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The Barnstorming Era

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.

Although some aviators like the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss had early flying exhibition teams, barnstorming did not become a formal phenomenon until the 1920s. Two main factors helped barnstorming grow in North America after the war--the number of former World War I aviators who wanted to make a living flying, and a surplus of Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" biplanes. During the war, the United States had manufactured a multitude of Jennys to train its military aviators; almost every U.S. airman had learned to fly using a Jenny. Consequently, when the federal government priced its surplus Jennys for as little as $200 during the postwar period (they originally cost approximately $5,000 each), many of the servicemen, who were already quite familiar and comfortable with the JN-4's, purchased their own planes. These two factors, coupled with the fact that there were no federal regulations governing aviation at the time, allowed barnstorming to flourish during the postwar era.

Most barnstorming shows followed a typical pattern. On any given day, a pilot, or team of pilots, would fly over a small rural town and attract the attention of the local inhabitants. The pilot or team of aviators would then land at a local farm (hence the name "barnstorming") and negotiate with the farmer for the use of one of his fields as a temporary runway from which to stage an air show and offer airplane rides to customers. After obtaining a base of operation, the pilot or group of aviators would fly back over the town, or "buzz" the village, and drop handbills offering airplane rides for a small fee, usually from one to five dollars. The advertisements would also tout the daring feats of aerial daredevilry that would be offered. Crowds would then follow the airplane, or pack of planes, to the field and purchase tickets for joy rides. The locals, most of whom had never seen an airplane up close, were thrilled with the experience. For many rural towns, the appearance of a barnstormer or an aerial troop on the horizon was akin to declaring a national holiday; almost everything in the town would shut down at the spur of the moment so that people could purchase plane rides and watch the show.

At The Dawn Of A New Age

In the twenties, wingsuit inventor Clem Sohn soared his way to fame. Then gravity caught up with him. Most discussions of wingsuits begin at Icarus and Daedalus and wend through hundreds of years of records attesting to early winged men in China, England, Greece, Spain, Turkey, and Italy, where Leonardo sketched plans for a glider, and continue into the modern era, beyond the Wright brothers and into the wild wake of 1927, when Lindbergh piloted the Spirit of St. Louis from Long Island to Le Bourget Field, in Paris, demonstrating the range and potential of new flying machines to carry passengers around the world.

It is worth pausing there, though, at the dawn of a new age in aviation, to get acquainted with Clem Sohn, a skydiver from Lansing, Michigan, a performer at the barnstorming air shows during the Great Depression, billed as "the Michigan Icarus" and "the Batman."

The most popular acts during this era were low-pull contests, games of chicken with the ground among two or more skydivers who exited an aircraft at the same time. Whoever had the balls to delay pulling his rip cord the longest was the winner. The winner, of course, sometimes had death as his prize, a morbid prospect that was a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Sohn had success as a low-pull specialist, but he soon devised a plan to guarantee he would be the shows' undisputed feature attraction.

Looking to the anatomy of flying squirrels and bats for principles to guide design, he built wings using airplane fabric and metal tubing, fastening them between his arms and the side of his jumpsuit. He sewed a tail fin between his legs. The result, weighing eight pounds, was a suit that on sight alone was enough to draw attention. Whether it would fly was another matter.

With a flair for showmanship, Sohn opened testing to the public on a winter day in 1935, in Daytona Beach, Florida. Stepping from a plane more than two miles above the palm-fringed coast, he dropped, according to eyewitnesses reports, two thousand feet in free fall and, gathering speed, spread his arms and legs.

As his wings deflected air, Sohn's downward speed slowed and he slanted across the sky. A report in Time noted how he bent his knees and somersaulted, banked left and right, leveled off, dove, and pulled up again. At six thousand feet he closed his wings and pulled his rip cord. Under parachute, he landed three miles from his starting point. According to Time, his flight had lasted seventy-five seconds, screaming through the sky at 130 miles per hour. Sohn and his wingsuit landed on the front page of newspapers across the country. Newsreel pictures of his flight sold for $300, a nice sum during the Depression. Suddenly in demand, Sohn earned what Time termed "a tidy living." Chevrolet sponsored him, its name stenciled on the underside of his wings. Newspaper reporters tailed him, chronicling his stunts. Sohn explained to them that he had grander ambitions: he envisioned a time when anyone would be able to don a wingsuit and take flight; when the military would use wings to drop paratroopers behind enemy lines; and finally a day when he would stall and land his wings without a parachute.

