The Stuntman, Part I: Gas Bag Doings

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June 14, 1906. Washington, D.C. Nineteen-year-old dirigible pilot Lincoln Beachey culminates a year of increasingly daring exhibitions by circling the Washington Monument, landing on the White House lawn in the hope of meeting President Roosevelt, and proceeding on past the U.S. Capitol building. “It is safe to say,” reports the Washington Evening Star, “that there was not a full hour’s work put in by any of the employe[e]s of the government or any of the other offices within view of the flight from 10 a.m. till after 12.”

Lincoln Beachey, the man popularly (if wrongly) thought to have had the most profound influence on Eugene Ely’s flying career, was born in San Francisco in March 1887. Around the turn of the century, he developed an interest in spherical gas balloons. By the time he was seventeen Beachey was winning motorcycle races in the Bay Area. At some point he and his older brother Hillery met Captain Tom Baldwin, who was attempting to build a dirigible airship; although there is no direct evidence of this, they were also likely acquainted with Baldwin’s collaborator, balloonist Bud Mars.

When Baldwin exhibited his first successful airship, California Arrow, at the St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition in October 1904, he employed as his pilot Roy Knabenshue. After additional exhibitions at Los Angeles, Baldwin planned to fly a new airship, equipped with a more powerful Curtiss motor, at the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, Oregon. Before that could happen, a rift with Knabenshue led Baldwin to hire Lincoln Beachey as his new pilot. Beachey headed for Portland in 1905 with plenty of nerve but virtually no experience in motorized airships.

Knabenshue was known as a cautious dirigible operator. Beachey, in contrast, quickly gained fame as an aerial acrobat who could make an airship “do practically everything but turn somersaults.” He flew high and low over Portland. He landed on the roofs of office buildings. And he felt supremely comfortable in the sky. “Even when I first went up in a balloon,” he told a journalist, “I was not nervous. I really liked the sensation. Some people instinctively like certain things, and I guess that is the way it is with me and the airship. I don’t know what fear is when I am in the air.”

Following the Portland exhibition, Beachey left Baldwin and joined up with Knabenshue in Toledo, Ohio. Taking a cue from their former employer, the partners relied on Curtiss engines for their airships. If Beachey hadn’t previously met Glenn Curtiss in person through Baldwin, he certainly did so in partnership with Knabenshue.

Having established a truly national reputation with his dramatic flight over Washington in June 1906, Beachey went on to dazzle spectators in cities along the East Coast for the next two years. His flights were advertised as “the Utopian pinnacle of modern sensationalism.” He dropped paper “bombs” on the forts of New York Harbor to demonstrate the ease with which aerial attacks could be carried out. He won the $2,000 first-place prize ($50,000 in today’s dollars) at a dirigible race against, among others, Baldwin. He exhibited in Mexico for three solid months. While the Wright brothers steadfastly declined to fly their aeroplane in public, and heavier-than-air flight was widely believed to be impossible, Beachey helped to make 1907 “The Year of the Airships.”

Beachey swiftly became, without doubt, a world-famous pioneer in aerial navigation, but by mid-1909 he and Knabenshue could see that aeroplanes were the flying machines of the future. Because (a) they did not know how to build heavier-than-air flying machines, (b) the Wrights declined to hire them, and (c) Curtiss had not yet started giving exhibitions, Beachey and Knabenshue were stuck operating dirigibles.

To generate greater enthusiasm at exhbitions, they spent the rest of 1909 staging dirigible match races. At a November exhibition in Cincinnati, where Curtiss and Charles Willard had difficulty getting their aeroplanes to fly, Beachey, Knabenshue, and teenage dirigible operator Cromwell Dixon were the stars/ They “swept around the track, intersected it, swept over and above each other, and finally came back to earth, each time within a few feet of  the spot from which they had started.”

America’s first international aviation meet, held at Dominguez Field meet near Los Angeles in January 1910, marked the permanent transfer of public enthusiasm from lumbering dirigible airships to nimble aeroplanes. “Gas bag doings have become commonplace,” wrote one journalist at the meet. “The aeroplane is the real thriller.” Indeed, upon seeing the speed and the ease with which Curtiss flew at Dominguez Field, Beachey reportedly turned to his partner and said: “Roy, our racket’s dead.”

