by Jon Welte
Lincoln Beachey and Panama Pacific Exposition of 1915
San Francisco has long held a place in the popular imagination as a city of unlimited opportunity that welcomes innovation and creative thinking. Spanish explorers brought back the first European reports of the Golden Gate and San Francisco Bay, establishing it as a mythical destination on the remote west coast of North America. Less than a century later, the discovery of gold in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada made San Francisco an essential waypoint for fortune-seekers eager to strike it rich themselves, and the “California Dream” took hold.
The devastating earthquake of 1906 inspired a period of rapid rebuilding, one that coincided with another great American engineering effort: the construction of the Panama Canal. In 1911 it was decided to mark the completion of the canal and linking of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans with a great Panama Pacific Exposition in 1915, and a resurgent San Francisco was selected as the host city. Intended as a celebration uniting the Americas with both Europe and Asia, the Panama Pacific Exposition also served to highlight the United States’ dramatic economic and industrial development and the rebirth of San Francisco.
The airplane embodied many of these qualities. Its invention at the hands of the Wright Brothers and subsequent development by the Wrights and others across Europe and America required equal parts of discipline and ingenuity, perseverance and fortitude. Cal Roberts and William Fowler had just completed the first transcontinental flights in harrowing, months-long ordeals that offered the first hints of the swift and safe transportation system that would one day link the world together. It was natural, then, for aviation demonstrations to feature prominently in the Panama Pacific Exposition, and for San Francisco’s native son Lincoln Beachy, to be selected to fly them.
Beachey began his career with airships, flying in exhibitions across the country. In 1910 Beachey participated in an airship competition at the Dominguez Air Meet near Los Angeles. French aviator Louis Paulhan interrupted the race with his agile Farman monoplane, buzzing around the gas-filled behemoths, inspiring Beachey to switch to flying airplanes later that same year.
It was in the airplane that Beachey’s skill flowered fully. His intuitive sense for the controls of early aircraft coupled with a growing body of experience made him an exceptional aviator. As an airplane pilot, Beachey’s star began to rocket upwards when he successfully recovered an airplane from a spin at an air meet in late 1910. By the end of 1913 he was able to fly extended aerobatic routines, including the elusive inside loop—a maneuver previously flown by very few pilots. Nationwide attention gained through a series of thrilling aerial tours across the country gained him the title “The Man Who Owns the Sky”.
Back in Beachey’s hometown of San Francisco, construction of the Exhibition grounds and facilities were a major endeavor. Many of the luminaries of America’s new industrial age contributed to its design and construction. Sprawled across nearly 1000 acres of marshy land in today’s Marina District, the complex included some 50 miles of roads and pathways and saw the erection of dozens of dazzling buildings and monuments. Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Luther Burbank all took a direct hand in planning various aspects of the venue, which included several thousand individual exhibits from countries and private companies around the world.
Lincoln Beachey, fond of spectacular gestures, added a bit of aeronautical sparkle to the proceedings. As construction of the cavernous Palace of Machinery neared its end, Beachey completed a short flight entirely inside it. The hall was an empty shell at the time of Beachey’s hop, but the walls and ceiling constrained his ability to maneuver and created a difficult environment for an exhibition flight. Beachey’s flight was a success, adding to the buzz of excitement surrounding both himself and the coming exhibition.
In 1914 Beachey supervised the construction of the Little Looper, a Curtiss pusher modified with a powerful 75-hp Gnome rotary engine imported from France to provide a reliable power source when inverted. With the ability to fly upside-down for extended periods, Beachey’s routines grew in complexity and pioneered many of the maneuvers that have since become common features at modern air shows.
The Panama Pacific International Exhibition opened to the public in February 1915. The governor of California and mayor of San Francisco presided over the official ceremony, with President Wilson sending an electric signal by telegraph to open the exhibition. Lincoln Beachey’s first official function came immediately thereafter, as he swooped low over the opening ceremony, releasing white doves from a cage secured to the Little Looper. This was the first of nearly daily flights at the Pan Pacific Exposition. At 3 PM each afternoon, Beachey and the Little Looper would emerge from the Palace of Machinery, alight from the beach, and perform an aerobatic routine over the water.
While the crowds marveled to his airborne achievements, Beachey set his sights on a grander future set on aircraft design and manufacturing. The Little Looper still somewhat resembled the Curtiss-type airplanes that Beachey had learned to fly some five years earlier, but the extensive modifications that Beachey’s team had made to it boosted its performance. Beachey’s hangar became an incubator for new aeronautical ideas, which coalesced even as the great Exposition continued into an all-new airplane.
The new design, dubbed the Taube (dove) by many observers, was a sleek monoplane offering less drag and greater speed than the reliable Little Looper while using the same Gnome engine. Always cautious, Beachey resisted calls from the exhibition organizers to use the new plane in his daily routines and continued flying his Little Looper, while testing the new monoplane and working with his mechanics to refine its design.
March 14th, 1915 was designed “Beachey Day”, with a special medal to be given to Beachey at the end of his daily flight for his aeronautical achievements. Beachey finally relented and agreed to fly the new monoplane on this day for his usual performance. Beachey’s routine was shortened by engine difficulties, and he was cajoled into making a second flight by officials who were not yet ready for the medal ceremony, Beachey took to the air again to begin a second routine. This proved to be his last, as the monoplane’s wings failed in a vertical dive and the plane and its pilot fell into the Bay below.
Lincoln Beachey’s death came as a shock to the nation. In 1914 alone, he had performed in over 100 cities and an estimated 1 in 6 Americans had personally seen him fly. In a world without television or even radio, the extent of his notoriety was unprecedented, and the skill with which he flew his aircraft opened the eyes of millions to the potential of the still-new flying machine.
Beachey was laid to rest in Colma three days later after a funeral service described as the largest held in San Francisco. The Panama Pacific International Exhibition continued without its aerial headliner, and closed in December of that year. Most of the exhibits and temporary halls were torn down and forgotten, with only the Palace of Fine Arts left behind as testament to the event held a century ago.
Lincoln Beachey too is a largely forgotten pioneer of the air. His legacy is preserved in the form of his original Little Looper, on display at the Hiller Aviation Museum
Lincoln Beachy: The Man Who Owned the Sky. Frank Marrero, 1997.
San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exhibition. William Lipsky, 2005.