Lincoln Beachey and the Little Looper
by Jon Welte
In January 1910, the first air show in the United States was held at Dominguez, California, just a short road or rail journey from Los Angeles. Over a quarter million people flocked to the meet, with most seeing an airplane fly for the first time in their lives.
One young man attended the meet as both an aviator and as an impressed spectator. San Francisco’s Lincoln Beachey grew up racing bicycles down the hills of his hometown. At eighteen he learned to fly powered airships, and experienced his first taste of the aviation spotlight piloting a dirigible at the Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland, Oregon in 1905. A year later he made an unauthorized but well-received landing on the White House lawn.
Lincoln Beachey piloted one of six airships flown at the Dominguez meet. For Beachey, Dominguez provided a life-changing humiliation. Beachey raced a fellow airship pilot around a closed circuit course and won decisively, yet there was little opportunity to savor the triumph. During the race, French aviator Louis Paulhan took flight in a Farman monoplane. Paulhan had shown a penchant for showmanship throughout the meet, dazzling the crowds with maneuvers more daring than the conservative routines flown by other pilots. As the airship race drew to a close, Paulhan swooped down and circled merrily around the lumbering dirigibles.
Stung, Beachey resolved to learn to fly airplanes. After initial rebuffs from both Glenn Curtiss and the Wright Brothers, Beachey hired on as a mechanic for Curtiss’ flying team and began flying lessons. Unfortunately, Beachey’s aptitude for airships and aeronautical engines did not immediately translate into easy mastery of flight in an airplane—much of Beachey’s mechanical work involved airplanes that he had damaged in the course of his lessons.
In December 1910, Beachey filled in for an injured pilot during an exhibition back at Los Angeles. During the flight, his engine failed, the wings stalled and the airplane entered an aerodynamic spin—a condition in which one wing of an airplane is fully stalled, while the other continues to generate partial lift. A tight corkscrew and rapid descent ensues. Spins were much feared by early pilots, as the spin is stable and a spinning airplane will continue to drop until reaching the ground. Beachey, however, was able to break his airplane’s spin by pitching down into the descent to increase airspeed and restore lift to the wings.
Within weeks Beachey became one of the leading pilots on the Curtiss demonstration team. He flew at Tanforan in 1911, captivating the crowds with his artistry and showmanship. He flew at venues across the United States and Caribbean. Throughout, his mechanical knowledge added to his flying. Curtiss airplanes of the era typically had two horizontal stabilizers, one each at the front and rear of the craft. When a rough landing damaged the forward stabilizer of his plane, Beachey famously removed it entirely. As he predicted the rear stabilizer was sufficient to maintain directional control, and the reduced weight and drag boosted his airplane’s performance.
After a brief retirement in 1913, Beachey returned to the air to master the inside loop, a maneuver first mastered by a French aviator. Spurred on by national pride and the spirit of competition, Beachey directed Curtiss to design and build a reinforced airplane able to sustain the forces of a loop. Beachey completed his first loop in November 1913.
Despite this, Beachey was not satisfied. His airplane was structurally reinforced to stand up to the forces of aerobatics, but its engine would stop running when inverted. In early 1914 technology advanced and Beachey travelled to France to acquire a pair of Gnome rotary engines. This innovative design was composed of seven cylinders arranged in a circle around the propeller shaft. When running, both the engine and the propeller whirled around. The Gnome operated equally well upside down as right side up. Beachey directed his crew to install a Gnome engine in his newest airplane, giving rise to his “Little Looper”. On tour throughout the United States, Beachey conducted many flights over the rest of the year, expanding his repertoire and exposing millions of people to aviation.
In early 1915 Beachey returned to San Francisco for a yearlong assignment flying as part of San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exhibition. Back in his home town, Beachey planned to open an aircraft company specializing in aerobatic machines. Its first product was a sleek monoplane dubbed the Taube, or dove. Beachey had been drawn to monoplanes since his humiliation at Dominguez in 1910, as they had less drag and greater speed than biplanes.
The Taube was a beautiful aircraft and proved significantly faster than the Little Looper, making for more spectacular maneuvers. It also featured a tractor propeller arrangement, considered safer than the traditional pusher configuration. However, the new design also moved the pilot from the very front of the plane, exposed to the slipstream, to a protected cockpit behind the motor. While an improvement in most ways, it was a different experience for a pilot as closely attuned to the movement of his plane through the air as Lincoln Beachey.
On March 14th, 1915, Beachey flew his Taube in a special routine offshore from San Francisco. In a rapid decent he pulled out too quickly, and the Taube’s wings collapsed from the load. Remarkably, corner reports indicate that Beachey survived the initial impact despite the terrific speed, but drowned before rescuers could reach him.
Lincoln Beachey died as the leading aviator in the nation that gave birth to the airplane, and was accorded the largest funeral in San Francisco’s history. Yet today he is largely unknown, overshadowed by the heroes and technologies of World War I. He represents in many ways the best of the early days of aviation—exceptional skills as a pilot and mechanic, dedicated to both advancing and popularizing the science of flight. The Hiller Aviation Museum proudly displays the original Little Looper, preserving a true Northern California legacy in flight.
Lincoln Beachy: The Man Who Owned the Sky. Frank Marrero, 1997.
San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exhibition. William Lipsky, 2005.