The Stuntman, Part II: Headless

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Over the latter half of 1910, Lincoln Beachey struggled to make the transition from dirigible virtuoso to heavier-than-air aviator. During the first two months of 1911, however, apart from his near-crash into the Cuban president’s automobile, Beachey flew competently. In February he beat the far more experienced J.A.D. McCurdy in a five-mile race. News reports reflect that he routinely charmed spectators at Palm Beach, Florida.

As spring neared, Beachey worked his way slowly up the East Coast. Around the time he arrived in North Carolina, in early March, descriptions of his flying began to reflect an increased confidence. He produced “straight line effects, circles, curves and almost everything else,” thrilling the crowds who came to see him. “Instead of the large audience being excited or fearful that Beach[e]y would fall,” though, “the majority of them watched with eager eyes the graceful flights and perfect control of the machine displayed by the aviator.” His name recognition grew to such an extent that at one point he became a pitchman for the Cape Fear Oil Company.

Curtiss business manager Jerome Fanciulli appointed Beachey as the resident instructor at a temporary “aviation school” set up at the luxury resort in Pinehurst, North Carolina. Beachey’s wife, Minnie, joined him for the three weeks he worked there; the “instruction” consisted of giving paid rides. Commander Saito of the Japanese Navy, who had arrived to learn about American flying machines, rode twice as a passenger. In short, Beachey appeared to have developed into a conventional flyer for Curtiss.

Then, early in May, Beachey and McCurdy arrived at Washington for a meet at the Benning race track; Curtiss team member Hugh Robinson was there as well. The event was billed as a series of races—aeroplanes against one another, motorcycles against one another, and aeroplanes against motorcycles—but there would also be passenger-carrying flights.

On opening day at the Benning meet, however, Beachey abandoned the announced program. No doubt remembering the adulation that had greeted him five years earlier when he circled the Washington Monument in his dirigible and landed on the White House lawn—or perhaps to prove that he had become just as good at operating a heavier-than-air machine—he impulsively flew his Curtiss pusher biplane to nearby Washington, circled the dome of the U.S. Capitol, and might have gone on to the Washington Monument as well, had the winds not been too strong.

Beachey qualified for his Aero Club license (No. 27) at Benning. Fulfilling the various requirements “seemed to be an easy matter for Beach[e]y, and, as the last number on the program, he made his aeroplane do every antic known in the world of the air.”

[D]riving his aeroplane to a height of 600 or more feet, [he] glided in a spiral fashion almost to the earth, and as the machine was about to touch the ground he pointed its nose upward, and a few minutes later was again near the clouds. This was done repeatedly.

It was a return to the glory days of his “gas bag doings.”

Curtiss arrived in Washington the day after the Capitol circumnavigation, and it would not be surprising to learn that he was horrified by reports of what had happened, aware as he was of the dangers attendant on flying over populated areas—to say nothing of the risky spiral glide, which is what Beachey appears to have been doing. But it was about to get worse.

Lincoln Beachey lacked an engineering background. In 1914 he would famously assert: “You can fly a kitchen table, if your motor is strong enough.” Accordingly, when he crashed into a fence on June 2 at Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and damaged his front elevator, he simply removed it. The next day he flew “without any front canvas surface,” and on the day following that he used only a small front control. Beachey eventually found he could fly in a much freer manner after creating the “headless” configuration (pictured above), although at first he reportedly found it “difficult to operate his machine with this makeup.”

That the change to his machine drew scant comment was perhaps attributable to something more marvelous that occurred at the Wilkes-Barre exhibition: with a motion picture camera strapped beside him, Beachey managed to fly while he himself cranked the camera, producing what is believed to be the first movie footage ever shot from an aeroplane. But it’s also true that the headless configuration was not an innovation.

The Wrights had introduced their headless Baby Grand at Belmont Park in October 1910, and Lieutenant Ellyson had already anticipated removal of the front control for experiments with Curtiss hydroaeroplanes. As Captain Chambers, the Navy’s aviation expert, noted two months before Beachey first appeared as an amateur flyer:

The aviators of both the Wright and Curtiss schools seem to think this [headless configuration] is logical progress, but the performances of the Wright biplanes in comparison with the Curtiss and Farman biplanes, both of which [retain] the front control, . . . indicate that if this is so, the new position of the elevator planes [at the rear] requires more skill, as in the monoplanes, to handle the machines while landing.

Chambers even speculated that the deaths of John Moisant and Arch Hoxsey on New Year’s Eve could be attributed to loss of balance, “thus causing the machines to revolve suddenly about their centers of mass situated near the front ends” instead of near the middle of the aeroplane, as would be the case in a machine with a front elevator.

