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Loop the Loop

Tuesday, September 20, 2011 - 07:00 PM

Lincoln Beachey Lincoln Beachey (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-55137/

For most of human history, flight was an impossible dream. In this short, the dizzying rise and fall of a pilot whose aeronautic feats changed aviation forever and turned chancy stunts into acrobatic mastery.

Lincoln Beachey is one of the most famous men you’ve never heard of. Born in 1887 in San Francisco, Beachy was lonely, chubby kid who, as authors Sam Kean and Frank Marrero tell us, nobody would have suspected of becoming a hero. But he was fearless. By the age of 10 he was hurling himself down San Francisco’s stomach-churning Fillmore Hill on a bicycle with no brakes. 

But what Beachy really wanted to do was fly airplanes. Then one day, while working as a mechanic at an airshow in Los Angeles, he got his big break: a star pilot got hurt, and Beachey leaped in to take his place. He shot upwards, 3,000 feet into the air…and his motor failed. He went into a nose-diving spin that no pilot had ever survived. And he did what no pilot had ever done: he turned into the spin, regained control, and landed safe and sound.

After that, Beachey became a superstar. At a time when the entire population of the US was 90 million people, 17 million came out to see him fly in just one year. He invented figure 8s and the vertical drop, and was the first pilot to achieve terminal velocity by flying straight toward the ground. In fact, what Beachey did was so extraordinary, and so dangerous, that a wave of pilots died trying to imitate him. After the death of a dear friend of his, Beachey finally vowed to retire. And he did. For three months. Until he finally buckled…and strapped himself back in a cockpit to master the trick of all tricks: the loop the loop. Lincoln perfected it—looping so effortlessly he seemed to own the sky. Until his final flight in 1915, where he stunned the crowds—a quarter of a million fans at the World’s Fair in San Francisco—one last time.

Related reads:

Sam Kean's The Disappearing Spoon

Frank Marrero's Lincoln Beachey: The Man Who Owned the Sky

Thanks to the talented jump-ropers at CS 200 in Harlem, and singers at LaGuardia School of the Arts!


Sam Kean and Frank Marrero


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Comments [53]

Aaron Milestone

Love the arrangement by Ruby Froom. beautiful and haunting.

Dec. 09 2016 05:29 PM
Arthur B Kells from Florida

Lincoln Beachey was a daredevil. Although I cannot relate to his desires, it is certainly admirable that he would risk his life in order to do crazy stunts that I could never imagine doing. Lincoln Beachey's plane feat certainly gained him his fame, but he always had the drive to achieve greatness.

Jan. 27 2015 07:56 AM
Ender J Hayden from Florida, United States

This podcast had a very amazing story. It shows if you want to do something, you can accomplish it. It also partly tells the history of airplane tricks. It is very cool to hear about old-time planes. He invented so many cool tricks, that we really don't think about anymore. I really liked this podcast.

Jan. 25 2015 10:31 AM

Here is a great song for this article:

Oct. 29 2013 02:01 AM
Robert Moriarty from Silicon Valley

I loved this podcast so much! You guys are great! In fact, I'm doing my bography report on this man!

May. 21 2013 11:54 AM

Where can I download them singing the chant?! I can listen to it forever!

Mar. 12 2013 05:16 PM
Coco from ACS

I like the song of jumping rope and I suprized that Lincoln Beachey is in the song. I think he is a brave ma. I suprized that he did danderous thing by airplane and it wird that we don’t know him so much. I want to see what Lincoln Beachey.

Apr. 20 2012 08:14 AM
Rasmus from Cobham

Lincoln Beachey is very cool. very interesting podcast.

Apr. 20 2012 07:57 AM
kotaro from Cobham

I never watched airplane show. But now I want. I want to see what Lincoln Beachey did. This story is very interesting.

Apr. 20 2012 07:57 AM
Moeno Ogata from Cobham

I think he was bravest man. Because he did what some people couldn't do it and what some people didn't know how to know. 'm admiring him, because he could do it. I think because he has a big obsession to airplane. I don't have favourite thing like him.
Now we have network's power, so if there is people like Beachey, It won't be like this. Some people will make news of him.
I like the play song of jumping rope!!

