Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Lincoln Beachey - The Birdman

Niagara Falls is, without question, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World [no matter what the on-going poll on the subject may claim]. So, some may wonder, since there's already an attraction in place, why have so many daredevils come to Niagara to ply their trade? Two main reasons come to mind:

-as a natural attraction, the Falls are a great backdrop for any stunt - There seems to be something to that. Also, if stunters were unsponsored, a large crowd also provided a chance to "pass the hat" for cash, and
-the Falls themselves are a somewhat limited attraction - Please don't misunderstand me. I was born and raised in Buffalo, NY, less than 45 minutes from Niagara Falls. I currently live in Niagara Falls. Whether you appreciate tourist attractions [mostly on the Canadian side - not what you'd expect] or a more natural presentation of Niagara [the American side - who knew?], you will find the experience you want in Niagara Falls. But I have to be honest. Unless something unusual is happening, you can see the entire Niagara Falls performance in about ninety seconds. Water goes over a cliff. It drops about 170 feet. It continues on its way to Lake Ontario forming powerful rapids at several points along the way. Truth be told, that's it. They light it at night, and that's pretty, but, and I have to be honest here, you've seen everything on a normal day in less than two minutes. Not for an easy epigram did Oscar Wilde note his disappointment "in Niagara...Every American bride is taken there, and the sight...must be one of the earliest, if not the keenest, disappointments in American married life".

Of course, even the most rabble-rousing local booster comes to realize this. Thus, stunters [and what we today would call "early adopters"] were regular invitees to events in the area. Thus it was that, in 1911, organizers of an international carnival in Buffalo, NY and the cross-border community of Fort Erie, ONT offered $1,000 to any aviator who came to the event in an airplane. While only one pilot collected the bounty, officials had to be thrilled at who it was: Lincoln Beachey.

He was born in San Francisco, CA, in 1887. Mechanically skilled from an early age, he operated a bicycle shop at the age of 13, and by 15 had moved on to motorcycle and small engine repair. Just two years later, in 1905, Beachey added "dirigible builder" to his resume. He joined a touring crew of lighter-than-air stunters, and topped off his blimp career by circling the Washington Monument, then bringing his craft in for a gentle landing on the White House lawn. (Obviously, security in those days was not what it is now.)

It's said that Beachey gave up dirigibles in disgust after his self-built craft lost an air race to an early fixed-wing airplane. The next step was obvious, and Beachey soon enrolled at the Curtiss Flying School, operated by aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss. In those days, Curtiss' school was one of only two in America [and possibly the world]; the other was operated by the Wright brothers, who had begun the airplane era just short of a decade earlier. Beachey crashed the first two planes he flew, emerging each time uninjured, but infuriating Curtiss in the process. He was ready to boot the brash Californian, but was persuaded to give him one final chance. When no instructor could be found to fly with him, the nonplussed Beachey took the controls alone. This flight was the first of many successful ones for Lincoln Beachey. He soon joined the Curtiss School's stunt-flying team. By the end of the following year, 1911, Beachey's stunting had become Curtiss' principal source of funding for his school, as well as his airplane construction company [at Beachey's peak it was said he earned more in a single day of flying than the average American earned in a year].

While in the area for the Can/Am exposition, Beachey looked at possible stunts he could perform. His inspiration came during a visit to Niagara Falls: it was the Honeymoon [or Lower Arch] Bridge, joining the US and Canada at Niagara Falls. At this point in the story, there's a small mystery: did Beachey receive an offer from the typical "group of Niagara businessmen" to attempt a new feat, or did Beachey come up with it all on his own? At this point in time, there's no knowing, and it truth, it probably doesn't matter. At any rate, Beachey took it into his head that he could fly his plane UNDER the Bridge, then continue to a safe landing!

In those days, there was a much higher degree of laissez-faire when it came to stunting at Niagara. If someone wished to risk his or her neck by trying some half-crazy feat, that was their business. Besides, the stunters usually brought big crowds to the Falls, which meant the likelihood of big money for local taverns and restaurants. Then again, even businessmen rubbing their hands together in anticipation of the turnout had to be at least a bit concerned. What if he crashed? What if he crashed into the bridge, and somehow brought it down?

The stunt was set for June 27th, 1911. A cool drizzle was falling that day, making those who feared a tragedy more nervous [ironically, Beachey, during a short-lived "retirement" a year or two later, criticized the majority of spectators at stunt shows, claiming they wanted nothing more than to see the injury or death of the brave daredevil]. Beachey took off from a near-by field, then flew slowly over the Falls. Then he aimed his plane downriver, towards the Lower Rapids, and the Honeymoon Bridge. Beachey needed enough speed to keep his craft, described in one press report at the time as "looking like a beat-up orange crate", level and stable, while giving himself enough control to shoot the arch.

Beachey picked up his speed to 50 mph, an incredible speed for the times. He brought the plane down to about 20 feet above the rapids that extended beneath the bridge. Somehow, he fired through the arch at the bottom of the bridge! But his "workday" was not over yet. Just past the Honeymoon Bridge were two railroad bridges that crossed the River. He had to get the plane above their level and fly above them. Desperately, he pulled back on the "control stick". The nose of his fragile craft inched slowly above the bridges. With a mighty roar, Beachey soared above the two obstacles, then gracefully brought his plane to the ground! He had conquered Niagara! But, as we have seen, Niagara is frequently in no hurry to claim its vengeance...

It's now 1915, almost four years since Beachey's Niagara stunt. In the interim, he had become the greatest stunt pilot in the world. Among his feats: the first to fly a plane indoors; the first to reach "terminal velocity" and safely land his plane; the first American to "loop-the-loop"; the inventor of sucessful techniques to control a plane that had gone into a "stall". Among his fans, no less a showman than master magician Harry Houdini [himself famous among aviators as the first person to fly an airplane over Australia]. The only feat left for Beachey was to become the first person to fly an airplane upside-down. To this end, he'd had a special monoplane built, one that he felt sure would permit him to fly inverted. Beachey had practiced with this plane in secret, low-level flights, and believed himself ready to show his new stunt. On March 14th, 1915, he took off in his native San Francisco to attempt inverted flight. It's believed a quarter-million people were watching as he took his craft up. He did a couple of loops, then slowly flipped the plane over. Beachey was exultant! He had become the first person ever to fly a plane upside-down! In his exuberance, though, Beachey was slow to realize that he was in serious trouble. He was too close to the water to complete the set of maneuvers needed to flip himself back over!

Beachey desperately pulled back on the control stick. But the force going over the wings was too much! With a crunching sound. the wings sheared off the fusilage. Helpless, the plane fell headlong into San Francisco Bay. Rescue boats rushed to the crash site. But it took almost two hours to pull Beachey from the water! Doctors spent three hours trying to revive the man known as the "World's Greatest Aviator". But it was in vain. An autopsy later determined that Lincoln Beachey had survived the crash, only to drown when unable to free himself from the wreckage.

Had Beachey's "stunter's luck" run out, or had Niagara reached out to claim another victim, with the help of its brother waters in the Pacific, ironically named "the peaceful ocean". There is no answer, of course. All this writer knows is that another story of those who challenged the thunder is coming soon. Until then, be well and happy.

-Mike Riley