At Rest at Cypress Lawn: Lincoln Beachey (1887-1915)
“It hard to imagine the admiration that that followed Beachey everywhere. He was Lindbergh at his prime, DiMaggio, all the stars of stage and screen combined, with Superman thrown in.”
— Frank Marrero, author of Lincoln Beachey: The Man Who Ruled The Skies.
Lincoln Beachey is the most famous person you never heard of.
He was acclaimed as:
The Genius of Aviation
The Aerial Master
The Divine Flyer
World’s Greatest Aviator
Alexander of the Air
Father of Aerobatics
And … The Flying Fool
Seventeen million Americans witnessed Beachey dazzle the sky with his Little Looper aircraft in a 126-city tour in 1914. That was 1 in every 6 Americans. The press coverage was immense.
Beachey is credited with an array of aviation firsts:
- Successful recovery from a nose-diving spin from an altitude of over 3,000 feet. No previous pilot had survived that effort.
- Flying indoors. He swooped into a giant hanger through the entrance and departed through the exit.
- Flying upside-down.
- Navigating a plane over the Niagara Falls. He was answering a challenge for $1,000 ($25,000 in today’s dollars).
- The invention of the figure 8 and the heart-stopping vertical drop.
- The invention of the stall recovery, whereby the engine is turned off at the height of the flight, the plane begins to spiral down, the engine restarts, and the plane pulls up just in the nick of time to avert crashing into the ground.
- Making a complete rotation on both the longitudinal and lateral axis while maintaining the original direction, called a barrel roll. The Blue Angels love that trick.
Keep in mind that the Wright Brothers’ revolutionary first flight was only a decade earlier. That feat consisted of keeping their craft aloft for 120 feet.
“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.” — Orville Wright, circa 1912
The inventor of the airplane was not an original Beachey fan — regarding him as a reckless showboat — but became one of his most ardent admirers
Several pilots perished trying to imitate Beachey’s daredevil tricks. After the death of a stunt diver he knew personally and being harassed by some wives of fellow pilots who accused him of luring their husbands to death, Beachey briefly retired in sorrow, but soon reappeared with a new and dangerous trick: “the loop.” He would shoot up vertically and then head back in the same direction from whence he started — a 360-degree turn. The pilot is upside down at the top of the loop.
But Beachey was always more than an audacious barnstorming stuntman. He was keen to promote flying as a science, spread knowledge of the new phenomenon, and alert the U.S. government to its potential. He distributed tons of pamphlets urging citizens to write politicians and newspapers to enact “aviatic” investment.
When his solicitations to Washington lawmakers seemed to fall on deaf ears, Beachey did what Beachey did best: daredevil his way to attention. In 1914, without warning, he dive-bombed the White House and Congress with BEACHEY emblazoned on his lower wings, performing incredible aerial maneuvers. He caught the attention of Woodrow Wilson, who was sitting in his office at the time. Congress adjourned to marvel at the show along with street crowds. The stunt was national news, and Beachey was invited to testify before Congress. While he was there, he informed the nation of an astounding fact: Russia had over 1,500 military planes; Germany and France each built more than 1,000; and even Mexico had 400. At that time, the U.S. maintained a military fleet of 24.
He hoped a lighter and more maneuverable monoplane would make his loops and maneuvers even more spectacular. Promoters at the 1914 Pan Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco, Beachey’s hometown, pleaded with him to fly his new aircraft on “Beachey Day.”
Although not as tested as Beachey may have wanted, on March 14, he performed in front of a crowd of 50,000 at Expo Fairgrounds – with perhaps 200,000 more watching from Bay Area hills – and landed to tumultuous ovations. The medal designed for him had not yet arrived. “Please, do one more flight to kill time,” he is urged.
More than time is killed. Pushing the plane to its limits during a daring fall, the wings suddenly broke back, and he slammed into the water at 210 miles per hour. Miraculously, Beachey survived the crash but was unable to extricate himself from the straps. He quickly sunk to the bottom of the Bay, trapped in his craft. A Navy trawler frantically tried to grapple the plane to the surface but failed. A diver descended. One hour and 45 minutes later, Beachey — who had just turned 28 years old — was pulled to the surface with his machine.
The Beachey funeral in San Francisco is said to have been the largest in the city’s history. An additional 30 million people saw him during a nationwide funeral procession. Yet today, Beachey remains an obscure and largely forgotten figure. Other stunt flyers took his place, and many daring maneuvers become commonplace in the barnstorming 1920s. But more significantly, his many feats were topped by a single great feat that obscured his accomplishments: Charles Lindbergh’s non-stop trans-Atlantic flight in 1927.
Factoid: Beachey was a notorious womanizer. As a rich celebrity, he had plenty of young ladies willing to fly the friendly skies. He was known to keep an engagement ring is his pocket at all times, which he would offer to special admirers. Beachey never married.
Beachey is laid to rest within Section D, Lot 23 at Cypress Lawn. Click here to view an interactive map of our Memorial Park.