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Higher, Steeper, Faster
The Daredevils Who Conquered the Skies
Read by Robertson Dean
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Aviator Lincoln Beachey broke countless records: he looped-the-loop, flew upside down and in corkscrews, and was the first to pull his aircraft out of what was a typically fatal tailspin. As Beachey and other aviators took to the skies in death-defying acts in the early twentieth century, these innovative daredevils not only wowed crowds, but also redefined the frontiers of powered flight.
Higher, Steeper, Faster takes readers inside the world of the brave men and women who popularized flying through their deadly stunts and paved the way for modern aviation. With heart-stopping accounts of the action-packed race to conquer the skies, plus photographs and fascinating archival documents, this book will exhilarate readers as they fly through the pages.
THE MAN WHO OWNED THE SKY
March 14, 1915. San Francisco, California
Fifty thousand people sat in the grandstand of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, facing the bay, and perhaps one hundred thousand more lined the waterfront. The Panama-Pacific was the biggest, most important event ever staged in San Francisco, a world's fair to announce that the city had finally recovered from the terrible 1906 earthquake.
Millions would come to see its attractions: walk-through replicas of Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon, a five-acre working model of the Panama Canal, the actual Liberty Bell, on loan from Philadelphia. The Ford Motor Company had set up an assembly line and for three hours a day would build an automobile every ten minutes. Fairgoers could watch hula dancers, ride a miniature railway or a submarine, or sit in a compartment on a swing arm that propelled those inside to and fro over the grounds. There was even a 435-foot-high Tower of Jewels, decorated with more than one hundred thousand pieces of polished colored glass, called Novagems, imported from Europe and strung on wires. Fifty colored spotlights shone on the tower each night, making it visible in every corner of what was now known as "the Jeweled City." For local children, many of whom lived without plumbing or electricity, the fair was a door to another world.
But on this day, those thousands and thousands of people had not come to see automobiles, submarines, the Liberty Bell, or even a jeweled tower that seemed to stretch all the way to the heavens.
They had come to see a man attempt the impossible. They had come to see Lincoln Beachey fly.
In a hangar, out of sight of the crowd, Beachey checked his airplane. He was a short man, only five feet seven inches, and stocky, with a shock of red hair. Just eleven days before, he had celebrated his twenty-eighth birthday. He was wearing his trademark flying outfit—a pin-striped suit, a two-carat diamond stickpin in his cravat, and a peaked cap that he would turn backward before taking off. In public, Beachey always appeared serious, all business. Few could remember ever seeing him smile.
Beachey pulled at one of the thin cables that braced the wing to the fuselage. He would check every piece of every airplane in which he flew, but never more closely than today. It was taut, with no give. Just right.
And it would have to be just right. This day, Lincoln Beachey was to attempt a feat of flying that no man or woman had tried before, one so dangerous that other flyers had begged him not to try.
But Lincoln Beachey hadn't become the greatest, most celebrated aviator in the world by shrinking from danger. In the United States, he was a better-known figure than President Woodrow Wilson. In a country with a population of almost eighty million people, it had been said that more than twenty million Americans had seen Lincoln Beachey work his magic in the skies above them. For his incredible flying, he made more money in one day than most Americans earned in a year. Reporters called him "the Master Birdman," or "the Man Who Owns the Sky."
He had gained those accolades through a series of daring and harrowing maneuvers. Four years earlier, at the great Chicago International Aviation Meet of 1911, the highest anyone had ever flown was 11,150 feet, and Beachey had been determined to claim the record for himself. But there was only one way to do so. He would need to use all his fuel on the way up. That would leave him in the thin, freezing air with no way down but to glide more than two miles in the strong, swirling winds over Lake Michigan, left totally to the mercy of crosscurrents and updrafts. Flying without power—called "dead-sticking"—was one of the most difficult maneuvers any flyer could attempt. Doing so from as low as two hundred feet takes incredible skill. From eleven thousand feet, coming in over water, where the tiniest error meant losing control and plunging to certain death, it was considered impossible. No other person on earth would consider such a stunt.
