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Wings over Niagara: Aviator Lincoln Beachey’s
By Andrew Hind
The flimsy wooden airplane seemed to wobble ominously as it cleared the roaring falls. Compared to the might of Niagara, the craft looked impossibly small and fragile, like a toy. The airplane then disappeared into the cloud of mist rising from the Falls. For a moment, thousands of onlookers held their collective breaths, but a heartbeat later the plane emerged from the veil. It then dipped toward the river below. The hardest part still lay ahead.
Aviation was still in its infancy when Lincoln Beachey made Niagara Falls history in June of 1911. It had only been eight years since the Wright Brothers had made their first successful flight in North Carolina, and the aircraft of the
day were flimsy, unreliable vehicles. There was risk involved every time a pilot lifted off the ground.
And 24-year-old Beachey loved every moment of it.
Lincoln Beachey was an aviation pioneer, a larger-than-life celebrity in his day. Born in 1887, as a youngster Beachey became fascinated with flight. As a teenager, he helped build a dirigible and made his first dirigible flight at the age of 17. Not satisfied with the craft’s performance, he later helped to design a faster, more aerodynamic dirigible and entered airship races.
Dirigibles represented a first step into the world of flight, but Beachey knew the future of aviation lay with fixed- wing aircraft. Starting in 1910, he began to participate in airshows performing stunts designed to awe audiences. He became the first pilot to recover from a nose-diving spin at 3,000 feet, for example, and helped invent aerobatics. Celebrated in the media, Beachey became known as ‘The Man Who Owns the Sky’ and The World’s Greatest Aviator.’ The man loved a challenge. In 1911, Niagara Falls seemed to call to him, daring him to test his mettle against the raging power of nature.
Beachey was lured to Niagara after learning there would be a $1000 purse to any aviator who agreed to perform at the US-Canada Carnival, an international festival jointly hosted by both the America and Canadian town of Niagara Falls. All he had to do was show up and perform some casual flights over Niagara Falls. His presence was enough. But that wouldn’t satisfy Beachey. He was a showman at heart. He wanted to put on a true spectacle. He wanted headlines. And so, Beachey conceived of a routine that would do exactly that.
Huge crowds—estimated at approaching 150,000 people— gathered on both sides of the Niagara River on June 28, eagerly awaiting Beachey’s performance. “After waiting patiently all afternoon for the appearance of The Birdman,” wrote the Niagara Falls Daily Record, “the crowds in the parks and the thoroughfares were at last rewarded when at 5:40pm Beachey rose into the air from the American side.” Beachey directed the plane out over the Niagara, a short distance upriver from the Falls. He followed its course, flying over the falls and through the dense cloud of mist that rose from it. That alone would have been enough for most of those assembled. But Beachy had greater things in mind. Dipping the plane suddenly, he flew straight towards the Arch Bridge spanning the gorge (located where Rainbow Bridge is today). Instead of passing over the bridge Beachey instead went under it, navigating between the spans as the plane skimmed the surface of the water by less than twenty feet.
The crowd went wild. According to the Daily Record, many opined that this represented “the most daring feat ever performed.”
If, to the people on the ground, the stunt looked deathdefying, that’s because it was. Speaking to a reporter after the flight, Beachey—a fearless aviator—frankly admitted to having been terrified by the ordeal. “I would not again attempt to fly under that bridge for five thousand dollars, let alone for the thousand-dollar purse that I won today,” he said. His aircraft testified to the danger the aviator had faced: the ordeal had left it “looking like a beat-up orange crate.”
True to his word, Beachey never attempted the Niagara spectacle a second time.
Tragically, the legend of Lincoln Beachey outlived the man. A mere four years after his pioneering flight over Niagara Falls, the pilot was killed in an air show, on March 14, 1915, during the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. He had come out of a loop and then inverted the plane, a stunt he had pioneered, and which was extremely dangerous in the craft of the day. The strain of the maneuver caused the rear spars in the wings to break, causing the plane to crash into San Francisco Bay. A reported 250,000 people watched the tragedy unfold.
Ironically, Beachey had almost quit aerobatics several years before, citing his belief that much of the appeal for audiences was a morbid eagerness to witness the all-too frequent crashes.
In an era when flight was a novelty, people in Niagara Falls spoke in awe of Beachey and that spectacular day in 1911 for decades to come. Even today, he is remembered as the first individual to conquer Niagara Falls by air.