Friday, November 28, 2008

Early Bird, Part 9

(Thompson displaces his barometer)

On the clear afternoon of Aug. 6, 1914, in Overland Park, Kan., DeLloyd Thompson climbed into his Day-Gyro plane, dressed in a sheepskin suit given to him by the polar explorer, Admiral Robert Peary. He strapped a barometric altimeter to his thigh and began his ascent into the blue sky. When his airplane finally ran out of fuel, a shivering Thompson put the craft into a spiral glide and descended to the field.

The Aero Club of America officially certified that Thompson's altitude had reached 15,256 feet. It smashed the record that Lincoln Beachey had set three years earlier at 11,678 feet. The achievement was noted on the front page of The Reporter, Thompson's hometown newspaper, the following day, but only briefly. Stunt flying, that had so captured the imagination of the public, was now pushed aside by the news of the Great War – a war in which air power would come into its own.

Thompson and Beachey both toured the country demonstrating in show after show their high-flying dives and loops. But they noticed that these stunts could be viewed from a distance, making it difficult to sell tickets to their performances. So the two began racing their planes close to the ground against automobiles, Thompson facing off against Joe Briggs and Beachey racing Barney Oldfield, then considered "the fastest man on Earth."

Although a number of pilots could claim to have flown upside-down, the position was but brief, at the top of the loop. Beachey wanted to fly upside-down over a distance and had a monoplane with an 80-horsepower engine built specially for the purpose. On March 14, 1915, before a crowd estimated at 250,000 at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, Beachey pulled the plane into a loop to achieve the inverted position. Realizing that his altitude was too low, he pulled the controls to right the plane. The wings snapped off from the force and the fuselage plunged into San Francisco Bay. An autopsy revealed that the "World's Greatest Aviator" had survived the crash and had died, at age 28, from drowning.

Suddenly, Dutch Thompson was the man to see.

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