Capsule Biographies

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Born in Missouri, 1854. Died 19??.

Baldwin's was the Horatio Alger story of success through hard work and good deeds. Orphaned at an early age, he became an acrobat at 14 with a traveling circus and then progressed, step-by-step, to prominence in aviation. He made his first balloon ascent in 1875 and soon became a star attraction at county fairs, but after 10 years and thousands of shows the novelty began to fade. Searching for a daring new exhibition specialty, he rediscovered the rigid parachute invented a century before, redesigning it and making it flexible so it could be packed. With this he offered to parachute from his balloon, at the rate of a dollar a foot, and his services were eagerly bought, a thousand feet worth, at San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. On Jan 30, 1885, it one of the first times in history that a man descended from a balloon in a parachute.

Again the luster faded and he set out in 1900 to devise an act of even greater daring, with a motor-driven balloon. On finding a lightweight engine to power his elongated airship, he set in motion one of the greatest forces aviation was ever to know, Glenn Curtiss—it was Curtiss' motorcycle engine that powered his new dirigible, California Arrow, on Aug 3, 1904, in the first circuitous flight in America. The Army was impressed and offered to pay $10,000 for a practical means of aerial navigation. His creation was 90' long, powered by a novel Curtiss engine, and was accepted and designated SC-I, the Signal Corps' first such craft, which set the design for all the dirigibles of the time.

By then another craft had staked the promise for the future, and interest faded in all but the Wright brothers' flying machine. In 1911 Baldwin built the first plane with a steel framework and christened it Red Devil. Showman that he was, he knew that people around the world wanted to see an airplane fly, and formed a troupe of performers in 1913 to tour the Philippines and the Orient, where in most cases an airplane had never flown.

Just before WW1 his interest turned to dirigibles again and he designed the Navy's first successful dirigible,the DN-I. Training fliers was also the need, so he managed the Curtiss Flying School at Newport News, where one of his students would later become the unsung champion of the air service, General William E "Billy" Mitchell. When the US went to war, although 62 years old, Baldwin volunteered his services to become Chief of Army Balloon Inspection and Production, personally inspecting every balloon and airship used by the Army in the war. His final employment was with the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co, continuing the design and manufacture of airships.

Few in the aviation community were better loved than "Captain Tom." Inventor of the flexible parachute, builder of the first practical dirigible in America, pioneer designer, builder, and flyer of airplanes, his life was unrivaled as a showman, as an innovator and inventor in nearly 50 years in aeronautics. (— Jean Lail, NAHF)

Enshrined in National Aviation Hall of Fame 1964.


Born at San Marino CA July 14, 1901. Died March 30, 1975.

Florence Lowe "Pancho" Barnes, grand-daughter of Thaddeus Lowe, who pioneered American aviation with the establishment of the Union Army Balloon Corps during the Civil War, was brought up in high society but acquired her famous tom-boy streak while learning hunting, fishing, and camping skills from her father, Thaddeus Lowe II. A marriage to clergyman C Rankin Barnes in 1919 survived in name only as she continued her flambuoyant adventures and, on inheriting the family fortune in the mid-'20s, she ran off to Mexico, where she acquired her nickname—an equestrian friend likened her, riding alongside on a burro, to Don Quixote's sidekick, Sancho Panza—and the name got twisted around to "Pancho," which stuck with her forever after.

Contrary to popular belief, and folklore, Barnes was not a working motion picture stunt pilot, nor was she ever filmed flying through a hangar. Her sole contribution to movies was flying, with a few other pilots, past studio sound trucks at Muroc Dry Lakes, to record their motors to dub into "Hell's Angels" after Howard Hughes decided to revise his silent epic as a sound film.

A social member of the film pilots, she encouraged them to form a union, opened her home for their meetings, and provided administrative and secretarial services in helping them charter their new organization. In appreciation for her help she was made an honorary member of the Associated Motion Picture Pilots.

A heavily-laundered, "Hollywoodized" version of her life story was filmed for television in 1988. Most recent is a Memorial Archive on the Internet offering much more information.

  -- The Happy Bottom Riding Club: The Life and Times of Pancho Barnes, Lauren Kessler (Random House, 2000)
  -- Pancho: The Biography of Florence Lowe Barnes, Barbara H Schultz (Little Buttes 1996)


Born March 3, 1887, at San Francisco CA. Died at San Francisco, March 14, 1915.

Lincoln Beachey was said to be the first of the daredevil pilots to achieve national fame and one of the first to accomplish the inside loop manuever. Following performances at the 1910 Dominguez Hills Air Meet, Beachey went on to perform such feats as flying over Niagara Falls and under the International Bridge. He is also credited with the first flight in Puerto Rico and as the first to fly over Washington DC, finishing that flight with a landing on the White House Lawn.

