The Master Birdman

Ninety-nine years ago today, America lost one of her most cherished heroes. Pioneer aviator Lincoln J. Beachey, died when the aircraft he was piloting at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco on March 14, 1915 suffered structural failure. He plummeted into the bay in front of 50,000 spectators at the exposition, while another 200,000 or so watched from the nearby hills.

Beachey was one of the first aviators in America to become both famous and wealthy from his aerial exploits. Like many who got their start in aviation during those early days, Beachey began flying by accident when he was turning wrenches for other pilots. When one of the pilots at an air show in Los Angeles was injured, Beachey stepped up to take his place in order for the show to go on. Beachey would soon become one of the most active demonstration pilots in the country.

From a humble start, which included crashing during his first two flight lessons, Beachey would go on to excel in the air – so much to the point America would quickly refer to the young San Francisco native as The Master Birdman and The Man Who Owns the Sky.

Beachey, like the Wrights, was a bicycle mechanic. This led to his involvement with balloons and then he found himself working on, and then flying, aeroplanes.

One thing Beachey was famous for was racing – against cars – in an enclosed track. He and Barney Oldfield routinely raced around in circles on tracks as well as straightaways. Oldfield was the most famous race car drivers of the time and Beachey was the most well-known aviator during the same period. It was only natural they should start competing against one another. In 1914, they put on joint exhibitions 35 times throughout the nation. Check out the video below from YouTube, which is found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTWdfoXpXLs.

Can you imagine a time when there was no regulation and you could race with a car around a race track right up against stands filled with spectators? It was a different time in America.

Another thing people young and old celebrated Beachey for was developing aerial maneuvers. He was the first pilot to conceive of and fly the maneuver we know today as the loop.

Because of his aviation exhibitions, his work building and developing flying machines, and the races with Oldfield, Beachey literally became a household name. This was the reason there were so many present when he was going to fly at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

At that demonstration flight, Beachey was flying his Beachey-Eaton Monoplane, a design based on the Morane-Saulnier H. The designer-pilot also included features of the Taube aircraft, which caused many to refer to the airplane as a Taube.

With the same engine that powered his Beachey Biplane, Beachey discovered his new monoplane was more maneuverable because it was lighter. The new aircraft allowed for speeds as high as 100 mph compared to the biplane’s speed of 80. Earlier in the day, he took the craft to altitude to test it. Satisfied, he was ready to fly the plane in its first demonstration this day, 99 years ago.

When Lincoln began flying his demonstration flight, he began with a half-loop over San Francisco Bay. Hesitating momentarily inverted, he began to pull the nose down to the water. He may have pulled too aggressively, as the rear spars of the wing snapped.

He and the crumpled airplane fluttered down into the bay from an altitude of 2000 feet. Landing between two naval vessels, the sailors were quick into action, but it took more than an hour and a half to find and recover his body.

Beachey actually survived the crash of his Beachey-Eaton Monoplane. The autopsy listed his cause of death as drowning.

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©2014 J. Clark

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