Events featuring the exhibition of aircraft and the demonstration of aviation skills.
The first airplanes had more value as curiosity pieces than as means of transportation. For ten years after the Wright brothers’ flight of 1903, aviation was kept alive by devotees who toured the country while performing at circuses, fairs, and anywhere else people would pay to see them. These daredevils performed aerobatic feats, walked on airplane wings, made parachute jumps, and took paying customers for joyrides. Many of these pioneer pilots died in pursuit of their aerial adventures, but they lent an air of romance and danger to the new field of aviation.
World War I-era pilots often had little or no training, flying instead by instinct and sheer courage. During the war, these daring pilots flew into combat zones with courage and determination.
After World War I, the U.S. government offered thousands of surplus airplanes, most of them Curtiss Jennys, for sale at bargain prices. Although these airplanes were stronger than those that had been built before the war, they were not always safe. Made mostly of wood and cloth, they also lacked satisfactory navigational equipment. However, many former military pilots bought these airplanes and used them for an exciting and dangerous type of flying called barnstorming.
Barnstormers toured the United States in the 1920’s and put on daring air shows at county fairs and other events. Audiences were thrilled to watch. The pilots flew the airplanes in wild aerobatics and daring stunts. Performers, called wing-walkers, stepped from wingtip to wingtip in midair or leaped from the wing of one flying airplane to another. There were many accidents, some fatal.
Highly skilled World War II pilots were used to faster, more technically advanced airplanes than those of World War I. Although World War I dogfights had spurred aviators to postwar displays of courage and craziness with aerobatics, barnstorming, and cow-pasture thrill shows, post-World War II pilots had more venues in which to display their skills, including air races, air shows, carnivals of the sky, and precision flying. The air shows of the 1940’s and 1950’s were also showcases for new and sometimes customized aircraft. Parachuting and mock dogfights remained popular parts of air show activities.
The first recorded aerial stunt was performed in 1913 by French aviator Adolphe Pégoud. Pégoud flew his Blériot monoplane upward in an ascending arc until he was flying upside-down and then dove to close the circle. He had, unwittingly, invented the loop. When American daredevil Lincoln Beachley heard of Pégoud’s stunt, he jumped into his Curtiss biplane and completed three loops. In a final gesture of victory, he landed his airplane inside San Francisco, California’s immense Machinery Palace.
In 1915, Ruth Law was the first woman to loop-the-loop. She made her first exhibition of this stunt in Daytona Beach, Florida. After World War I, Law and her husband and business manager, Charles Oliver, formed Ruth Law’s Flying Circus. The circus toured Asia performing aerobatic exhibitions. Law was famous for racing her airplane against cars on a racetrack and for making car-to-plane transfers in which a stuntperson would leap off the car and grab a rope ladder hanging from the moving airplane. This stunt was dangerous, full of risks and excitement. The audiences at the air shows responded in amazement. In another dangerous trick, Law would fly with a copilot, climb out of the open cockpit, and stand on the wing while the copilot looped-the-loop as many as three times. This stunt terrified and thrilled audiences.
On October 1, 1910, Blanche Stuart Scott made her public debut as part of the Curtiss Exhibition Team at an air meet in Chicago, Illinois. She was given the nickname “Tomboy of the Air” for performing daring stunts, such as flying upside-down and under low bridges. In her most famous stunt, the Death Dive, Scott would dramatically climb to a height of approximately 4,000 feet, level the airplane for a moment, and then nose-dive. Audiences screamed and waited breathlessly, while the airplane plunged straight down to a level of 200 feet above the ground before snapping out of the dive and landing to thunderous applause.
When highly skilled military pilots returned to the United States after World War I, they found hundreds of surplus airplanes, but few available flying jobs. Not wanting to give up flying, many of them turned to exhibitions, air shows, crop dusting, fire spotting, air racing, or any aerial activity that would attract a crowd.
Barnstorming—so named because some ex-war pilots and flying pioneers actually flew through barns, in one door and out the other—became an American craze. These skilled aviators were able to display at home the skills they had acquired flying over hostile German terrain, now winning income and applause. Barnstormers took the loops and stunts of earlier pilots and added even riskier tricks. Some of the tricks required more than one person aloft. One pilot would fly the airplane, while the other would walk on its wings or hang beneath the airplane, holding on to a rope by the teeth. Pilots captivated crowds when they crawled from the wing of one airplane to another in midflight. These daredevils of the air, in their Jenny aircraft, continuously worked to develop newer and more daring exploits.