1915 - Performing an aerial show at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, when pulling out of a dive from 3,500' over San Francisco Bay, the wings of his airplane broke away. Beachey survived the crash, but was trapped in the wreckage and drowned.

More data to come. SEE the Beachey Tribute sites.

Enshrined in National Aviation Hall of Fame 1966.

  -- The Man Who Owned the Sky, Frank Marrero (paperback 1996)


Born near Pulaski TN, January 30, 1891. Died November 29, 1950.

Walter Herschel Beech began an illustrious career in aviation with a solo flight on July 11, 1914, in a Curtiss pusher. A rated Army aviator and flight instructor in 1917, he barnstormed after his enlistment ended in 1920, finally joining the Swallow Company in 1923, where he quickly rose from designer, salesman, and test pilot to general manager. In 1924 he co-founded Travel Air with Clyde Cessna, which would become the world's largest producer of both monoplane and biplane commercial aircraft, internationally acclaimed for establishing more than 200 performance records. With the merger of Travel Air and Curtiss-Wright, Beech became president of the new corporation.

However, he desired a more personal participation in aircraft design and manufacture and so co-founded Beech Aircraft Company with his wife, Olive Ann, on April 1, 1932. His early Beechcrafts set many distance and speed records, and won the Bendix and McFadden races. Most novel among these, with design and performance features years ahead of its time, was the Model 17 "Staggerwing" cabin biplane.

During World War II, Beech turned the entire production of his company to defense, producing more than 7,400 military aircraft. His AT-71/C-45 trained more than 90 percent of the USAAF navigator and bombardiers and 50 percent of its multi-engine pilots.

In the postwar years Beech again applied his efforts to producing a new line of light aircraft, the most famous of which was the V-tailed Bonanza. (— From "These We Honor," International Hall of Fame; San Diego Aerospace Museum)

Enshrined in National Aviation Hall of Fame 1977. Invested in the International Aerospace Hall of Fame 1982.


Born at Mentone IN, April 5, 1895. Died at Buffalo NY, October 20, 1956.

Lawrence Dale Bell was first involved in aviation in 1913 when he worked as a mechanic for two exhibition pilots: his brother, Grover Bell, and Lincoln Beachey. Employed by Glenn Martin in late 1913 as a factory worker, and in mid-1914 he had produced his first aircraft during his off-hours, a Martin tractor converted into a bomber for sale to Mexican rebel Panco Villa. This so impressed Martin that Bell was made superintendent of the new factory.

Bell left Martin in the late '20s to join Consolidated, becoming their Vice-President and General Manager in 1929. When the company was moved to San Diego, he elected to remain in Buffalo and, with several others from Consolidated, to form the Bell Aircraft Co in 1935. Initial work came as subcontracts from other manufacturers, but as Bell's ideas focused more on research and development, the company came into its own. His concept of the Airacuda as a multiplace, cannon-bearing, long-range fighter was quite novel for the time, and was followed by the P-39 Airacobra as a full production plane, for which the company expanded to meet wartime contracts in the US and abroad.

For years Bell had been interested in rotary-wing aircraft, and in 1944 met Arthur M Young, who had devoted many years to helicopter research. Bell set him up in a shop and spent many hours with him developing plans, from which the successful line of Bell helicopters came. And when Bell Company was invited to submit a proposal for a plane to attack the sound barrier, he told his engineers to "throw away the book" and start fresh—in such an experiment he insisted that no prior aircraft design ideas or practices should be allowed to hamper creative imagination. The resulting X-1, the USAF's first rocket-propelled flight research vehicle for NASA, was first to exceed the speed of sound.

Guggenheim Medalist 1944. Enshrined in National Aviation Hall of Fame 1977.


Born at Sciacca, Sicily, in 1886. Died 1960.

Educated in engineering in Milan. In 1908, with no experience in aeronautics, he and two friends built and flew an airplane of his design. He moved with his family to Brooklyn in 1912, and by early the next year, he was teaching himself to fly in earnest at the Garden City Aerodrome, in a monoplane he had designed and built in his family's basement.

In 1914, Bellanca opened a flying school at the airfield, where one of his students was Fiorello LaGuardia, the future mayor of New York City. In 1920, he created the CF, an airliner that could carry four passengers in an enclosed cabin. The CF entered three major performance contests in 1922, won them all, and earned a reputation as "the world's best airplane." Unfortunately, the market was then glutted with surplus WW1 airplanes, and Bellanca couldn't sell his marvels. He was hampered, as well, by a lack of capital—most of his backers were restaurateurs, waiters, and bakers from Brooklyn's Italian neighborhoods.

