The History of Barnstorming

Anyone who has read “Illusions” and “A Gift of Wings” by Richard Bach cannot but be fascinated by the world of the Barnstormer in the 1920s. The History of Barnstorming is a history of human courage and risk taking. While there have always been traveling pilots with their light airplanes, barnstorming saw its peak in popularity in the 1920’s when the American government found itself with a surplus of aircraft especially the Curtiss JN-4 Biplane “Jenny”. Not having any use for them these were sold off to civilians mostly former aviators and old timers.

The sudden availability of light planes that could operate from fields changed the entertainment industry. Initially pilots would travel through the villages offering joy rides to the people but then this died down as ordinary flight lost its charm. It was then that pilots started doing the craziest things in the air to attract an audience. These ranged from stunts involving the planes to stunts involving the pilots and the passengers themselves.

Ticket From The History Of Barnstorming

Ticket From The History Of Barnstorming

Stunt pilots performed dangerous spins and maneuvers that exposed the public to aerobatics which the aviator takes for granted. The public saw loops and the barrel roll, stall turns and wing overs while aerialists performed daredevil stunts like wing walking, stunt parachuting, switching planes in mid air. Many performed their own unique stunts.


Many stunt pilots became household names and intimately associated with the history of barnstorming. Mock aerial combat was the staple event and was hugely popular. Tail chases, wing walking, mid air transfers from one plane to another, sky diving and many other stunts kept the crowds coming.

A typical barnstormer (or a group of barnstormers) would travel across to a village, borrow a field from a farmer for the day and advertise their presence in the town by flying several low passes over it – roaring over the main street at full throttle. The appearance of the barnstormers was akin to a national holiday. Entire towns were shut down and people would flock to the fields purchasing tickets for the show and plane rides. Locals, most of them never having seen planes before, would be thrilled by the experience. In several towns parties would be organized on such occasions in the honor of the barnstormers.

Some of the most famous flying circuses were “The Five Blackbirds” (an all African American flying group), “The Flying Aces Air Circus”, “The 13 Black Cats”, “Mabel Cody’s Flying Circus” and the “Gates Flying Circus” owned by Ivan Gates.

Image From The History Of Barnstorming

Image From The History Of Barnstorming

The “Gates Flying Circus” was one of the most popular flying groups having been known to travel across every state in the union and also for having started the “one dollar joy ride”, During the years 1922 to 1928 the “Gates flying group” was known to have flown around 1 million passengers. In fact Bill Brooks, a pilot in the group was known to have flown 980 passengers in one day. In spite of all the risks and stunts, the history of barnstorming shows a fairly good safety record and serious accidents were few and far between.


Nevertheless, barnstorming saw its decline when the federal government placed new restrictions on air space. These put an end to stunts at low level. Specifications on the conditions and maintenance of the already fragile and decaying planes coupled with the fact that the military stopped the sale of the Jenny gave a final blow to barnstorming. An era had passed and aviation would never be the same again.

“…the Gates Flying Circus turned out more famed pilots than the Army and Navy put together”, Historian Don Dwiggins

To learn more you should get Race with the Wind: How Air Racing Advanced Aviation a great read!

Or, if you prefer to watch a DVD, then get Barnstorming which will keep you on the edge of your seat!

Until next time keep your wings straight and level Hersch!


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6 thoughts on “The History of Barnstorming

  1. I am interested in information on a Lee Robert Cain (1873-1958) who was a traveling manager for the Gates Flying Circus. He also was involved in photography and had his own studio later in Louisiana. I’ve wondered if he was the photographer for some of the photos of the GFC. He married my husband’s great aunt and we have inherited some of his photography equipment and a couple of items related to the GFC including a photo of a bunch of men (including Cain) with a plain. There is no date nor identification on the photo. We also have a business card for GFC with Cain listed as the traveling manager. Would be interested in contact by anyone knowledgeable or interested.

    • Patti:

      Yes, they were quite famous in the day. They were the most exciting daredevils of their day. Stunt pilots and aerialists–or “barnstormers” as they became known–performed almost any trick or feat with an airplane that people could imagine. During the 1920s, barnstorming became one of the most popular forms of entertainment. It was also the first major form of civil aviation in the history of flight. For many pilots and stunt people, barnstorming provided an exciting and invigorating way to make a living, not to mention a challenging outlet for their creativity and showmanship.

      You can find more information here at the Centennial Of Flight U.S. Government website.

      • Michael, My uncle was a pilot in the Gates Air Circus and flew with Clyde Pangburn and other. famous Barnstormer pilots. I am named after my uncle Capt. Ive McKinney I have a scrapbook about all the people in the Gates Air Circus and would like to hear from you. If you want to get a great book about the Gates Air Circus. Get Chewing Gum Bailingwire and Guts the story about the Gates Air Circus by Bill Rhode. Ive McKinney former USAF Korea

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