Apr. 20 2012 06:44 AM


Apr. 19 2012 09:47 PM
Lisa from Cobham

I found this story very intereting, and if I would have lived in that time I would have loved seeing him! I really liked how he was the only one to do all does airplane things. But it is still weird that we dont know him so much...
Good Story :)

Apr. 19 2012 03:14 PM
Lauree from Duluth, MN

I listened to this episode several weeks ago and, even though I didn't understand most of the words, the "dances like a horse" song looped in my head for an annoyingly long time. Fortunately, I just heard a re-make of "Alone Again, Naturally" that has taken its place.

Cheers. Love your program.

Dec. 08 2011 12:31 PM
Bernie Doeser from Cornwall, England

Radiolab is so entertaining. I only hope you can get a regular spot on the BBC - you would be so at home on Radio 4.
The jump rope song missing off the final "hell" is an accurate rendition of the famous story that this episode is about. Beachey doesn't go to heaven or hell - he lives.
I would also like to plead for the Laguardia rendition of the song to be available for download, it is beautiful.

Nov. 24 2011 07:34 AM
Reuben from New Zealand

Great podcast, I def enjoyed the subject matter. But the editing was pissing me off something chronic. Just play the interviews uncut! Sounds like it's made for an audience with an attention span of 2 seconds, very un-natural!

Nov. 16 2011 06:21 PM
Farmer Jon from Boulder, CO

Great story as usual, I thought this video compliments the story really well since both men are mentioned. And of course the irony that the man driving becomes famous for flying rather than Beachey.

1914 Iowa State Fair Races Between Auto Racer Eddie Rickenbacker and Pilot Lincoln Beachey

Oct. 27 2011 11:29 PM

I listened to this show with my 5 & 7 year olds in the back seat - they loved it too, and love singing the song!

So much so, we got a new kitten just yesterday, and they unanimously decided to name the little guy "Lincoln Beachy" - so I had to post. We now have our own Lincoln Beachy mastering yet another version of loop-the-loop, as his little body twists in the air in attempts to grab the looping string held over his head. Perfect.

Oct. 20 2011 02:47 PM
Dan (VA) from Virginia

The story of Kristin Shaw Dances Like a Horse reminds me of a recurring bit from Family Guy. They have used this technique a few times (something not inherently funny for a long strech).

Here's an example:

Oct. 18 2011 04:11 PM
Thomas Morison

Picking up the hanky:

Oct. 16 2011 11:05 PM

does anyone know of these "escape games" mentioned in the first segment?
thank you

Oct. 16 2011 08:34 PM
Ed from Friday Harbor, WA

Loved the piece on Lincoln Beachey, notwithstanding the several errors of aviation knowledge.The wonderful song by Ruby Froom and her friends is great! Please bring them back again.

Oct. 15 2011 05:34 PM
Thomas Hayes from Suwanee GA

This was my favorite short by far. Very funny, well put together, and educating at the same time.

Oct. 12 2011 08:07 PM
Brian Abel Ragen from St. Louis, MO

What is a 50-year old man to do when a radio show leaving him reciting a skip-rope rhyme over and over for weeks on end?

Oct. 12 2011 11:15 AM

Totz agree that the song from the La Guardia School for the Arts about Beachey was incredible. Can it be made available for download?

Oct. 11 2011 08:07 PM

My friend Bob sent me here and I'm confused and my life is worth trash, but the worthless kind of trash that people don't want touching their worthwhile trash.

Oct. 10 2011 11:09 PM

Please make the female a cappella song about Lincoln Beachy available for download! It was incredible!!

Oct. 07 2011 11:39 AM
Rich from NYC

I'm still near the beginning of the episode but had to post... My father and his sister both had Alzheimer's. A few days before my farher's passing Aunt D visited him in the hospital. I was the only other one in the room. Within minutes they entered into a conversation about their late mother that lasted a couple of minutes. Then they repeated the exact same conversation, word-for-word, with the same expressions and tone...and they repeated it again. And again. But neither remembered having just had the same conversation. It was exactly how it is here. It was a much sadder situation because it wasn't temporary but after the fifth or sixth loop I had to laugh. If you're the only lucid person in the room does that make you the insane one? Thanks for this, its been so many years now I can laugh about it and that's what this segment made me do. And Kristin Schaal is a horse.