In 1924, in partnership with an engine manufacturer, Bellanca designed the WB-1, a cabin airliner that also won speed and performance contests. He followed this with the WB-2, an improved model, but his partner wasn't interested in producing it, and the WB-2 was eventually put up for sale. Bellanca hoped to sell the plane to the pilot who most wanted it, Charles Lindbergh, who thought the WB-2 was the best plane for his planned solo flight from New York to Paris. Lindbergh wrote a check for $15,000, but when Bellanca's partner refused to sell the plane unless their company could select the pilot, a very annoyed Lindbergh withdrew his check and went instead to Ryan in San Diego. Lindbergh named his new monoplane The Spirit of St Louis, and when it and not the WB-2 carried him to Paris, Bellanca was condemned to be a footnote in the history of aviation.

A Bellanca aircraft, Miss Veedol, did make the first non-stop flight across the Pacific in 1931, and in the years that followed, Bellancas set many records for speed and endurance. But their high quality meant they weren't well suited for mass production. However, admirers of the marque have restored and kept flying a few of the airplanes Bellanca designed and built.

Enshrined in National Aviation Hall of Fame 1993.


SEE NAHF for now.


Born at Irondale MO, December 29, 1874. Died June 14, 1917.

Thomas Wesley Benoist moved with his family to St Louis in 1983, where he had his first experience with flight on a balloon ride in 1904. He and his brother, Charles, started in business first in 1907 as an automobile supply house, but a year later changed their direction as the Aeronautic Supply Co, the first of its kind in the USA. Aerosco, as it became popularly known, sold not only raw materials, parts, and motors, but featured Curtiss and European biplanes in its 52-page catalog. There Tom developed his newfound interest in designing flying machines.

By 1909 he had his first airplane, an old Curtiss pusher that he had rebuilt and modified as a prototype for three others, but he had never flown any of them. So, his first flight in September 1910 was his solo flight—a journey of 600' at an altitude of 50'—which also made his the first St Louis resident to fly. With skills evolved from subsequent flights, Benoist opened a flying school at the city's new Kinloch Field, where by mid-1911 more than a dozen students from around the world had learned to fly—one of them was Tony Jannus, who would become his chief instructor and collaborator in designing aircraft.

Production was mostly undocumented, and only one report of a total 106 aircraft built by the various Benoist operations was noted, but the products were well-known and the company was a major manufacturer of the period. Benoist and Jannus also received US patent #1,053,182 for their invention of a tethered parachute "dispenser," which Bert Berry used to make the world's first successful jump from a plane on March 1, 1912.

In early 1913, the pair made plans for a mid-year transatlantic flight to try for the $50,000 prize announced by Lord Northcliffe, in which Jannus would follow a steamship until 100 miles from the Irish coast, then fly ahead to land. However, their plans fell through when the Roberts Co would not to loan them a vital 100hp motor. Things began looking up when a three-month contract was awarded for a St Petersburg-Tampa airline to begin New Year's Day 1914, the world's first scheduled passenger service. Service ended on March 30, and while losing money in the venture, they proved the feasibility of commercial air service by carrying 184 passengers safely on 97 trips.

Business went back into a slump, and Jannus left. Without city support, Kinloch Field became virtually deserted, so in January 1915 Benoist moved operations to Chicago. There he reached an tentative agreement with the St Louis Car Co to build 5,000 airplanes to sell at $6,100 each; however, only two prototype Model 15s came of the idea, and Benoist moved his shrinking business into the Roberts Motor Co factory at Sandusky OH, where only four aircraft were reported built.

Struggling to pay bills and keep remaining employees from deserting him, there was a sudden bright ray when in December 1916 he was approached by the government about an order, and Admiral Peary was scheduled for a meeting with Benoist and the Roberts people in late June 1917. Benoist was also negotiating with financial backers about his eight-passenger, twin-engine Model 17, when he hopped off a moving trolley one fateful day and struck a light pole. He died within hours at age 43.






Born at Detroit MI, October 1, 1881. Died September 28, 1956.

William Edward Boeing was the son of a German immigrant who had built a successful timber business in the Northwest. After graduation from Yale's Sheffield Scientific School, Boeing followed this father in the lumber business, as well as buying a small Seattle boatyard. In 1914 he had his first airplane ride and became interested in the science of aeronautics, took flying lessons from Glenn Martin and bought a seaplane from him. Teaming that year with then-USN Lt Conrad Westervelt, they designed and built the B&W, based partly on the Martin.

When Westervelt was recalled by the Navy in 1916, Boeing formed Pacific Aero Products Co, and changed its name to the Boeing Airplane Co in 1917. As well as producing a few of is own designs, the new company profited by producing Thomas-Morse Scouts under contract for the Army and rebuilding De Havilland DH-4s with welded steel-tube fuselages—the first American company to use welded tubes.

