early morning, when winds were down. (They blew cigarette smoke to gauge airflow or trickled pieces of paper to the ground.) They always flew their rickety wood, cloth, and piano-wire crafts low, often just a few feet above terra firma. Crashes — and broken bones — were many, but deaths few.

Beachey changed everything. In 1905 he became a "balloonatic," flying dirigibles and gas balloons in exhibitions. In 1910, as he watched planes dominate the first International Air Meet in Los Angeles, Beachey told his brother, "Boy, our racket is dead."

Beachey tried, but failed, to build a functioning biplane. In the fall of 1910, he applied for the Glenn Curtiss Flying School, at Hammondsport, Upstate New York. In his audition before Curtiss, Beachey crashed twice. Curtiss walked away. But an aide told Curtiss the 23-year-old had a feel for flight and to give him another chance. Within a year, Beachey became the top draw of the Curtiss Exhibition Team.

Driven not just to excel but to demolish the competition, Beachey craved spectacle. At a time when every third flight ended with wreckage, Beachey became as reckless as Curtiss was cautious. He claimed his aerial experiments were scientific; he wanted to demonstrate the capabilities and safety of flight. But the closest he ever came to studying aerodynamics was watching seagulls glide in his youth. And anytime a competitor tried something new, Beachey made a desperate dash to top him.

He invented the "dip of death" by accident. Early in 1911, his motor died thousands of feet above Los Angeles. "Every move for self-preservation flashed before me — I began to drop, drop, drop in a dizzy whirl through space." Tailspins tempted pilots to pull the nose up, which exaggerated the spiral and cost them their lives. No one before Beachey had dared the opposite. Instead, resisting the fall, he tilted "the nose of the plane down and began to glide." The stress almost splintered the wood and snapped the wires, but Beachey held on. Barely able to breathe, he descended at a 45-degree angle. Near the ground, he nudged the nose of the plane upward. "Hysterical applause" from astonished onlookers celebrated his return to the sky.

"My defense of the dip of death," he wrote later, "is that I was forced to make it. When I kept it up I was furthering the interests of science" by "showing airmen it was possible to cheat death when your motor stalled." After Los Angeles, he "held little fear of an engine gone wrong."

To take greater stress, Beachey reinforced the wires of his Curtiss biplane, a Model D "pusher" with the motor behind the wings ("perfect for vision," writes Frank Marrero, "deadly for mistakes"). He began experimenting with steeper and steeper dives. "It was hard to control my senses and get used to the increased air pressure," said Beachey. "Gradually I mastered it." In practice runs he shaved the angle of descent from 45 to 10 degrees.

To cinch his conquest, Beachey made a "dead drop" from 5000 feet. He fell from the clouds "straight down like a stone," then pulled the plane upward and landed "as gently as a bird.… No living thing has ever gone through the air at the rate I went," an estimated 156 miles per hour.

On June 27, 1911, approximately six months after he learned to fly, Beachey garnered national attention. A joint U.S.-Canadian International Carnival had been planned at Niagara Falls. Harry Houdini would walk a tightrope. Bobby Leach would go over the falls in a barrel. Beachey would dive over them and, if he dared, for an extra $1000 in gold would fly under the steel-arched International Bridge just 400 yards from the cataracts.

It had drizzled all day. Beachey paced back and forth before his plane, parked at a baseball field on the American side. The rain prevented Houdini from performing. Around 3:30 p.m., Leach's eight-foot steel drum got stuck at the base of Horseshoe Falls. Tons of water per second pinned it down. He broke both kneecaps and fractured his jaw.

Friends warned Beachey that swirling air currents would slam him into the spume like a tailless kite. The betting line was two-to-one he wouldn't make the attempt and, if he did, five-to-one he wouldn't leave the gorge alive.

Around 6:00 p.m., Beachey climbed into his plane. In the gesture that became his trademark, he spun his cap bill-backwards and shouted, "Contact!" An estimated 150,000 spectators waved umbrellas and roared.

As the biplane gained elevation, Beachey tested air currents. He flew to the brink of Horseshoe Falls but pulled up and circled twice. On his third try, there was no mistake: this was the move.

