Lincoln Beachey was born in San Francisco, California, on March 3, 1887, the son of William, a Civil War veteran, and Amy. Lincoln's older brother, Hillery, spent much of his early childhood escorting their blind father each day during the course of William's work. Much of the Beachey Brothers' childhood was consumed by the necessity of earning money to supplement their small family's income.
As the 19th century came to a close the San Francisco Bay area already had a long history of aerial experimentation. The Beachey Brothers were aware of this local history and had an active interest in everything aeronautical. By December 1903, when the Wright Brothers achieved their stunning success... the first controlled, sustained, heavier-than-air flight... Lincoln was already engaged in his aerial career, working with balloons.
By 1905, Lincoln and Hillery Beachey were working full time in aviation, assisting with and operating airships and captive gas balloons, and by 1907, "The Year of The Airships," Lincoln had become one of the most well known and most successful airship aeronauts in the U.S. One of his flights was observed by a small group which included Wilbur and Orville Wright, whom he met. Hillery also worked with airships, rigging as well as operating them.
The 1910 Los Angeles International Aviation Meet, held on land owned by the Dominguez Family at Compton, California, near Los Angeles, was a turning point for Beachey. While he had attempted, with others, to build a flyable aeroplane, at the 1910 Los Angeles Meet he was still an aeronaut, operating a Beachey-Knabenshue Racing Airship. Hillery had transitioned to heavier-than-air craft by then, and during the Meet managed to make a few hops as well as to nearly complete one circular flight in the Gill-Dosh Curtiss-type Biplane. After the 1910 Los Angeles Meet, Lincoln never again operated an airship.
By January of 1911 Lincoln was considered a professional aviator. By mid-1911 he was famous throughout the U.S. as an aviator, flying over Niagara Falls and then, less than a month later, breaking the world's record for altitude at the great Chicago International Aviation Meet. He commanded a significant fee for his exhibitions of flight. His successes and escapes from what seemed to be certain death continued into 1912, as did his fame and status as one one the most accomplished aviators in the U.S. Lincoln Beachey was regarded as one of the greatest of the period's aviators at the time he abruptly retired, deeply saddened and feeling trapped by his success.
For Beachey, 1913 was a difficult year, personally and professionally. Many of his aviator friends had perished and some in the press blamed Beachey for the deaths, accusing him of setting a bad example by flying in a "dangerous" manner. In truth, Beachey was pursuing the outer edges of what was then still a very new art. Aviating, as it was termed, was discussed and debated from two perspectives, that of the "safe and sane" aviators, those who made large sweeping turns and valued the perceived safety of low, straight and level flight, and that of those "flying fools" who made steeply banked turns and sought the safety of higher flight. One consequence of flight at higher altitudes was the development of the "volplane," a long glide without engine power. From that point, the "spiral glide" was soon developed, which became a hallmark of Beachey's exhibitions and which was at least attempted by the most daring and most skilled of the pioneer aviators. Beachey was clearly not of the "safe and sane" school, although he was hardly foolhardy. Beachey was, indeed, a very safe aviator who valued safety, well-built reliable equipment and highly skilled mechanicians, as mechanics were then called.
The exhibition season of 1914 belonged to Beachey. He was the first aviator in the U.S. to loop an aeroplane, and he did so over 1,000 times between November 1913 and November 1914. His races with legendary race car driver Barney Oldfield drew tremendous crowds, thunderous applause and over $250,000 in receipts. In the U.S., 1914 and Beachey marked the high point of exhibition flying, while in Europe, war, on the ground and in the air, put a temporary end to civilian flying. During the Great War, World War I, one after another proponent of "safe and sane" flying would be shot from the sky by aviators utilizing the steeply banked tight turns and other aerial maneuvers developed by pre-war aviators such as Adolphe Pegoud, Roland Garros, Walter Brookins, and Lincoln Beachey.
Beachey's death at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco on March 14, 1915, eleven days after his 28th birthday, marked the effective end of exhibition flying in the U.S., although aeroplane exhibitions, usually by individual aviators, would continue well into 1916. Beachey's death came at a time when his life held the promise of happiness and security and his loss was keenly felt by those concerned with the military potential of aviation.
Beachey was unique to his time, just as the exhibition era was unique to its time and place. The barnstorming of the 1920's and the great air races and air shows of the 1930's were different in many respects from the great aviation meets and exhibitions of the pre-WWI period. The exhibition era was a time of great experimentation and purposeful risk, and it has become a time almost lost to memory.
Beachey's life and career were so striking that, almost inevitably, many myths, misunderstandings, tall tales and outright fabrications have become firmly fixed to his story. Several recent publications, including at least one book, have fallen victim to many of these tall tales, as well as adding newly minted ones. Sadly, what ought to be Beachey's proper place in the aeronautical scheme of things has thus been denied him, in large part because of those very myths and fabrications. The truthful rendering of Beachey's life and career is a wondrous story in its own right and Beachey certainly requires no invention, fabrication or mythology to enhance the story of his life. Hopefully, the facts of Beachey's life and career will permit Beachey to finally assume his proper place in the story of flight.