Boeing Co prospered and dwelt heavily on research, producing a series of innovative civil and military aircraft through the '20s and '30s. In addition, he established his Boeing Air Transport for the San Francisco-Chicago passenger and mail route in 1927—the first airline to offer stewardesses—which served as a basis for United Air Lines in 1930. The United Aircraft & Transport Corp resulted from Boeing's formation in 1929 of his operations with the Pratt & Whitney, Hamilton, Stearman, and Vought companies, all of which continued to make products under their own names. However, in 1934 the government considered UATC a monoply and ordered it broken up, at which time Boeing announced his retirement.

In 1934 he was also awarded the Guggenheim medal for his part in pioneering and for achievements in aviation and air transportation. Despite official retirement, he remained active in his company's development, contributing to aircraft designs, even returning during WW2 to help reorganize the workforce to build B-17 and B-29 bombers. (— Peter Bergen)

Enshrined in National Aviation Hall of Fame 1966.


Born April 20, 1904. Died June 26, 1973.


SEE NAHF for now.


Born at Cadiz IN, May 24, 1903. Died October 20, 1944

Born in Cadiz, but grew up in Whittier CA, at that time a Quaker settlement in the eastern Los Angeles basin, Milo Garrett Burcham learned to fly in 1929 at the O'Donnell School of Aviation at Long Beach and became its chief instructor soon afterward.

Much more than just a P-38 test pilot, Burcham unfortunately has never received appropriate recognition because of wartime secrecy. He was an early-bird, with US License 5274, and established a world's record in December 1933 at Long Beach CA by flying upside-down for 4h:5m:22s in his new Boeing 100, in which he performed acrobatic shows until 1937. He flew a brand-new Lockheed 12A Electra Junior to fifth place in the 1937 Bendix Race from Los Angeles to Cleveland, which was doubly impressive since F C Hall, the plane's owner, and his wife were aboard, and yet they still came in only a few minutes behind Frank Sinclair in his Seversky racer.

Burcham was hired as a production test pilot by Lockheed in 1938 and because of his extensive experience did most of the test flying on the P-38. He became Chief Engineering Test Pilot for Lockheed, and performed the 55-degree dive from 35,000' in the P-38. He made the first test flights of the P-80 at Muroc Dry Lake in January 1944 as Lockheed's Chief Pilot. Killed in the crash of the second YP-80 a few months later, he was twice a victim of World War II—first it cost him his life, and secondly, because of rigid secrecy then surrounding the P-80, there was no publicity about the accident, his death, or his career. (— William T Larkins)



Born at Temple TX, November 22, 1895. Died June 21, 1964.

After graduating from St Peters College (NJ), Vincent Justus Burnelli soloed a glider in 1914 to claim his spot in the sky. With friend John Carisi in 1915, he designed and built his first airplane at Maspeth NY. Next came a combat plane that he hoped would be used in WW1, which was not to be, but the NYC Police Department bought it for their new aerial police operation. In 1919 he designed what was likely the world's first successful large commercial transport, the Lawson Airliner, but dissatisfaction with his own design—he called it a "streetcar with wings"—put him on a path to the future from which he would not stray.

The Lawson's bulky boxlike fuselage stirred visions of a more streamlined shape that could also serve as an airfoil, and the first practical concept of a lifting body, where all major aeronautical components were housed within the airfoil, was born in his RB-1 of 1920. A design patent filed in January 1921 took nine years to be issued, but it was a harbinger of what could revolutionize commercial aviation.

Yet manufacturers were reluctant to change from what then was considered standard, despite appeals of better performance, economy, and safety—it was much the same case as with John Northrop's flying wings. While much support and encouragement came from prominent civil and military aviation experts, a lack of vital financial and political backing meant that Burnelli would travel his path pretty much alone.

In the '20s, subsequent biplanes refined what Burnelli often referred to as his "flying wings," at the time a popular term for anything that differed from conventional airplanes, although his lifting bodies had normal wings, as well as tails, sometimes on large booms. His first monoplane, the CB-16, appeared in 1928, and it and subsequent Burnelli types had features in common—engines close together ahead of the cabin, and an airfoil fuselage that produced 50 percent lift at cruising speed.

In various partnerships, he worked for and created a number of companies to produce his experimental and prototype aircraft. The last Burnelli, CBY-3 Loadmaster, was extensively tested but, again, failed to gain any buyer. He adapted it in 1955 to carry 20 passengers and 41 sled dogs along with their equipment to the North Pole, but the expedition was canceled. However, his Loadmaster went on to fly regularly in Canada and South America as an airliner, perpetuating the genius of Vincent Burnelli until its retirement to a museum in the mid-1960s.

Burnelli is credited with 92 US and foreign patents; among them, besides the lifting body principle, a leading-edge design combined with high-lift flaps, end-plated wing-tips (now known as "winglets"), the first multi-engine aircraft with retractable landing gear, and the first American aircraft to use flat metal stressed-skin construction.