Whether Beachey was further emboldened by the acquisition of a formal license or for other reasons, the switch to a headless configuration allowed him to fly in a manner that Curtiss, traveling with him in Connecticut while searching for a suitable factory location, considered utterly reckless. As Curtiss wrote to Fanciulli in mid-June: “So far, we have been extremely fortunate in not having any accident happen to the men or spectators, but we cannot hope for this good luck to continue long when we consider how Beach[e]y is flying.”

At Bridgeport, Beachey again flew over a city, and he later made a short cross-country flight to New Haven to perform at Yale’s aviation meet. In a visit to Mineola, Long Island, where he wasn’t scheduled to appear, he reportedly accepted an invitation to fly a Baldwin “Red Devil.” Even though he had never operated such a model, he was soon demonstrating “[e]very spectacular stunt known to aviators.” At the end of the month he took a passenger, Miss Mae Wood, up to a reported thousand feet.

In mid-June, Beachey appeared unannounced at a meet in Waltham, Massachusetts, flying over from his own nearby exhibition. He was described as shooting down “in a spiral curve, with his machine dangerously near the perpendicular, banking right and left, and shutting off his power at just the right moment, when the machine seemed to straighten out and land on the field like a feather.” Spectators had seen this kind of flying before. Of all the Curtiss aviators, it was Beachey who came closest in his flying style to that of another former trick bicycle-rider, the ill-fated Ralph Johnstone.

While Eugene Ely was grinding out performances in Montana, advertisements erroneously included him among the aviators scheduled to appear at a “Great Aviation Meet” to be held at the Fort Erie Race Track in Buffalo from June 20-22. That exhibition, when it took place, was notable mostly for Beachey’s willingness to fly his headless pusher in winds estimated at 40-45 mph gusts. He then upstaged himself by announcing his intention of flying over Niagara Falls, down into the gorge, past the whirlpool, and below the suspension bridge downriver. If Curtiss had been previously apprehensive about Beachey’s flying, this news must have prostrated him.

Promoters were constantly ballyhooing the sensational as a means of driving up ticket sales. This time was different; the occasion for Beachey’s promised flight was the second annual International Carnival at Niagara Falls, which marked the formal opening of the summer season and was filled with legitimately sensational attractions. Other anticipated performers were Robert Leach, who expected to shoot the whirlpool rapids in a steel barrel, and the Great Houdin (not to be confused with Harry Houdini), who proposed to slide across the gorge on a tight-wire while holding on by his teeth alone. Some three hundred thousand spectators were said to be heading to Buffalo for the carnival.

How much money Beachey was promised for attempting the Niagara Falls stunt is unclear—obviously it was not an engagement of which Curtiss approved—nor is there a way to discern the extent to which Beachey was motivated by the search for “new thrills in aviation.” But he was certainly game to try. He electrified the crowd with the effort he made simply to get there, racing a storm from Fort Erie over the housetops of Buffalo, “barely two minutes ahead of the downpour and going like the wind.”

On June 27, an estimated 150,000 spectators watched Beachey rise from a baseball diamond on the Buffalo side of the river, roughly a mile north of the cataract, and cross over the American Falls. He circled around once and shot toward the rim of the Horseshoe (Canadian) Falls but pulled up abruptly. He then made two more circles, dropping to an estimated two hundred feet above the river. Suddenly he dove down over the falls and into the gorge.

Keeping barely above the turbulent surface of the river, Beachey flew through the mist—one report said he had to shut his eyes against the stinging—and under the span of the Upper Steel Arch Bridge, also known as the Honeymoon Bridge. He continued down along the river almost to the whirlpool rapids, “mounted again, and, shaving the wooded cliff, landed safely and unconcerned on the Canadian side.”

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With that one spectacular flight, Beachey effectively ended the “exhibition” era. No longer were crowds content to watch a flying machine circle a track, just to see with their own eyes that man could really fly. As one editorial writer cogently explained:

With all due respect to Glenn Curtiss, the Wrights and other pioneers whose achievements will ever be remembered, the ordinary aeroplane flights such as they now give, even with the new hydroplane device, no longer satisfy the public. And this is no compliment to the public, either. Recent events are demonstrating that the people want thrillers and, in plain terms, this means an extreme risking of human life. The ordinary flights have become so common as no longer to attract crowds . . . .

Beachey promised to repeat his stunt on the following day, confident that he could fly even closer to the water. But conditions on June 28 proved too unstable, and he was thereupon said to vow never again to attempt to fly under the Honeymoon Bridge. Indeed, his successful flight on June 27 was the only time he tried it.

It hardly mattered. His Niagara Falls stunt far eclipsed the most sensational of his dirigible flights and, by July 1911, Lincoln Beachey was once again the talk of America.

 

Part I: Gas Bag Doings

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 II: Headless

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