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.
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.
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