Originally a theater term, “barnstorming” refers to pilots and aerial performers who traveled between small, rural U.S. towns putting on air shows and selling plane rides.
In the early part of the twentieth century, most people had only heard of airplanes. World War I created the first demand for planes and pilots, and although more than nine thousand men trained to fly, fewer than eight hundred of them actually saw combat. When the war ended in 1918, surplus planes, mostly Curtiss JN-4D biplanes, also known as Jennys, were both available and affordable.
During the postwar years, the civil aviation industry was in its infancy, and a pilot’s license was little more than an honorary certificate. Anyone who wanted to fly an airplane could do so. Veteran aviators purchased these surplus planes and became the first barnstormers, itinerant pilots who provided many rural Americans with their first experience of flight. Barnstormers thrived in the open farmlands of the American Midwest, where a typical barnstorming season lasted from May to October. Weekends were ideal times to sell rides, and some barnstormers planned their routes to coincide with county fairs or local holiday celebrations.
Barnstorming pilots circled a town a few times to advertise their presence before landing in a nearby field and waiting for the customers to find them. On average, five minutes of flying time cost fifty cents in gas and earned the pilot five dollars. A small percentage of that sum went to the farmer who owned the field, and the rest paid for the pilot’s gasoline, maintenance, and expenses. The average barnstormer made between thirty and one hundred dollars per week.
As the novelty of air flight began to wear off, barnstorming pilots found they needed to do more than give rides, and stunt-flying became part of the performance. One of the most common airborne stunts was the inside loop, in which the pilot flies upward then arches back over, while centrifugal force holds the pilot in the seat. More unusual was the outside loop, in which centrifugal force worked against the pilot. Other stunts included rolls, stalls, and reverses.
As barnstormers continued to expand their acts by adding additional performers, the air circus was born. Exhibition jumpers demonstrated parachutes, which were first deployed by a cable attached to the plane’s wing. The invention of the ripcord allowed jumpers to control the length of their free fall, making the plunge appear even more dangerous.
Wing-walkers, many of whom were women, stepped out of the cockpit and into specially constructed harnesses that allowed them to defy gravity while the pilot performed a series of aerial maneuvers. Famed aviator Charles A. Lindbergh got his start traveling with a barnstormer, working for free and paying his own expenses while performing as both a parachutist and a wing-walker.
Stunts became more dangerous as spectators grew used to the sight of airplanes. The Locklear Flying Circus advertised stuntmen who would change planes in midair, and the fee per performance grew to three thousand dollars. Daredevils jumped from plane to plane, from planes to trains, climbed ladders from automobiles, motorboats, motorcycles, and horses. Repairs, part changes, and refueling operations were all performed in midair. Although parachuting had been an early part of barnstorming performances, air shows began advertising that their pilots and stuntmen performed without parachutes.
Publicity was everything. The growing motion picture industry fueled the fire, as cameras could be attached to spinning airplanes. One pilot, Leslie Miller, arranged a demonstration in which he would “loop” a Florida bridge, agreeing beforehand to fail on his initial attempt, so that on the next day, the crowd would swell in the expectation of seeing him crash.
The Federal Air Commerce Act of 1926 marked the beginning of the end for the barnstormers. Under these new regulations, pilots had to be both licensed and medically approved for flying, air schools had to be certified, and planes had to be inspected for airworthiness and then registered and marked. Stunt flying, especially near populated areas, was severely restricted.
Although enforcement was lax, most pilots balked at the restrictions. Those who continued to fly either confined their flying to less populous areas or moved to Mexico, where the regulations held no sway. Many small-town airports were established by retired barnstormers who had settled down to give flying lessons. The air circuses gradually faded away as well. Denied their death-defying stunts, most barnstormers had gone out of business by 1930.
Caidin, Martin. Barnstorming: The Great Years of Stunt Flying. New York: Van Rees Press, 1965. An anecdote-driven account of barnstormers, stunt pilots, and the early days of aviation. Collar, Charles S. Barnstorming to Air Safety. Miami, Fla.: Lysmata, 1998. A history of the early days of American aviation, with an emphasis on the evolution of safety regulations. Tessendorf, K. C. Barnstormers and Daredevils. New York: Atheneum, 1988. A history of barnstorming and stunt flying throughout the 1920’s, filled with photographs and anecdotes about early aviators and their adventures. Van Stynweek, Elizabeth. Air Shows: From Barnstormers to Blue Angels. New York: Franklin Watts, 1999. A youth-oriented history focusing on the early days of air shows and aerial stunts.
Charles A. Lindbergh
Women and flight
World War I