Oct. 05 2011 07:32 PM
Jim Marks from Houston, TX

This was a fantastic set of stories. I think you could expand on the concept of "zero" as an actual number quite a bit, if you're interested. Check out the book "The Nothing That Is" by Robert Kaplan as a starting point. This could be far more engaging than perhaps non-math people might suspect.

Oct. 05 2011 02:09 PM
Alexander from NYC

Regarding the segment about the musical loops from the degrading analog tapes... I wonder if those loops that got shorter and shorter were simply a function of the fact that analog tape is spooled. Imagine the spooled tape is resting on a table and you took out a marker and drew one single radius from the center of the spool out to the outermost loop of tape. Now imagine that the tape degraded as was described in the story except at the exact spots where that radius was drawn it degraded a bit slower. The effect discussed in this episode seems to be a function of the spooling of the tape.

Just a thought.

Perhaps the spots on t and as it unspools to be read by a tape machine,

Oct. 05 2011 09:13 AM

I have to say, I'm disappointed with this episode. You had the perfect opportunity for a joke and you totally missed it. What you should have done with the song was this:

Lincoln Beachy thought it was a dream
to go up to Heaven in a flying machine.
The machine broke down and down he fell.
Instead of going to Heaven he went to...
Radiolab is brought to you by the Sloan Foundation... :-)

Oct. 02 2011 09:56 AM
Nathan from Chicago

Yeah, i'm with Debby. Remember that short on earworms? The jump rope rhyme is a seriously consuming earworm for me...
thanks Jad and Robert.

Sep. 29 2011 12:10 PM
Greg Jackson from North Platte, NE

@Steve Tupper
Your clarifications were helpful. As an aviation layperson, I was questioning my own knowledge. Especially the names of maneuvers. It's good to be right once in a while. Can't wait to tell....uh........... someone.

Sep. 28 2011 09:42 AM
Kasey from Los Angeles

Long-time listener, first-time commenter: I think I've listened to just about every Radiolab short, but this one was my favorite by far. Not only was the story of Lincoln Beachey captivating, the construction of this short from beginning to end was thoroughly delightful. Thanks very much, guys!

Sep. 27 2011 05:44 PM
Greg W from MA

I think this podcast was just an elaborate way for Jad to release the ultimate earworm upon the world!

Sep. 27 2011 08:32 AM
Daryl Greaser from Oregon

I am a pilot who recently lost her mother to pancreatic cancer, so this short is personal, and congruent with the story 'After Life,' whereas we continue to "live" until our last death, "sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time." Those children may never know what the song means, but in a way, they are keeping Beachy alive.

Beachy in obscurity? You underestimate the reach of this audience! - I LOVE this show!!

Sep. 27 2011 01:51 AM
Lincoln Szebeni

Eu sou Lincoln Szebeni e moro no Brasil, sou programador e gosto de tecnologia.

Sep. 26 2011 02:47 PM

@majdal -- "hell" isn't being censored. it's being left out on purpose because classically it's inappropriate for kids, especially little girls to say "bad words." there's a deliberate, implicit use of the word through rhyme-- it's like the girls are seeing what they can get away with, just like all the other kids who've said the rhyme before them. it's clever wordplay! :)

Sep. 26 2011 12:59 PM
Martin from Sydney

I would love to be able to download/listen to various musical and sound effect elements of the podcasts. The Lincoln Beachey Rhyme at the end of this one being a favourite which, if I could, I would turn into my ringtone. Another is the 'Pin drop' element in the totally tumors episode, Message received for that one.

Sep. 26 2011 04:56 AM

Brilliant episode, but why are you censoring the word "hell"?

Sep. 25 2011 09:22 AM
Reem from San Francisco- California

Hey Jad,
Since you're making the next Radiolab episode about Loops I wonder if you explored the world of animation at all or will you be talking to any of us animators about the subject since loops and movements are a great part of our medium


Sep. 25 2011 02:00 AM

I don't know much about flying, but I've been singing that haunting little song all day.