As his craft picked up speed and made a raspy, nagging clatter few spectators had heard before, Beachey flew south. He crossed American Falls at 2000 feet and did a swan dive over the brink of Horseshoe Falls. For several seconds he disappeared in clouds of white mist. Then he shot out of the spray and, never more than 30 feet from the surging rapids, sped toward the international suspension bridge. To pass under its steel girders, he had to dip the plane's nose-wheel into the whitewater.

He did it!

But Beachey wasn't done. As he went under the arch, a wing caught the wash from a nearby power-drain. The plane teetered — from the weight? Or was Beachey shaking off the unwanted load?

As he neared the whirlpool rapids, Beachey jammed his left foot on the accelerator and pulled the wheel back hard. Water cascaded off the wings as the plane arched upward, just missing the rocky crest of the gorge by a few feet. He landed on the Canadian side. A mob of astonished onlookers almost crushed him and his craft.

The next day 300,000 spectators came to see Beachey and Harry Houdini perform. Two-thirds of the way across the falls, Houdini got marooned for 30 minutes on a slick tightrope. And Beachey, encountering more severe conditions, flew for half an hour before attempting the drop. "The wind was strong," he told reporters, "almost a gale." As he neared the falls, a dangerous suction yanked his machine down toward the river. He fought it and skied to 5000 feet. "Even at that height my machine rocked badly. It rolled and pitched, and I had my hands full managing it." He made no attempt to dive over the falls and even had difficulty landing in the buffeting winds.

Nonetheless, he out-Houdini'd Houdini. Beachey's inability to replicate his feats underscored their difficulty. He "was glad to have accomplished what others thought impossible," adding that he'd never try either again.

A month later, at the Chicago International Aviation Meet, Beachey broke the altitude record. He topped his fuel tank and said he'd fly straight up until he ran out. He climbed so high that, except for those with binoculars, the plane disappeared. People began to wonder how he could prove he'd broken the record. "Complete waste of fuel," one said.

Then the biplane hurtled out of the sky. Onlookers couldn't hear it: the engine was dead. And Beachey was doing barnstorming stunts — lateral slides and fillips with the wings, like a first-time flier or a pro deep in his cups.

Beachey did a clean deadstick landing and exited with a polished wooden box. It was a barograph that recorded changes in air pressure. Beachey had pushed his machine, the barograph testified, to 11,600 feet — a record — and also negotiated an insane two-mile fall on the return.

"His performance," writes Lieutenant Lester J. Maitland, "sounds a thousand times simpler than it was." Beachey became a national hero.

"Birdmen," the name given daredevil pilots, wore leather jackets, helmets with ear flaps, and turtlenecks with a silk scarf flapping in the breeze. To separate himself from the crowd, Beachey dressed like a banker: three-piece pinstripe suit, white shirt, and tie. He wore his tweed cap backwards, a look other pilots soon adopted. "While some argue that he purposely dressed formally to convey the normalcy of flight," writes Frank Marrero, "it also gave him a dapper look, which surely appealed to his audience, especially the women."

America's superstar aeronaut attracted legions of groupies. When he flew down Chicago's Michigan Avenue and tapped his wheels on the roofs of cars, secretaries "screamed with girlish glee" — at least until he made a beeline for their windows and pulled up at the last second. "He had a fiancée" at every stop, writes Don Dwiggins. And when May, his first wife, divorced him, the judge silenced her after she'd recited 32 cities where women claimed her husband's undying adoration.

Depending on what they thought of him, biographers say Beachey was either five feet tall, five foot eight, or six foot one (the same height as Curtiss). His arrogance knew no limit, say some. He had a "sneering, go-to-hell attitude" and "repelled, rather than attracted people." San Diego's Waldo Dean Waterman, an early pilot who knew him personally, said that on the ground Beachey was "taciturn and moody, maybe, but once he took to the air, he earned the admiration of us all."

Beachey's greatest fears, claims a biographer, were that he'd either be forgotten or remembered only as a "crazy fool."

