Though an accomplished flight trainer, businessman and commercial jet pilot, Beverly E. “Bevo” Howard is best remembered as the greatest aerobatic stuntman of his time. Charlestonians who grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s fondly recall memories of Bevo flying upside down over Charleston Harbor, snatching ribbons from kids standing out on the old Fort Sumter Hotel dock. In his 38-year career, Bevo flew in more than 1,500 shows before 30 million people.
Born in Bath, N.C., in 1914, Bevo grew up and began flight lessons as a teen in Augusta, Ga., paying for them with money he made making parachute jumps and selling tickets at airshows. He earned his pilot’s license in 1930 at age 16. With money he made from his paper route, he purchased a 1927 WACO 10 airplane with which he began to perform “outside loops,” an aerobatic maneuver where a plane dives forward in a circle with the cockpit and pilot’s head outside the loop’s perimeter, a feat the WACO was never built to do.
Bevo enrolled in junior college in 1932, but withdrew in less than a year, taking a job as a “line boy” making $10 an hour with Hawthorne Aviation in Charleston. Within four years, he purchased and became president of the financially struggling company and at 21 began supporting the business with money he made as the youngest commercial pilot in America, flying for both Delta and Eastern.
Friends who spoke at his induction into the International Council of Air Shows Foundation in 1996 remembered Bevo as a soft-spoken guy, thin, with deep-set blue eyes and prematurely gray hair. While most pilots of the day sported leather jackets, goggles and long scarves, Bevo brought a professional image to the aviation field by wearing a business suit. Upon boarding, he would remove his jacket and carefully stow it in the baggage compartment to protect it from the dirt and oil that were a part of flying. He won the National Lightplane Aerobatic Championship three years running, in 1939, 1940 and 1941.
In 1941, Bevo received a federal contract to operate a flight school for the U.S. Army Air Corps (later the Air Force), which he ran through the end of World War II. Because he was so valuable as a trainer, the Army refused to allow him to fly missions himself, a situation for which he expressed misgivings. It’s been estimated that he trained more than 4,000 American pilots and 2,000 French. He asserted that light aircraft could be used effectively to scout for and direct artillery, as well as perform other missions close to the front lines, tactics that were used successfully throughout WWII.
After the war, Bevo continued training Air Force and foreign pilots. Hawthorne expanded throughout the Southeast, maintaining its headquarters in Charleston and training more than 35,000 military and civil pilots. Bevo continued to enjoy stunt flying and won the International Aerobatic Championship three times, 1946, 1947 and 1949, and took second place in 1948 and 1950. He taught his students the four axioms of successful stunt flying: (1) safety and concentration, (2) execution and placement of maneuvers, (3) continuity and planning, and (4) judgment and showmanship. He stressed to "always keep an 'out' in your hip pocket" and plan for emergencies. The inverted ribbon pickup he performed so often over Charleston Harbor became his signature trick.
Protégé Bob Russell later recalled the accident that claimed Bevo’s life at a charity airshow in Greenville, N.C., on Oct. 17, 1971: “As I walked back toward the runway, sick inside, I remembered Bevo’s terrible fear of growing old, and wondered if the Lord hadn’t done the best thing by him. After all, he died doing what he most loved to do… I knew that I would never forget Bevo as long as I lived, and I would always stand in awe of his character and achievement.”
Mechanics at Hawthorne Aviation rebuilt the heavily damaged red and white checkered biplane in which Bevo performed his last stunt and sent it to the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, where it remains on display, a testament to his enthusiasm for the airshow industry.