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.
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.
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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Citations: Pictures from – http://www.centennialofflight.gov/essay/Explorers_Record_Setters_and_Daredevils/barnstormers/EX12.htm