His antics played into the latter. At the second aviation meet of 1912, he stunned Chicagoans by dressing like a woman. He called this persona Madam Lavasseur, an inept French aviatrix, and flew dizzy, perilous routes, including a near-dip into Lake Michigan.

When the governor of California offended him, for unknown reasons, Beachey did an aerial striptease. Each time he passed the bleachers, he tossed down an article of clothing — here a checkered cap, there a starched collar, fluttering down. He landed wearing only shorts and socks and taxied to his hangar. He hopped down and flexed his muscles at the crowd, telling his mechanic, "Now I'd like to hear what that damned stuffed shirt has to say about Lincoln Beachey!"

Beachey inspired many youngsters to take up flying, including a 12-year-old Charles Lindbergh. Beachey also inspired numerous imitators, several of whom lost their lives attempting his stunts.

Eugene Ely, one of Beachey's few close friends, set several flight records in San Diego. He died in 1911 doing the "dip of death."

"God punish you," Ely's wife wrote Beachey. "Gene would be with me now if he hadn't seen you fly!"

No, Beachey allegedly retorted, her "plodding and nagging" killed him.

In Los Angeles on January 23, 1912, Rutherford Page swore he'd "show Linc a trick or two he's never thought of." Minutes later, an "unexpected puff of wind" sent Page's Curtiss biplane plunging 75 feet and smashing into a hundred fragments. He died instantly. Asked for a comment, Beachey said Page was "foolishly brave."

In Ascot Park, Los Angeles newspapers said Beachey threw an "aerial tantrum." When he saw a group of spectators sitting in a tree "to beat the admission charge," Beachey banked his 80-horsepower Curtiss and stormed at them. He clipped the branches. "While making a precipitous escape," three broke their legs, and one fractured his skull.

Beachey swore his "foolhardy" flights were scientific experiments and that he always tried to "make haste slowly." In almost the same breath he advocated a competition with his fellow aviators: climb to 4000 feet and the one who comes closest to the ground before pulling out — if he can pull out — wins.

Although some stunt pilots died because crowds had egged them on — J.J. Frisbie doing an "ocean roll" in Norton, Kansas, among them — newspapers blamed Beachey for the rash of deaths between 1911 and 1913. Horace "Sure Shot" Kearney, who wore his cap backward in imitation of the master (and whose mother urged Beachey to teach her son no more tricks), died off Santa Monica.

On October 12, 1912, Beachey's protégé Charles Walsh, called by some "the greatest trick aviator in the world," attempted the "dip of death" near Trenton, New Jersey. At 2000 feet, a wire snapped and the upper part of his plane came loose. Canvas tore. Wings collapsed. The nose hit the ground first, then Walsh, then the engine, which buried him.

"I felt that I had murdered poor Charlie," Beachey wrote in an article. He could name nine friends who'd died trying to "do a Beachey…. One by one they have hurtled down, clutching the robes of God, to smash on the earth!" Newspapers attributed at least 22 deaths to his "air devilry."

Beachey always wanted to outdo himself with the most unbelievable stunt of all: a 360-degree loop in his biplane. No one had ever flown in a full circle before. Instead, on May 12, 1913, Beachey spoke before the Olympic Club in his home town of San Francisco: "Gentlemen, I am through with flying.

"Fear has driven me out of the skies for all time. Not fear of my own death…but blame and remorse for the death of brother aviators who went crashing into eternity trying to 'out-Beachey Beachey.' I have quit as the Pacemaker for Death."

And he kept his promise — until that September, when Adolphe Pegoud looped-the-loop in France.

Next time: Beachey loops the loop at North Island


Bilstein, Roger E., Flight in America: From the Wrights to the Astronauts (revised edition), Baltimore, 1994.

Carpenter, Jack, and Waterman, Waldo Dean, Waldo: Pioneer Aviator: A Personal History of American Aviation, 1910–1944, Carlisle, 1988.

Dwiggins, Don, "The California Flying Fool," The Air Devils: The Story of Balloonists, Barnstormers, and Stunt Pilots, Philadelphia, 1966.

Maitland, Lester J., Knights of the Air, New York, 1929.

