Lincoln J. Beachey

Lincoln J. Beachey (March 3, 1887March 14, 1915), was a pioneer American aviator and early star performer. He was known as The Man Who Owns the Sky, and sometimes the Master Birdman. Acknowledged even by his adversaries as "The World's Greatest Aviator", Beachey achieved the acme of American adoration. Vast crowds followed his tours and it has been estimated that 30 million people saw him in his career, 17 million in 1914 alone (when the US pop. was a mere 74 million). He was "known by sight to hundreds of thousands and by name to the whole world." His funeral in San Francisco was said to be the largest in the city's history up until then. When other pilots wore leather coats, helmets, and boots, Beachey wore a business suit, starched collar and a diamond stickpin, and his trademark checkered golf cap, to demonstrate that aviation had indeed arrived.


Beachey was born in San Francisco, California, on March 3, 1887. He had a brother: Hillary Beachey (1885 – 1964). At the age of thirteen he ran his own bicycle shop, and by fifteen he was repairing motorcycles and small engines.


Beachey started his career as a dirigible pilot in Thomas Scott Baldwin's balloon troupe. Beachey helped build the dirigible "California Arrow" and made his first dirigible flight in 1905 at the age of 17. He then built his own dirigible, and as a publicity stunt flew it around the Washington Monument and landed it on the lawn of the White House.

In 1910, Beachey piloted his balloon in a race in an airshow at Dominguez field near Los Angeles, where he raced against a fixed-wing aircraft around a course, about above the ground. The aircraft won. This led Beachey to quit airships and take up piloting planes. Beachey learned to pilot fixed-wing aircraft at the Curtiss Flying School, run by Glenn Curtiss, a competitor to the Wright Brothers. On his first flight he turned the nose into the air and stalled, crashing the plane tail-first. Curtiss wanted him to leave the school, but he was allowed to stay. Beachey crashed a second plane on his second flight. On his third flight he soloed. Beachey became an official member of the flying team in 1910, and by the end of 1911, Beachey's stunt piloting was Curtiss' major moneymaker. At the height of his career, Beachey earned more money in a single day of touring with his aircraft than the average American could earn in a year.

Stunt flying

On June 27, 1911, he took off into a drizzle and flew over the lower falls of Niagara Falls, then flew above the American Falls. He took his plane under "Honeymoon Bridge," above the rapids. (Local papers described his plane as looking like "a beat-up orange crate.")

In Chicago, Beachey raced a train and let his wheels touch the top of the moving train as it passed underneath. At the 1911 Chicago Air Meet, he won multiple awards for stunts, and set a new altitude record. 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. The plane glided in spirals to the ground, and Beachey climbed out, numb and stiff. The barograph aboard the plane showed that he had reached a height of , temporarily setting the world's altitude record. 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 specialty was the "dip-of-death", where he would take his plane up to , 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. He dressed up as a woman and pretended to be out of control in a mock terror to hundreds of thousands!

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." Thomas Alva Edison wrote: "I was startled and amazed, when I saw that youngster take to the sky and send his aeroplane through the loop and then follow that feat with an upside-down flight. I could not believe my own eyes, and my nerves were atingle for many minutes."

Solo career

In 1913 a Russian pilot, Captain Peter Nesterov made the first inside loop. Frenchman Adolphe Pegoud later that year became the second and more famous person to do it and 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 that most people came to exhibitions out of morbid eagerness to see young pilots die. 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 took the plane up in the air. Unfortunately on its first flight he misjudged the plane's speed. One wing clipped the top of a tent on the field and the plane hit two young women who were sitting on a shed roof, watching the flight. One was killed, and Beachey decided for the second time to leave aviation.

However, the sight of a circus poster changed his mind. The poster depicted a plane flying upside-down, a stunt that hadn't 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. When he would hear about another pilot setting a record for flying continuous loops, Beachey promptly broke 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.

In 1914, he dived bombed the White House and Congress in a mock attack, proving that the US government was woefully unprepared for the age that was upon us.

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.


It was at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition where Beachey made his last flight. Prior to the exposition, in 1914, he ordered a Taube monoplane built with an engine, powerful enough to carry out the stunt that Beachey had not yet presented to the public: upside-down flight. He had tested it at low 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, another 200,000 on the SF hills), made a loop, and turned the plane on its back. He may have been so intent on leveling the plane upside-down that he failed to notice he was only above San Francisco Bay, too close to complete the stunt. He pulled on the controls to pull the plane out of its inverted position, where it was slowly sinking. The strain caused both wings to shear off, and the fuselage plunged into the bay while Beachey fell out and tumbled down to the San Francisco Bay waters. Navy men jumped into action, but it took 1 hour and 45 minutes to haul the World's Greatest aviator up. Even still, it was reported that rescuers spent three hours trying to revive him. The autopsy reported that he had survived the crash and had died from drowning.


