Art Smith flying his airplane past Mulgardt's Tower at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, before awed crowds. (OpenSFHistory / wnp70.1269)
On March 14, 1915, less than a month into San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a 28-year-old stunt pilot named Lincoln Beachey crashed his plane into the Bay. The most daring flyer in America had been killed in front of a stunned audience of approximately 50,000 people.
Doubts had been publicly raised for years about Beachey’s ability to stay safe while performing his hair-raising stunts. In 1912, the Oakland Tribune described Beachey’s flying style as “curvetting with death.” Wright Brothers manager Roy Knabenshue appeared in the press expressing concern about whether or not Beachey’s planes could withstand the loop-the-loop and diving maneuvers he so loved. Despite it all, Beachey remained steadfastly confident in his own airborne abilities.
“I never will be killed flying,” he once declared. “Only the careless or overly daring die in falls. I am too careful. Why, I am safer in my aeroplane than walking a busy street.”
It was a remarkable statement to make, given just how many of Beachey’s young, daring pilot friends had died. In 1912, less than a decade after the Wright Brothers first invented the airplane, Rutherford Page died during a race against Beachey. That same year, Phil Parmelee died while trying to emulate one of Beachey’s stunts. (The move involved making a hands-free figure eight, using only strategic shifts with body weight to change the direction of the plane. Parmelee lost control in turbulence and died.)
Beachey’s friend Horace Kearney (and a journalist named Chester Lawrence) died over the Pacific somewhere between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Their bodies were never recovered. Other friends of Beachey’s who died in small plane crashes included Andrew Drew, Cromwell Dixon, Cal Rodgers, John Frisbie, Ralph Johnston and Archibald Hoxey. A photo of all of the pilots together, taken before misfortune began befalling the group, was later referred to as “the death reel” by newspapers.
Briefly shaken by the deaths and concerned about machine failures, Beachey quit flying for six months in 1913. It was said that he felt responsible for many of his friends’ deaths as they tried to emulate his stunts. But even this degree of tragedy couldn’t keep Beachey grounded for long.
A flair for the dramatic
Choosing Beachey as the resident stunt pilot for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) was a no-brainer. Beachey was a San Francisco local, having been born in the city in 1887 and raised on Mission St. He just so happened to also be the most popular and skilled pilot of the day. Two days a week, the fearless stuntman would perform multiple shows for gathered crowds at the exposition. His popularity was such that spectators also gathered to watch him from hillsides outside of the grounds.
Before the PPIE, Beachey was the first pilot to fly over Niagara Falls. Elsewhere, he had broken altitude records and almost frozen in the process. Best of all, Beachey’s flair for the dramatic livened up every race he was in. (During one competition against a train, he ran his plane’s wheels along the top of the locomotive’s carriages.)
By 1915, Beachey’s signature move, The Dip of Death — invented four years earlier when his plane failed at an “air meet” in Los Angeles — was famous all over the country. During the maneuver, Beachey guided his aircraft into a perpendicular drop, plummeting rapidly towards the ground, only to course-correct at the very last minute. It was during a demonstration of this stunt that Beachey finally met his end.
On March 14, during his second PPIE show of the day, while at an altitude of 3,000 feet, Beachey shut down his brand-new monoplane’s power and began plummeting towards the water in a straight line. He made it only a few hundred feet before the wings of his light aircraft “crumpled like an umbrella in a heavy wind” and somersaulted into the Bay, not far from Fort Mason. Beachey had been accustomed to performing the trick in sturdier biplanes and did not realize his monoplane wouldn’t withstand the pressures of the elements.
Beachey was unable to release himself from his seatbelt before the plane hit the water and he ended up fatally trapped. His body was located 40 feet beneath the surface, caked in mud and still strapped in. Beachey had drowned, his only injury from the impact being a broken leg. (The engine of the monoplane was recovered intact, and subsequently used by groundbreaking female pilot Katherine Stinson during her 1916 flights over Japan and China.)
The day after Beachey’s death, the San Francisco Examiner published a poem by George McManus in the pilot’s honor. It read, in part:
Ah, Lincoln, boy, your flight is done,
No more you’ll chart the blue.
You’ve played with death, and death has won,
As death must always do.
You died while on the wing, old chap,
And though we cannot know,
We feel that after all mayhap
You would have wished it so.
‘The Wizard of the Air’
At the time of Beachey’s death, there were still eight and a half months of the PPIE left. Organizers paused air shows for just three weeks before bringing in a replacement pilot to recommence air stunts. The unanimous choice was 25-year-old Art Smith, nicknamed “The Wizard of the Air” for his skills in the sky — and he did not disappoint. He was, after all, the only aviator of the time who performed night flights.
It was at the PPIE that Smith would make the very first illuminated night flight in aviation history. With lights and fireworks attached to his craft, Smith performed his loops and dives before rapt audiences. On July 29, 1915, Oklahoma’s Davis News reported of the spectacle: “The presentation has been termed wonderfully beautiful. It is spectacular, thrilling and is the most popular feature with the thousands who visit the Panama-Pacific Exposition.”
Still, Smith found himself dealing with his own set of near-misses in San Francisco. On June 22, while looping-the-loop at 2,500 feet, Smith’s engine stopped suddenly while he was in an upside-down position. He somehow managed to right himself and glide safely down to the ground, avoiding injury entirely.
On the final night of the exposition, Dec. 14, 1915, Smith performed his most stunning spectacle yet. As huge fireworks exploded all around him, Smith dipped in and out of the booming display in his small plane. All the while, huge Roman candles streamed gold sparks from his aircraft’s tail, giving him the appearance of a comet.
After the PPIE was all over, despite being more famous than ever, Smith wanted to fight in World War I. He was denied entry into the U.S. Army because of his many flight-related injuries and short stature (he was just 5 feet 3 inches tall). Instead, Smith served as a test pilot and flight instructor until the war ended in 1918.
That same year, the post office started its very first airmail routes and Smith signed up for a job. Ironically, it might have been his most dangerous position yet. Airmail pilots flew in unreliable planes, in all weather, from cockpits that left them exposed to the elements. Pilots had to navigate using landmarks, and engines frequently stopped dead. In the first nine years of service, 34 airmail pilots were killed on the job. Unfortunately, Art Smith was one of them.
On Feb. 12, 1926, Smith’s plane was found two miles off-course, engulfed in flames, having crashed into a tree just outside Montpelier, Ohio. He had been traveling east from Chicago, flying overnight. His death drew national attention to the conditions the postal service’s pilots were laboring under, but he was widely celebrated too.
The day after his death, one newspaper noted:
Art Smith was a brave aviator. He was something more too; he was the perfect type of these strange, restless young men who are never satisfied with the safe, the certain, the comfortable, who must forever be skirting the borders of the unattainable frontier and laughing in the eyes of death.
The same could be said for Lincoln Beachey and all of the other young stunt pilots of their day. On the 108th anniversary of Beachey’s death, we owe each of them a debt of gratitude. It was their willingness to risk — and sacrifice — their own lives that pushed early advances in aviation forward. They would be astounded by the aircrafts of today — almost as astounded as their own audiences were.
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