And the airplane Beachey was to take aloft wasn't even really an airplane at all; at least not the way we would think of one today. It was just a frame, totally open, with wings, a motor, a rudder, and a seat. There was nothing to protect him from the terrible cold and wind at higher altitudes, or to cushion him from jolts worse than the bucking of a bull in a rodeo. Early airplanes had no instruments, not even a fuel gauge to tell flyers when fuel was running out; nothing to tell them where they were, or how high, or if something had gone wrong with the motor. And if something did go wrong, there was no way to communicate with the ground. All that protected Beachey and aviators like him from horrible death was their own skill and experience.
For many, that was not enough.
At five thirty PM on August 20, 1911, Beachey got into his airplane. The crowd of 350,000 people fell silent. There was no one else in the air—every eye was focused on him. Beachey took off easily and "ascended steadily, first in circles around the borders of Grant Park and then in wide sweeps that swung him out over the city and then over the lake." With the sky totally clear, Beachey was never out of eyeshot of the ground. Eventually, his airplane seemed no larger than a speck in the sky. But then, after a few moments, the speck began to grow larger. Soon it had taken shape enough for those on the ground to see that, indeed, his propeller was not moving! He had used all his fuel.
But somehow, although the airplane wobbled and dipped as Beachey descended through the air of the "Windy City," he kept control. "One great circle carried him several hundred yards out over the lake and curved back over Michigan Avenue. His third circle was more nearly around the flying course and his fourth and fifth narrowed as he neared the earth. At the north end of the field he seemed almost to shoot downward." As he neared the ground, the great crowd watching him could hardly breathe—could Beachey actually land the craft safely?
He could and he did! At about seven thirty PM, after more than a two-mile, fifteen-minute glide, Beachey set his airplane down not ten yards from where he had taken off. The tension broke and the spectators erupted in applause. After careful examination and testing, it was determined that Beachey had ascended to 11,642 feet above Lake Michigan. The altitude record was his. It was a feat of flying so incredible that without hundreds of thousands of people there to witness it, pilots even today would refuse to believe it actually happened.
But the Chicago altitude record was merely one of Beachey's remarkable achievements. He had been the first man to fly at Niagara Falls and the first to successfully pull out of a tailspin. He was the first American to fly upside down and to loop the loop. He was the only man to have flown a plane indoors, through a huge exhibition building at this very Panama-Pacific fair. He had won innumerable races and set altitude records. He flew the Barrel Roll, the Corkscrew Twist, and every other trick that had ever been attempted.
And one trick that hadn't: a trick that no other flyer could do, although more than a dozen had died trying. He would take his airplane three thousand, even five thousand feet into the sky and then dive—straight down. Sometimes he would turn off his engines; sometimes he would hold his arms out at his sides and control the airplane with his knees. Just when he was so close to the ground that it seemed nothing could prevent a horrible crash, Beachey would pull the airplane out and either gently land or fly off to perform more stunts.
It was a unique trick with a unique name: the Dip of Death.
The Dip of Death had become Beachey's signature maneuver, what all those millions across America had paid to see.
But he had never performed "the Dip" as he would today. For the first time ever, for his hometown crowd, Lincoln Beachey would complete the Dip of Death in a monoplane. One set of wings instead of two.
The monoplane was the future—Beachey knew that. The top wing on a biplane didn't do anything really, except hold the craft together. The cables would work just as well.
Still, he had never flown a monoplane in an exhibition before.
He had designed this airplane himself. He had chosen aluminum, the new miracle metal, for the wings and fuselage, lighter than steel and even stronger. In the thirty years since researchers had discovered how to manufacture it, hundreds, if not thousands, of uses had been found for aluminum. It had even been used to line the dome in the Library of Congress building.