Marrero, Frank, Lincoln Beachey: The Man Who Owned the Sky, San Francisco, 1997.

Sandburg, Carl, "To Beachey, 1912," Chicago Poems, New York, 1916.

Villard, Henry Serrano, Contact!: The Story of the Early Birds, New York, 1968.

Wohl, Robert, A Passion for Wings: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1908–1918, New Haven, 1994.

The Beachey File, San Diego Aerospace Museum.

Articles in the New York Times, San Diego Union, San Diego Sun, and Los Angeles Times.


  1. Don Dwiggins: "Until Beachey began doing the impossible with flying machines, birdmen had been satisfied to stagger about the sky, mechanically yanking levers to go up or sideways. It was Beachey who invented flying with powered aircraft as an art."
  2. Lester J. Maitland: "On land he was as gawky and quarrelsome as a gander, but in the air he was an eagle."
  3. Dwiggins: "He was in perpetual conflict with three negative forces: the sky, the crowds, and himself."

Read American Icarus Part II

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Excellent story except for one thing: I would dearly love to be proved wrong on this and get the details, but I'm quite sure Houdini gave up tightrope walking when he was a kid.

Houdini walking a tightrope at Niagara Falls is an oft-repeated myth, almost always a mix-up with the Great Blondin.

Jeff Smith responds:

dorseyland: Glad you liked the story.

It was Houdini, at least according to the paper of record. New York Times, June 29, 1911, headline: WHIRLED FOR HOURS BY NIAGARA RAPIDS. Subhead: HOUDIN [sic] MAROONED ON WIRE. "Houdin was within a hundred feet of the American shore on the wire on which he slid from Canada when he was marooned. The wire was too slack to allow him to reach the shore. There he stayed until hauled ashore by ropes. Houdin made a similar trip at last year's carnival and was marooned in the middle of the wire for forty-five minutes." The Niagara Falls Gazette and Cataract Journal (same date as above) also say it was "Houdin." He would have been 37 at the time.

--Jeff Smith

I want to second that, it was an excellent piece and I was looking forward to the next installment. Very well written. Haven't read the second piece yet, but I plan to do so today. Fascinating that a guy like that isn't known by the public today. Lindbergh flew across an ocean and he is the best remembered but the exploits you described Beachey doing make Lindy look tame.

Jeff, sorry for picking up on your reply so late. Thanks very much for that information. I remain dubious that it was Houdini at the Falls, but that's what the paper says, although as you've noted, the name is given as Houdin, indicating possible confusion with Blondin, both famous stunt entertainers in their day, even if Houdini's prime came later. Neither of the Houdini biographies I have mentions this event, but I'm going to keep looking.

None of this detracts from your great piece on Beachey, of course. What an amazing guy!

JEFF SMITH RESPONDS: Geoffpage: a belated reply to your comparison of Beachey to Lindbergh. It turns out Beachey inspired the 12-year-old Lindbergh to take up flying - and Eddie Rickenbacker (the first to make an "outside loop"; over the falls, so to speak, then tuck under) as well.

Hi again, Jeff. The Houdini mystery seems to be resolved at http://www.niagarafrontier.com/devil_frame.html ...

"Oscar Williams (aka Oscar Wilson) came to Niagara Falls in June of 1911. Williams called himself 'The Great Houdini'."

It was Oscar who got stuck on the tightrope. Still odd that the papers of the day all referred to "Houdin". Also, I note with embarrassment that Blondin's last Niagara stunt was in 1860!

JEFF SMITH RESPONDS: Hey Dorseyland, that could be it! My only reservation: the crowd, estimated between 15 and 30,000, paid to see the three great daredevils of the day strut their stuff: crazy Leach go over the falls in a barrel, Houdini walk a tightrope, and Beachey (the upstart) dive into the chasm. That's how the event was marketed. Now if Williams called himself the "great Houdini" (or "Houdin"), then case closed. Maybe my sources cling to Harry Houdini because it makes the event more jazzy (and maybe Houdini doesn't mention it because it was such an embarrassment). I must admit, you've got me siding toward Williams.

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