By Frank Marrero
Once upon a time… Lincoln Beachey was “known by sight to hundreds of thousands and by name to the whole world.” He was universally acknowledged as “the greatest aviator of all time.” Beachey invented much of what we call “aerobatics”, being the first to fly upside down, first to fly straight down (achieving ‘terminal velocity’), first to fly inside a building (The Palace of Machinery as it was being constructed), first to master the loop-de-loop, first to pick up a handkerchief from the ground with his wingtip and dazzle the crowds with death-defying aerial acumen.
Beachey’s story is made even more unbelievable by the fact that he is now commonly unknown. Going from being one of the most famous people in America to becoming an unknown is a story in itself, but that is another story. This disparity was noted by the Air Force’s first biographer, SF’s own Col. Hans Christian Adamson who penned in 1953: “It is hard to imagine the adoration that followed Lincoln Beachey everywhere. He was Dimaggio; he was Lindberg at his prime; he was all the stars of stage and screen combined — with a touch of superman thrown in. From one end of the country to another, he was known as ‘The Man Who Owns the Sky’”.
Beachey flew for the largest crowds in U.S. history; in 1914 alone, seventeen million people witnessed “the Genius of Aviation.” He was credited with getting the U.S. government to finally invest in aviation when he (unannounced) made faux bombing runs at the White House and the U.S. Congress.
At the Opening Ceremony for the PPIE, as the Fountain of Energy burst forth, surrounded by 50,000, Lincoln Beachey was already high in the clouds and seeing the Fountain spring on, dove 3000 feet to the center of the fountain and pulled up at the last second, releasing six doves and climaxing the Opening.
The Palace of Machinery (the largest framed building on Earth) was laid out along the development of humankind’s mechanical achievements. At its deepest beginnings were arrowheads and other stone-age tools; then it progressed to wheels and plows and rudimentary utensils. As it moved along, the Palace recapitulated all of humankind’s mechanical devices; Guttenberg’s Press was even brought from Europe, and the Palace climaxed with bicycles, telephones, and internal combustion motors. But what was the final example of human achievement, the ultimate invention? It was Lincoln Beachey’s Little Looper, the world’s first aeroplane built solely to “outfly the birds.” And everyday at 3 o’clock, the giant doors of The Palace of Machinery would open and hometown hero and the world’s greatest aviator would fly humankind’s greatest invention as the daily acme of human history.
Lincoln Beachey was known as “Mr. Pan Pacific” and the SF Chronicle remarked, “Lincoln Beachey disproves the notion that a prophet is not accepted in his own city.”
On March 14th, 1915, at the PPIE, “Beachey Day” was announced as he was to be given a medal from the nations of the world to commemorate his contributions to aviation. He was asked to fly his newest monoplane for the celebration, but a touch of water in the fuel caused him to cut short his routine. As he landed, the officials ran up to him and blurted, “The medal is not here yet! Could you go up one more time?”
He could have refused, but didn’t. On that second flight, as he was doing his trademark vertical drop “the dive of death”, the wings of his plane collapsed and he smacked into the water at the bottom of Fillmore Hill, witnessed by almost a quarter of a million people. Amazingly, he survived the crash, but being unable to extricate himself, drowned.
Lincoln Beachey’s funeral was said to be the largest in SF’s history (until Emperor Norton’s) and later the originally proposed name for the SF Airport was to be “The Lincoln Beachey Memorial Flying Park.”
On March 14th, 2015, exactly one hundred years from the first “Beachey Day”, author Frank Marrero will give a slide-show and talk at the Hiller Museum in San Carlos at 1 pm. Come one, come all, and hear and see the amazing story of the world’s greatest aviator.
Frank Marrero is the author of The Man Who Owned the Sky, the definitive biography of Lincoln Beachey, his childhood hero. He has been featured on RadioLab and has been a guest speaker at the Oshkosh Fly-In. He teaches elementary school and is an adjunct lecturer at John F. Kennedy University. All of his writings can be found at www.frankmarrero.com.