He could have chosen any city in the world—New York, London, Paris—to use his monoplane for the first time, and likely a million people would have turned out, but where better than his hometown to advance aviation's boundaries just that much further?
Lincoln Beachey finished his safety check. The airplane was exactly the way he wanted it. Faintly, he heard the megaphone man begin his introduction. Walking up and down in front of the packed grandstand, he trumpeted, "Laaa-dies and gentlemen, don't move from your seats. You are about to witness the premier birdman of them all performing a feat of derring-do that no other man has mastered. Twelve of the greatest aviators in the world have plunged to horrible deaths trying to match him. Today, for the very first time in a monoplane, Lincoln Beachey will perform 'the Dip of Death.'"
That was his cue. Beachey adjusted the diamond stickpin, turned his cap backward, and put on his flying goggles. He climbed into the open cockpit, slipped his arms into the shoulder harness, and signaled his mechanic to crank her over.
As he began to taxi from the maintenance shed to the front of the grandstand, even the roar of the engine could not drown out the cheers of the crowd that grew louder every second.
It was time to make history.
This is the story of the pioneers of flight. Not so much the inventors, as the men and women who flew. These were the test pilots before there were test pilots—almost impossibly brave men and women who floated in balloons and with makeshift wings, soared in gliders, and finally piloted powered airplanes. They blazed a trail for every flyer, jet pilot, and even astronaut who came after them. Like every pioneer, they were drawn to riches or fame or simply the same need to explore the unknown that sent primitive sailing ships across the oceans centuries before. And the airplanes that these flyers took into the skies were every bit as primitive as those sailing ships, were every bit as dangerous, and took every bit of bravery just to climb aboard, for every time someone did, death might be waiting.
But because of these remarkable men and women, for whom pushing forward the boundaries of human experience often seemed more important than life itself, the first years of powered flight became one of the most exciting and important eras in human history.
Birds and Balloons
THE FIRST BIRDMAN
Even cave dwellers held fantasies of sailing through the air like birds. And for many, many centuries, people thought they could do that by being birds, or at least copying them. Ancient Greece had its fable of Icarus, who steered through the sky on wings made of wax and feathers. Then, ignoring his father's warning, Icarus flew too close to the sun. The wax melted, and he fell into the sea and died. Later, wealthy Romans, hoping to discover the secret of bird flight (and smart enough not to try it themselves), strapped wings on their slaves and sent them off tall buildings or cliffs, almost always to their deaths.
The greatest scientists in history tried to decipher the enigma of flight. Leonardo da Vinci sought to diagram a flying machine, as did Isaac Newton. For centuries, inventors tried and failed to keep themselves in the air. With every failure, the dream of flight grew stronger. But the first successes were not with wings but rather giant bags filled with gas. The first came on June 4, 1783, when two brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier, built, and Jacques-Étienne successfully piloted, a manned balloon over Annonay, France.
Balloons quickly became all the rage. There is no describing the awe men and women felt floating in the air and, for the first time in human history, being able to look down at the trees, rivers, villages, and towns below. But still, balloons weren't really "flying." There was no control. A balloon was either "free," and would be taken wherever the wind wished it, or "captive," attached to the ground by a very long rope. The dream of cruising like a bird remained unfulfilled.
So experiments in controlled flight, winged flight, went on. And continued to fail. Then, in 1891, a German engineer named Otto Lilienthal built a fifty-foot hill outside his home near Berlin, Germany. He braced himself against a set of wooden-framed fabric wings and ran down the incline.
To some, Lilienthal would have seemed ridiculous; just another crazy amateur trying to do what hadn't worked for the Romans. But Otto Lilienthal was no amateur. He had studied flight for thirty years and knew more about "airfoils"—the shape of wings—than any man alive. Using a "whirling arm" that he invented, he had taken tens of thousands of measurements of various-shaped surfaces moving at different angles through the air. He wrote a book on the subject, Der Vogelflug als Grundlage der Fliegekunst: Ein Beitrag zur Systematik der Flugtechnik (Birdflight as the basis of aviation: A contribution toward a system of aviation), which would become perhaps the most influential text ever written on flight.