Sep. 23 2011 09:19 PM
clifford robinson from SF

Great story about a member of San Francisco Motorcycle Club

Sep. 23 2011 04:52 PM
Karl Schuch

engine failure never...repeat never... results in a stall or spin. A stall occurs when the wing exceeds the critical angle of attack, a spin occurs when yaw is introduced during a stall.

Sep. 22 2011 07:12 AM
Frank Marrero from near SF

You're right, engine failure doesn't necessarily result in a stall.... just often does.
And check Paul Garber--Smithsonian, he credits Beachey as the person who invented stall recovery. At the time, they called it "the deadly spiral" as they had no understanding. Your critiques are accurate, but not rooted in the history of the moment. Early aviation was deadly, no doubt.

Sep. 21 2011 10:20 PM
Steve Tupper from Detroit area, Michigan

I love, love, love Radiolab. And congrats to Jad on his well-deserved MacArthur Fellowship.

But this short gets wrong just about everything you can get wrong about airplanes and aerodynamics.

Engine failure doesn't necessarily result in a spin, as implied by the short at 4:30 - 4:43. An aerodynamic stall (which itself has nothing to do with the engine, but rather the angle of attach of the wing) is required to enter into a spin. Uncoordinated yaw (rudder) will cause a wing to drop, resulting in the autorotation of a spin.

Airplanes, even 1910 airplanes, don't "drop" when the engine quits. They glide.

I believe that the first successful recovery from an inadvertent spin was by RN Lieut Wilfred Parke in 1912. Harry Hawker first recovered from an intentional spin in 1914.

One in three flights in 1910 ended in disaster? Really? That can't be right. One in three _spins_, maybe? But then two thirds of spins would have been successfully recovered, making Beachey's recovery blasé?

Deadly spiral? Do you mean spin? A spin and a spiral are different.

A loop is not a corkscrew maneuver. You're thinking of a barrel roll. A loop is a circle in a vertical plane.

Early 20th century aircraft only suffered fuel starvation when in _sustained_ inverted flight. Momentary inversion (or inversion that maintains positive G) doesn't cause the engine to quit. The lack of an inverted fuel or oil system would not itself cause an engine to quit during a loop unless the aircraft remained inverted for too long with lack of positive G. Even today, pilots regularly perform aerobatics involving inversion in aircraft that don;t have inverted systems.

Sorry to be such an aviation grouch.

I love the show, largely because the show usually seems to get the science right. But this failure to get the science right compelled me to write.

Please keep pumping out the otherwise spectacular show!

- Steve

Sep. 21 2011 05:31 PM
Wayne Barr

The story of Lincoln Beachey is featured prominently in a chapter of Johnny Got His Gun, a popular book in high school English courses.

Sep. 21 2011 04:53 PM
jim from Toronto

Hey Art from Minneapolis, MN,

freedom of speech! freedom of speech!

- the Canadian

Sep. 21 2011 03:16 PM
Dan from Boston

so with the genius grant, does that mean we won't have to hear those fundraising spots at the beginning/end of every episode for the next 5 years?

Sep. 21 2011 01:43 PM
Art from Minneapolis, MN

With the air show crash in Reno last week, perhaps you should have shelved this episode for a little while. Not the best time to be glorifying airplane acrobatics.

Sep. 21 2011 10:15 AM

Congrats Jad!

Sep. 21 2011 07:12 AM
Frank Marrero from near SF

Great Waldo Pepper was part of the "barnstorming" - post WWI romantic daze... Beachey was pre-WWI 'exhibitionist' phase... but Beachey was the most popular and in some weird sense, GWP alluded to the Beachey fame...

Sep. 21 2011 01:22 AM
molly schwartz

Congratulations Jad for your MacArthur award... richly deserved! Really deserved! Keep the podcast going... I LOVE it as do my family and friends here in the wilds of western North Carolina. Am almost ready to share with the age 13 seems quite ready. Keep the fabulous program going! Beloved here. Thx Molly Schwartz Cullowhee, NC 28723... look for it! It is a fabulous place! Come visit and bring yr wife and child! You can stay here!

Sep. 20 2011 08:39 PM

This was a terrific podcast, thank you.

(Was the story of Lincoln Beachey's death retold in the Great Waldo Pepper?)

I think San Francisco should rename a beach after him.

Sep. 20 2011 07:47 PM

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