  • The Man Who Owns the Sky
  • The World's Greatest Aviator
  • The Most Wonderful Flyer of All
  • Alexander [the great] of the Air
  • The Genius of Aviation
  • Master Birdman
  • The Divine Flyer


  • Credited with the invention of Stall recovery
  • First to fly upside-down
  • First American to "loop-the-loop"
  • First to fly inside a building
  • First to achieve terminal velocity... and live.


  • 1887 Birth of Lincoln Beachey on March 3rd
  • 1900 1900 census Beachey.gif
  • 1906 Dirigible crash in Cleveland on June 3rd
  • 1906 Lands on White House lawn in dirigible on June 14th
  • 1908 Sets dirigible speed record on July 4th
  • 1910 1910 census Beachey.gif
  • 1910 Pilot's license
  • 1911 Flight over Niagara Falls on June 27th
  • 1913 Announces he will fly no more on May 12th
  • 1913 Robbed of $6,000 on October 8th
  • 1913 Kills a spectator in a crash on October 13th
  • 1913 Loops the Loop in San Diego on Nov 19th
  • 1914 Start of 126-city tour on May 12th
  • 1914 Orville Wright calls him, "the most wonderful flyer of all.”
  • 1914 End of 126-city tour on December 31st
  • 1915 Death of Lincoln Beachey on March 14th


  • Phil Ault; By the Seat of Their Pants. Dodd, Mead, and Company, New York (1978)
  • Karen Bledsoe; Daredevils of the Air. Avisson Press, Greensboro (2003)
  • Frank Marrero; Lincoln Beachey: The Man Who Owned the Sky

Further reading

  • Lincoln Beachey: The Man Who Owned the Sky by Frank Marrero
  • New York Times; June 4, 1906; pg. 1. Falls with his airship. Propeller Cuts the Gas Bag. Aeronaut Narrowly Escapes Death. Cleveland, Ohio; June 3, 1906. "Lincoln J. Beachey, a Toledo aeronaut, lost control of his airship to-day while from the ground, and when the disabled machine fell heavily he was under it. He was unconscious when dragged out, but revived soon and was found to be uninjured."
  • New York Times; June 15, 1906; pg. 2. White House and Capitol upset by an airship; Executive mansion staff and Congressmen run to the show. Loeb sternly calls police but aeronaut calmly makes repairs on White lot and resumes flight, while all Washington stares. Washington, District of Columbia; June 14, 1906. "Executive and legislative Washington abandoned business for an hour or more this morning and gave itself up to joyous, neckcraning contemplation of a young man sailing around in an airship and making passing inspections of the top of the monument and the tip of the Capitol dome."
  • New York Times; July 24, 1908; pg. 12. Airship beats auto. Lincoln Beachey Claims New Record, Flying 14 Miles In 33 Minutes. Baltimore, Maryland; July 23, 1908. "Lincoln Beachey, who is making daily and nightly flights in his airship from a suburban amusement resort, asserts that he made new records both for distance and speed in a flight this morning from Arlington to and around the City Hall. The distance, fourteen miles (21 km), was made without a stop in 33 minutes."
  • New York Times; October 5, 1911; pg. 1. Beachey's Brother Hurt. Flier Falls Fifty Feet at St. Louis and Wrecks His Aeroplane. St. Louis, Missouri, October 4, 1911. Twenty-five thousand spectators saw Hillary Beachey, brother of Lincoln Beachey, the aviator pilot, fall fifty feet from an aeroplane today at Fair Ground. It is the second serious fall he has had in a month.
  • New York Times; May 13, 1913; pg. 6; Beachey will fly no more. Aviator Feels That He Has Led Others to Death and So He Quits. San Francisco, California; May 12, 1913. Lincoln Beachey the aviator, will never fly again, according to what he himself said last night at the Olympic Club.
  • New York Times; October 13, 1913; pg. 3; Beachey Explains Accident: Not Attempting a Feat When Young Woman Was Killed, He Says. Hammondsport, New York; October 12, 1913. "Lincoln Beachey, the aeroplanist, whose aeroplane in a flight last Tuesday caught several persons, killing one, a young woman, was able to get up to-day. He has been confined to his bed since the accident, recovering slowly from the nervous shock and from the bruises and strains sustained in his fall."
  • New York Times; November 19, 1913; pg. 1; San Diego, California, November 18. Beachey Loops the Loop. "Lincoln Beachey to-day succeeded in doing the aerial trick of looping the loop in his aeroplane. He also performed evolutions that far outdid those of Pegoud."
  • New York Times; March 15, 1915; pg. 1; Beachey killed in Taube drop; 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 Like Feat Beachey Often Had Executed in Biplane. San Francisco, California; March 14, 1915. 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.

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