After decades of research, when he thought he had finally solved the problem, Otto Lilienthal built his set of glider wings to the dimensions he had determined from his calculations. He waited for wind conditions to be right, ran down his man-made hill… and soared.
Over the next five years, Lilienthal made more than two thousand flights, gathering knowledge and improving his design. He maneuvered in the air by shifting his weight, usually by kicking his feet. Photographers began to follow his every move, and images of the first "birdman" were soon making their way around the world.
But to fly, even in a glider only fifty feet off the ground, Lilienthal needed luck as well as skill. On August 9, 1896, his luck ran out. Experimenting with a movable tail, he stalled and then fell, breaking his spine. The next day, Otto Lilienthal died. In his last hours, he uttered one of aviation's most famous sayings: "Sacrifices must be made."
News reports describing Lilienthal's accident spread across the globe, including to Dayton, Ohio, and the headquarters of the Wright Cycle Company, Wilbur and Orville Wright, proprietors. Word of Otto Lilienthal's death, as Wilbur put it, "aroused a passive interest which had existed since my childhood." And so two brothers that no one outside their small community had ever heard of set themselves to furthering the work Otto Lilienthal had begun. They started with what they saw as the natural next step to Otto Lilienthal's wings: gliders.
But the Wright brothers were not alone in attempting to advance Lilienthal's research. Nor did everyone agree that wings should be the basis of flight. In California, one of the world's most famous daredevils—and greatest showmen—was certain that balloons were aviation's future. And he intended to convince everyone else. In doing so, he would not only persuade millions of men, women, and children across America that flight was truly possible but also that it was something that one day, just maybe, they would be able to do themselves.
PARACHUTES AND GASBAGS
Thomas Scott Baldwin was surely the most unique and entertaining of all aviation's pioneers. Before turning his attention to balloons, he had traveled the world, astounding audiences with his exploits and captivating them with his storytelling. For him, sticking to the truth was never as important as spinning a good yarn. With a dazzling string of accomplishments, he didn't need to tell tall tales—he just seemed to enjoy them. He was born in either Missouri in 1854 or Illinois in 1857, although he later claimed to have begun life in a log cabin in 1861. His parents seemed to have died of natural causes when he was about twelve, although Baldwin later told reporters he had seen them gunned down before his eyes by Confederate renegades during the Civil War.
While still a teenager, Baldwin was hired as a circus tumbler—his specialty was performing tricks on the tops of moving freight trains. He soon moved on to the trapeze and the high wire. "I learned in walking the tightrope that it is not so much a matter of practice or strength as it is in keeping at it until you have the feel of confidence, and when once this comes, a man is equally at home on wire, rope or ground."
Tom Baldwin always had amazing instincts about what people would pay to see. In 1885, he took that skill to San Francisco, a fast-growing city where fortunes could be made. He decided to get the public's attention by walking a tightrope from the balcony of Cliff House to Seal Rocks and back, a round trip of nine hundred feet over pounding surf.
He made headlines, but Tom Baldwin wanted to achieve something even grander, something no other man could match. And for that, he looked to ballooning. Balloon flights were impressive and always drew crowds, but Baldwin decided to add a new wrinkle. He would rise up in a captive balloon and then parachute out.
Parachutes had been around for almost a century, but they were stiff, rigid, and extremely unreliable. If positioned incorrectly, a parachute would fail to catch the wind and send its unfortunate passenger hurtling helplessly downward at ever-increasing speed until he was crushed on the ground below. If Baldwin was to live to enjoy his riches, he would need to invent a more trustworthy device. He used silk for the canopy, added vents, and then tied ropes between the edge and a large ring underneath. This arrangement allowed his parachute to better right itself in the air. Like most daredevils, Baldwin thoroughly tested his theories before risking his life on them.
