Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Early Bird, Part 8

(Lincoln Beachey performing "no-hands" flight)

In 1913, a Russian pilot performed a loop for the first time. That's when a plane goes into a steep climb and does a backward somersault. Until then, no one had attempted the stunt because of the tremendous force the wings would be subjected to. A few weeks later, a French pilot successfully looped the loop. The big question here was: Who would be the first U.S. aviator to do it?

"I have been experimenting with this feat and have about made ready to try it," DeLloyd Thompson told a reporter for the Illinois State Register on Oct. 6. "I never have yet completely performed it, but I believe it can be done in a biplane and I am having a machine specially strengthened and prepared for the feat. I hope I can get away with it."

Meanwhile, Lincoln Beachey was thinking the same thoughts. Beachey, unquestionably the most famous American stunt flier, had recently retired, citing the morbid curiosity of the crowds who came to witness the deaths of young pilots. But the loop had gotten to him.
Glenn Curtiss, who at first refused to build a plane strong enough to loop for Beachey, relented. Beachey returned from retirement, and on his first flight in the new plane, misjudged its speed. A wing clipped the top of a tent and the landing gear struck two young women sitting on a shed roof to watch the flight. One of the women died, and Beachey once again quit flying. He could not stay away, however, and on Nov. 25, he completed his first loop.

Thompson would not be the first American to fly upside-down, but he was not about to be outdone. In the first major air show of 1914, on March 25 in Los Angeles' Griffith Park, Thompson made his first loop. On April 13, he set a world record by making eight loops. And five days later, with female passenger Lillian Biorn on board, he made the first loop with a passenger.

Lincoln Beachey was still a more familiar household name in America, but Thompson was determined to change that.

(At right, a photo of Lillian Biorn, from a scrapbook kept by Thompson's mother.)

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