Imitators cropped up in Sohn's wake wherever he went. Without design standards or adequate training, many of these copycat wingmen wound up dead. Sohn suffered close calls, too. At a demonstration during the opening of London's Gatwick Airport in 1936, he spun out of control, and although he activated his reserve a couple hundred feet off the deck, Sohn struck a taxi on landing, breaking his arm and injuring his shoulder.

A year later, healed and at the height of his popularity, he arrived at the Paris Air Show, at an airfield in Vincennes, a Paris suburb northeast of the 12th arrondissement. The day was April 25, 1937, and the newsreels said two hundred thousand spectators had gathered under clear skies. Sohn was twenty-six. With his sandy hair, white jumpsuit, and leather helmet and goggles, he cut the figure of the dashing aviator as he slipped coolly into the open cockpit of a single-engine Farman. Before doing so, it was reported that he remarked, "I feel as safe as you would in your grandmother's kitchen." The crowd roared its approval as the plane sprinted along the airstrip and into the sky.

Sohn stepped from the cockpit at ten thousand feet and pirouetted into the air. A canister of chemicals attached to his leg emitted smoke, allowing those on the ground to trace his movements. He banked, somersaulted, and dove, gliding through the sky like a swallow feeding on flies, the newspapers said. They reported that his flight lasted nearly two minutes. At one thousand feet, Sohn drew in his wings and pulled his parachute's rip cord, but there was a problem and it did not deploy. Cutting away, Sohn reached for his reserve and pulled the cord. This time the chute and lines emerged but got snared in his wings. As his parachute flapped limply above, moans went up from the crowd and people turned away, the papers said, as Sohn thudded into a field. The crowd sprinted toward his broken body. Later, a witness told a reporter: "When I realized Clem Sohn was doomed, I felt worse than ever during the World War . . . The hush coming over the crowd was the most impressive thing I have ever seen.... And when Clem Sohn hit the ground, it sounded like an explosion."

Sohn's death made newspapers around the world. Footage of his fatal plunge featured in newsreels. Yet grimmer developments soon seized headlines. The day after Sohn's death, the Luftwaffe terrorized civilians in Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Before the decade's end, the Nazis would invade Poland, pounding cities and towns from the air with superior bombers. The war altered aviation irrevocably. The world's top aviators-including airshow stuntmen-were drawn into the conflict as instructors, pilots, engineers, and advisers. When the fighting ended, some resumed working in air shows, but it was soon obvious that their heyday had passed. The culture surrounding flight changed from a hell-for-leather approach to a precision pursuit. The new icons were jet pilots and astronauts, men selected for their superior abilities from among the most elite ranks of aviation. In this environment, amateur wingsuit pilots, with their crude contraptions, were relics, their main appeal the lurid spectacle of a potential fatality, a fact emphasized by those performing under names like Death Dodgers and Death's Angels.

Barnstormers performed a wide range of stunts. Although many of them handled all their own tricks, others became specialists, either stunt pilots or aerialists. Stunt pilots performed daring spins and dives with their planes, including the well-known loop-the-loop and barrel roll maneuvers. Aerialists, on the other hand, performed such feats as wing walking, soaring through the air with winged costumes, stunt parachuting, and midair plane transfers.

Essentially barnstormers, particularly the aerialists, performed just about any feat people could dream up; there seemed to be no limit to what they could accomplish. While some played tennis, practiced target shooting, or even danced on the wings of planes, others such as Eddie Angel did their own unique stunts. Angel's specialty was the "Dive of Death," a nighttime jump from a plane that barnstorming historian Don Dwiggins describes as "a free-fall" from 5,000 feet, while holding a pair of big flashlights."

