In the Pilot’s Seat


April 20, 1912. Hempstead, Long Island. Seeking to prove the potential of the aeroplane for commercial transportation, George Beatty sets a new American passenger-carrying record when he flies himself and five grown men for four miles in his Wright Flyer. One passenger sits beside Beatty and holds another in his lap; the other three lie prone on the wings. The combined weight of the six is 845 pounds. Even with the tremendous extra weight, Beatty flies at 35 mph.


George William Beatty was born in 1887 in Stevensburg, New Jersey. After graduating from high school, he moved to New York City, went into the printing business, and eventually won a job as a linotype (typesetting) operator. He also joined a gliding club and assisted in an unsuccessful attempt to build an aeroplane based on the design of European aviation pioneer Alberto Santos Dumont.

Beatty attended various flying exhibitions in the New York area during 1910 and resolved to learn to fly. In the summer of 1911 he enrolled in the Wright Flying School at Nassau Boulevard, Long Island, where his instructor was Al Welsh. Beatty’s progress was truly meteoric: his first lesson was on June 24, his first solo flight took place on July 23, and on August 5 he flew to over 3000 feet with a passenger, establishing an American two-man altitude record. The next day, he passed the test for his professional license and celebrated by flying his fiancée twelve miles to a dinner date.

At the end of that same week, Beatty set off for an international aviation meet in Chicago, where he won several prizes for carrying one and two passengers. He was the first aviator to set a new world record at the Chicago meet, when he stayed aloft with a passenger for nearly 3½ hours. He also flew a news photographer up to take the first aerial pictures of the city; a caption in the newspaper the next morning instructed readers how to position the photos before them in order to see “how Chicago looks to the aviators when they are several hundred feet in the air.”

It was in Chicago that Beatty met Eugene Ely and Bud Mars. Two weeks later, he gave Ely a ride at the Harvard-Boston meet (pictured above). Ely’s Curtiss machine was insufficiently powerful to allow for passenger rides, and it’s a measure of how cautiously Beatty operated that Mars and Ely were willing to entrust their respective wives to his care at a meet later in September. Mabel Ely and Marie Mars rode together as passengers on Beatty’s Wright Flyer at Brighton Beach, and afterward “the two women pronounced [it] the most delightful excursion ever experienced.”

Beatty met with indifferent success in aviation meets held later during the fall of 1911, failing to complete distance flights or quick starts. But his success at carrying passengers led him to open a flying school on Long Island. Possessed of a keen sense of showmanship, he served as his own best advertising. In February 1912 he landed his Wright Flyer, unannounced, in New York’s Central Park.

Beatty continued to set passenger-carrying records. In March he took up a man and three boys at once; the following month he crammed the five adult riders onto his machine. His most famous passenger was Cornelius Vanderbilt III.

Cited once for driving an automobile at an unlawful 38 mph, Beatty flew himself to the courthouse to pay the fine. The next time it happened, he tried to excuse himself by claiming that he routinely flew at 60 mph and therefore was a poor judge of speeds on the ground. On one occasion he flew above the moving train of a newlywed friend and fellow aviator, pelting the train with rice.

Shortly after Beatty was hired to star in a Pathé short film, “An Aeroplane Love Affair,” he pleaded guilty to third-degree assault in a domestic altercation that had started when his newlywed British wife found “endearments” penned by other women in his pockets. In a case of life imitating art, the couple reportedly patched up their differences a few days later when he took her aloft.

In mid-1912, following the death of Beatty’s former instructor, Al Welsh, he traveled to College Park, Maryland, to complete the army’s acceptance tests of a new Wright machine. He then sailed to London and flew in Europe, returning in order to appear at the Smithsonian’s “Langley Day” celebration in May 1913. But when a former wife turned up and brought suit against him for desertion, Beatty (who claimed they were legally divorced) went back to England and set up a flying school at Hendon. He reportedly trained a thousand pilots for various branches of the British military during World War I. His British wife left him after three years of marriage.

Just seven years after obtaining his license, Beatty was done with flying. He moved to Paris after the war ended and went into business manufacturing motorcycle engines. When he visited America in 1921, his first wife resurfaced and had yet another a warrant sworn out against him. Once more he fled to Europe.

With the collapse of the world economy in 1929, Beatty returned to the United States but couldn’t find steady employment for nearly five years. In 1934 he returned to his original vocation when he was hired by a printing company in Pennsylvania. He eventually worked his way up in the company to mechanical superintendent.

A member of the Early Birds of Aviation, Beatty was invited to a convention held in 1948 to honor Orville Wright. He remained in the employ of the printing company until his sudden death in 1955 at the age of 67.

In the Pilot’s Seat

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