"I experimented with sand bags just my own weight and did not venture a jump until I had the 'feel' that it could be safely done. I made most of my jumps in water, and if it had not been that every particle of my body was hard as iron from former training as a gymnast and taking of all kinds of jolts, I would not have lasted through these early experiments."
But designing the parachute was only part of the problem; the other was keeping himself attached to it. Baldwin decided not to build a harness—the scarier the jump, the more money he could ask to risk his life. Instead, he would grasp the wooden ring that held the cords, trusting that a gust of wind would not jerk the ring out of his powerful acrobat's hands. When he was ready, it was time to make the sale.
"I went to Mr. Morton of the Market Street Cable Line and told him I thought I had an exhibition that would be a good feature for the Golden Gate Park, and he asked me what it was, and I told him a parachute jump. I said I would jump for a dollar a foot, and he answered: 'Go ahead and jump a thousand feet!'"
Baldwin's parachute might have been an improvement over earlier models, but, unlike modern parachutes, there was no way to control his direction in the air, so Baldwin risked drifting out over the water or becoming entangled in tree branches. But he did not, and in January 1887, Thomas Baldwin floated gently to the ground below and claimed his $1,000 prize (worth somewhere between $25,000 and $30,000 in 2017 dollars). Afterward, he began to tour the country, venturing higher and higher for greater prize money.
As his reputation grew, plain old "Tom Baldwin" simply would not do. Although his schooling had ended when he ran away from an orphanage at fourteen, he dubbed himself "Professor Baldwin." Eventually he changed that to "Captain Baldwin," which reporters shortened to "Cap't Tom."
In May 1888, in Minneapolis, the "Professor" performed his greatest feat. He allowed the balloon to take him five thousand feet into the air, and then parachuted to the ground for his usual dollar-a-foot fee.
After that, he crossed both oceans, performing in Europe and in Asia in venues as exotic as Thailand, which was then called Siam. His audiences included the cream of society, and even members of royal families. In England, for example, Edward, Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, was so dazzled by the wonder of a man leaping from a balloon and floating to earth with nothing but his own strength keeping him alive that he reportedly gave Baldwin his own diamond ring after a performance.
As he traveled the globe, Baldwin turned his attention from the parachute to the balloon that carried it. Captive balloons could not go anywhere, and free balloons might go anywhere. He decided that the future was in "airships"—balloons that could transport passengers to their desired destinations. That meant mounting a motor on a balloon so that it could sail against the wind, designing a propeller to move it forward, and finding some way to steer. Steerable balloons were called "dirigible."
While he was performing in Germany, Cap't Tom met with Count Zeppelin to learn about the new science of aerodynamics. He also decided that the recently invented internal combustion engine would work best for the power source he sought.
But Cap't Tom wasn't the only person with that idea. In October 1901, Alberto Santos-Dumont, a young Brazilian coffee heir living in Paris, stunned the world—and won 100,000 francs for himself—by successfully navigating a motorized balloon around the Eiffel Tower and returning to his starting point. A small man of barely one hundred pounds, Santos-Dumont wore only the best clothes, dined nightly at the best restaurants, and counted among his close friends Gustave Eiffel, the tower's designer; the jeweler Louis Cartier; and members of many royal families. On his trip around Eiffel's tower, he used bicycle pedals to start a small gasoline engine.
*"For those who love history, aviation, or stories of great daring, this is pure pleasure."
—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
- *"Readers will breathlessly follow the race to conquer the sky."—School Library Connection, starred review
- *"Goldstone deftly combines captivating descriptions of the personalities--male and female--with discussion of the many improvements and ever-present hazards of early flying."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
- "This look at the early days of the industry highlights the thrill and awe of a watching public as well as the fact that the sky was no longer any sort of boundary."—Booklist
"Armchair thrillseekers will settle in and read this one straight through."
- On Sale
- Mar 28, 2017
- Hachette Audio