Although many barnstormers worked on their own, or in very small teams, there were several that put together large "flying circuses" with several planes and stunt people. These types of acts had their own promoters who would book the show into a town ahead of time. They were the largest and most organized of all of the barnstorming acts.

Some of the best-known flying circuses included those run by Ivan Gates (an old-time promoter of early exhibition fliers), Jimmy Angel (Eddie Angel's brother), Jimmy and Jessie Woods (a husband and wife team from Kansas), and Douglas Davis (the future winner of the 1934 Bendix Race).

The Ivan Gates Flying Circus was perhaps the most traveled of all of the major barnstorming acts. It toured almost every state in the union and traveled quite extensively internationally. Gates and his colleagues were famous not only for their stunts but also for having started the one-dollar-joy ride. This ride was so popular that in a single day, Bill Brooks, one of Gates' pilots, took 980 passengers up for rides during a show in Steubenville, Ohio.

Some of the greatest stunt fliers of the day worked for Gates. As historian Don Dwiggins has noted, many scholars believe that "the Gates Flying Circus turned out more famed pilots than the Army and Navy put together" during the barnstorming era.

One of Gates' best-known fliers was Clyde "Upside-Down" Pangborn. "Pang" was part owner of the Gates circus and its chief pilot and operating manager. As his nickname suggests, he specialized in flying upside down. Another key stunt he performed was to change planes in midair; he held the world record for the feat. In 1924, he also performed a newsworthy deed when he rescued Rosalie Gordon, a stuntwoman, in midair when her parachute got tangled in his plane's landing gear. During its heyday from 1922 to 1928, the Gates Flying Circus took an estimated one million passengers up for joy rides without inflicting any serious injuries on them.

Barnstorming appealed to many pilots as a way to make a living. Several famous aviators worked as stunt pilots or aerialists at one time or another. Charles Lindbergh, for example, got his start barnstorming. Besides learning to fly on the barnstorming circuit, Lindbergh also started to wing walk, parachute, and work on engines.

Some other well-known daredevils included Roscoe Turner (a famous speed racer), Pancho Barnes, (a well-known speed queen of the "Golden Era of Airplane Racing"), Wiley Post, (the holder of two trans-global speed records), and several Hollywood stuntmen and stunt pilots, among many others.

Although many people view barnstorming as a romantic period in aviation, others debate that interpretation. On one hand, some barnstormers did quite well both financially and socially. Several towns across the nation paid them quite handsomely for their shows and held parties and dances in their honor. Some pilots and aerialists also obtained free room and board when they traveled. Nevertheless, the nomadic existence of barnstorming could also cause serious problems.

Sometimes it was difficult for pilots to find fuel or the right parts for their planes. Other times, they could go several days without attracting a large enough crowd to make a profit. And if those factors were not problematic enough, as Jessie Woods of the Flying Aces Air Circus declared: "Don't let them kid you--it wasn't romantic. I slept on the bottom wing of an airplane. I learned how to sleep there without falling off. I've gone through as much as three days without sleep. There's nothing romantic about that."

Barnstorming thrived in North American during the first half of the 1920s, but by 1927, new safety regulations forced the demise of the popular entertainment. The federal government--spurred by a perceived need to protect the public after several aircraft accidents, and responding to local pilots who were upset that barnstormers were stealing their customers--enacted several laws that began to regulate the fledgling civil aviation business. Such laws made it nearly impossible for barnstormers to keep their already fragile Jennys up to specifications (let alone in the air), and outlawed several forms of aerial stunts, at least at a low enough altitude where crowds could easily view them.

When these factors were coupled with the fact that the military stopped selling Jennys in the late 1920s, barnstormers found it too difficult to continue to make a living stunting and they abandoned their art. Although some modern pilots such as the famous airmen Joseph Kittinger still continued to put on barnstorming exhibitions, nothing can compare to the magnitude of that period in the 1920s, when itinerant aerial shows sprung up throughout North America day after day and made audiences gasp with excitement.

Matt Higgins. The Last Flight of the Michigan Icarus. Maxim [Print + Kindle] . August 1, 2014.


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