Within a few months the Wrights had hired Knabenshue to manage their aeroplane exhibition team. Beachey and his brother Hillery, for their part, started experimenting with monoplane aircraft construction. Despite his unparalleled status as a dirigible aeronaut, Beachey was an amateur aviator. He was present at the Wright team’s inaugural exhibition at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in June 1910, but he was not a member of the team; although he brought a skeletal monoplane of his own design, he was unable to get it reliably into the sky.

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Within two weeks of the Indianapolis meet, perhaps hoping to learn by studying aeroplanes up close, Beachey secured a position as “chief assistant” to Charles Willard. In that capacity, he brought his primitive monoplane to the Curtiss team’s exhibition at Minneapolis in late June 1910. There is no record of his ever flying more than three feet high, however, apart from the curious report in one newspaper: “While it is not so successful in making curves, dips and other maneuvers as the Curtiss aeroplane, it has remarkable speed.” That conclusion appears to be nothing but puffery.

Beachey traveled with Willard to Kansas City as a mechanic but left him soon afterward to spend time with Curtiss. At an Atlantic City meet held over the Fourth of July weekend, Beachey rode as an ad hoc passenger; evidently without any safety restraint, he “stood on Curtiss’ seat behind the aviator and waved his hands to the cheering crowd.” He then left the team.

In October, while Ely was attempting to complete the first aeroplane flight from Chicago to New York, there is a suggestion that Beachey and his dirigible were the featured attraction at the Appalachian Exposition in Knoxville, Tennessee (this may have been a misidentification). He returned afterward to San Francisco, ostensibly for the winter. Indeed, at a November meet in Fresno that marked Mars’ final appearance for the Curtiss team, Beachey was specifically identified as a spectator rather than a participant.

But it seems he decided right around then to take another crack at the heavier-than-air “racket.” To do so he either bought, leased, or borrowed Whipple Hall’s old aeroplane and brought it to Los Angeles for the second Dominguez Field meet of 1910. On December 22, Beachey “made flights all afternoon to learn the intricacies of the Curtiss machine.” The press identified him and Hugh Robinson, the Curtiss mechanician and one-time aeroplane designer who was likewise learning to fly a biplane, as “replacements” for Mars on the Curtiss team.

Beachey continued teaching himself to fly during the final week in December 1910. Eventually he felt confident enough in his abilities to announce that he would take part in a scheduled “aviation derby”—multiple machines racing simultaneously, as opposed to serially against the clock. He was said to have made the fastest speed trials for that race, but ultimately he declined to compete against the professionals on December 27. Nor, on the following day, did he take part in the “air derby” for amateurs; before the race could even start, he crashed from a height of fifteen feet.

Beachey’s smashups at Dominguez Field eventually transformed into an apocryphal story regarding his first flights: supposedly he traveled to the Curtiss factory at Hammondsport, crashed twice, disgusted Curtiss, and was saved only through the good graces of manager Jerome Fanciulli. But it’s clear that Curtiss, who had known Beachey for years and had even employed him as a mechanic for a time, first saw him attempt to fly an aeroplane at Minneapolis in June 1910. When Beachey flew as an amateur six months later in California and crashed, moreover, Fanciulli was on the East Coast.

Beachey improved sufficiently to gain prominence in mid-January 1911 as the first novice to negotiate the half-mile course at a San Francisco international aviation meet. He also reportedly made precision landings that were said to have “surprised the professionals who were present.” At the end of the month he headed for Cuba, where Fanciulli, despite misgivings by Curtiss, had arranged a major exhibition at which J.A.D. McCurdy was to appear. Fellow flyer Hugh Robinson recalled later that “Curtiss discovered that the [Havana] contract called for two aviators. Whether or not the second aviator could fly did not matter, so Curtiss laughingly decided to send Beachey.”

Beachey might have been sent as a joke, as Robinson claimed, but his part in the Havana exhibition verged on disaster. On January 29, 1911, having narrowly avoided smashing the Curtiss Hudson Flyer into an automobile in which sat the President of Cuba and his family, Beachey couldn’t avoid crashing into another auto parked a few yards away. Luckily, no one was seriously hurt. Still, after a full month of flying in public, Beachey was performing at a decidedly amateur level.

That was about to change.

Part II: Headless

Part III: Precipice

For much more on Beachey’s life and career, please visit historian Carroll Gray’s excellent Lincoln Beachey website.

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The Stuntman, Part I: Gas Bag Doings

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