Many women also found post-World War I opportunities in barnstorming. After years of struggling to be recognized as serious pilots, they discovered a chance to become involved in flying, even if in a more theatrical and unusually dangerous way. Many women entering aviation through the air show or barnstorming circuit were seen as renegades and breakers of tradition. Women found this entry into aviation was not only a chance to earn money but also a possible way to prove themselves as pilots. Many began as wing-walkers or parachutists, working their way up to the airplane controls. In October, 1928, Florence “Pancho” Barnes opened Pancho Barnes’ Mystery Circus of the Air, a stunt barnstorming troupe.
In 1923, Emerson Lockhart, an American aviator, bought a Jenny for $175. Determined to create the best aerial thrill show, he made a sign that said simply, “Aero Thrill Show, A Stupendous Exhibition of Flying Skill.” His airplane attracted the curious but it was the sign that hooked them. Lockhart eventually got permission to use a local farmer’s pasture alongside the highway. He parked the airplane and, as expected, began to draw a large crowd. It was estimated that there were about two hundred people along the highway when he took off. He dazzled his audience doing loops and buzzed the parked cars many times. His grand finale was a dive from 3,000 feet, pulling out about 100 feet above the pasture, after which Lockhart did a sharp bank, a roll, and brought the airplane down in the pasture.
Lockhart finally realized his dream when he arrived in California ready to be an air-show star. After his arrival, he found out that California was loaded with air shows but overloaded with barnstormers. He adjusted his act into actual aerial stunt flying and joined a show-business-oriented flying team. He was paid the then-generous sum of twenty-five dollars per week.
The burgeoning motion-picture industry was a magnet for many former military pilots, recreating the glorious days of battle and providing new career opportunities. Even pilots who had neither seen combat nor been in the military took to the air in the numerous postwar films then being made in Hollywood. A special group of cinematic war aces was created, perhaps the best-known of whom was Art Scholl.
When Scholl performed in his Pennzoil Chipmunk, a small aircraft that he had designed himself, he became an accomplished aerobatic pilot who represented the United States in competitions around the world. He became highly sought after in the choreography of aerial stunts for film productions and, later, television commercials.
Scholl did not start out to be a stunt pilot. After graduating from high school in Brown Deer, Wisconsin, he moved to California to enroll as a student of engineering at the Northrop Institute. He later left Northrop and enrolled at Mount San Antonio College, from which he earned his degree in aeronautics.
With performing pilots across the United States, there became a need for public competition and a platform for pilots to display their skills, abilities, and showmanship. Cross-country racing became the event that fired the imagination of the public and fueled the imagination of pilots.
The 1929 Women’s Air Derby was a cross-country race that included such high-profile pilots as Amelia Earhart, Ruth Elder, and Bobbi Trout. The first race did more than display women’s ability to compete as pilots, it allowed women to realize that they were not alone in their dreams of careers and accomplishments as pilots.
Marvel Crosson was a veteran commercial pilot from Alaska; she and her brother, Joe Crosson, had taught themselves to fly after piecing together an airplane using surplus parts from World War I airplanes. Favored to win the 1929 Women’s Air Derby, Marvel experienced engine trouble over the mountains near the Gila River in Arizona. She bailed out too low for her parachute to open properly and was killed, thus becoming the first casualty of the Women’s Air Derby. The winner of the flight, Louise Thaden, dedicated her Symbol of Flight trophy to Crosson and sent it to Crosson’s mother. Crosson’s death created a rash of editorials against women air racers and even against women fliers, but Women’s Air Derby continued until 1976.
Pilots of both genders thrived in their competitive race to professional recognition and eventually competed against each other. It was not long before air-show performers, racers, and record setters were recognized for their skills regardless of their gender.
Modern air races and air shows, organized by branches of the military or by independent event sponsors, continue to be held throughout the year across the United States. These events usually incorporate past, present, and future aircraft and continue to feature exciting exhibitions of pilots’ flying skills.
Bruno, Harry. Wings over America: The Inside Story of American Aviation. New York: Robert McBride, 1942. A classic work detailing the early history of aviation and air shows in America. Solberg, Carl. Conquest of the Skies: A History of Commercial Aviation in America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979. A comprehensive history of U.S. commercial aviation featuring illustrations, a bibliography, and an index. Yount, Lisa. Women Aviators. New York: Facts on File, 1995. A collection of profiles of famous women in aviation history, including those who flew in the pioneering Women’s Air Derby.
Women and flight