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Barnstorming

Article #210 • Written by Marisa Brook

A "Jenny" biplane over Ontario, Canada, c. 1918
A "Jenny" biplane over Ontario, Canada, c. 1918

Today, the term 'flying circus' most often brings to mind dead parrots, cheese shops, and the Knights Who Say 'Ni'. Before the Python guys came along, however, there was a different sort of flying circus - quite a literal one - in the U.S. and Canada in the early days of aviation.

After the First World War, the American government found itself with a large surplus of Curtiss JN-4 biplanes (known as 'Jennys'). Flying was not yet regulated by laws and licenses, and so the planes were simply sold to anyone who wanted them. The Jennys were known to go for as little as $200, which, although a lot more money in those days, was a fraction of the original $5,000 production cost. Many of the buyers were former pilots in the war who wanted to keep flying, but quite a few of the others who purchased planes had never actually flown before. In fact, this would be the first major form of civil aviation.

Quickly, this new influx of planes among civilians lent itself to entertainment. Airspace was open to any plane at this stage, and so at first pilots simply made money by going from town to town and offering ten-minute rides to the locals. This worked for a while, until planes became widespread enough for basic flight to become largely unremarkable. At this point, people began to do flashier things in the air - namely, all sorts of creative and crazy stunts right on top of the wings of the planes.

It is not clear how the term 'barnstorming' emerged. One theory holds that it was named for earlier groups of travelling actors who had put on plays in barns. Another, more plausible, argues that it was based on the usual way in which the shows were announced to the local townspeople. Pilots would fly over a town to make themselves noticed, and then land at a nearby farm and ask the farmer for the temporary use of the fields as a runway. Then, often the planes were met by rural towns with tremendous excitement in anticipation of the show.

The phenomenon was a team effort throughout; the barnstormers consisted of both pilots and stuntpeople. They followed the example of brief flying exhibitions put on by the Wright brothers and Glen Curtiss in the first decade of the 20th century, but took it much further. Aerialists performed 'wing-walking', sometimes in costume. They transferred planes in mid-air, often via a small, secured post in the centre of the wing.

And it got more elaborate than that. Barnstormer Al Wilson shot golf balls. Mabel Cody danced. Gladys Ingle shot arrows at a target (although didn't necessarily hit it). Ivan Unger and Gladys Roy played tennis - complete with a tiny net stretched across the wing directly above the cockpit. Jack Shack hung from a trapeze - by his teeth. Eddie Angel did what was effectively a free-fall, for thousands of feet, holding a pair of flashlights.

As in most modern airshows, sometimes the impressive aspect of the stunts came from the pilots. Occasionally, for example, objects were passed from a person on the ground to one hanging from a plane - undoubtedly a delicate maneuver. Other times it was the sheer endurance displayed that was the impressive aspect of the show; Pilot "Speed" Holman once flew 1,093 consecutive loops.

One notable aspect of barnstorming was that, in spite of its time, a substantial number of women and African-Americans took part. This was partially due to the tendency for larger groups (including some families) to work together for a barnstorming show. These performances, which were eventually labelled 'flying circuses', usually involved several planes and many stuntpeople. They were better-organized than the smaller teams, and even notified towns ahead of time to schedule their shows. Probably the most well-travelled was the Ivan Gates Flying Circus, which went to every state that existed at the time, as well as to several international locations.

Often barnstorming was quite lucrative, in part because it still offered rides to civilians. It was notable also for its role in training pilots; historian Don Dwiggins points out the widespread belief that, during the height of barnstorming's popularity, the Gates Flying Circus trained more than the Army and Navy put together. The notorious Charles Lindbergh was among the pilots who started out in barnstorming.

A wingwalker
A wingwalker

Barnstorming had its problems, though. For one thing, it was difficult in the early days of flight to be on such long trips. Pilots risked running out of fuel or spare parts, and it was exhausting for everyone involved. The stuntpeople sometimes even had to sleep on the wing of the plane.

Obviously, it was also a dangerous pursuit. As barnstorming's popularity grew, the performances became increasingly elaborate and risky. In 1924, stuntperson Rosalie Gordon's parachute was tangled in the landing gear of a plane; she was rescued by fellow barnstormer Clyde "Upside-Down" Pangborn from the Gates Flying Circus. Most barnstorming accidents, however, ended less happily. Although it is unclear just how many barnstormers were killed or injured while performing, the negative publicity started to dampen the huge appeal that barnstorming had had.

It might still have continued for a while, however, if it hadn't been for two things the American government did in the later half of the decade. First, it stopped selling Jennys to the public; the existing ones were in decay, and there was no other inexpensive source of aircraft that could keep barnstorming as common as it had been. Second, in 1927 major new restrictions on the uses of aircraft and airspace were put into effect. While they didn't make barnstorming per se illegal, so many of the tricks were outlawed that barnstorming lost nearly all of its appeal.

After this, the phenomenon died out almost overnight. A few barnstormers continued performing through the century - perhaps most notably extreme free-faller Joseph Kittinger - but barnstorming clearly could never see the popularity it once had. It was featured in a couple of films and one 1982 Atari video game, but little else. These days, some people use the term 'barnstorming' as a synonym for mere 'stunt flying', and the only popular flying circus afterwards was Monty Python's, which kept its foot on the ground (if only in a literal sense). But barnstorming certainly has its place in history, and in entertainment. Among other things, it serves as a stark reminder that extreme sports were around long before the 1980s and 90s.

Article written by Marisa Brook, published on 14 August 2006. Marisa lives in Toronto, Canada. She collects postcards, fridge magnets, lapel pins, interesting rocks, and linguistics degrees.

Article design by Alan Bellows. Edited by Alan Bellows.
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31 Comments
Xiphos
Posted 14 August 2006 at 01:01 pm

Sleeping on the wing of a plane? How did airline companies miss all that passenger space? It'd be just like riding in a convertable . . . a convertable moving at high speed thousands of feet in the air . . .


Melon Head
Posted 14 August 2006 at 02:13 pm

Not like today with restrictions on carry-on luggage........................eh?


Sen.McCarthy
Posted 14 August 2006 at 03:31 pm

Interesting article...but last time a checked, the term "flying circus" is used when a group of fighter planes lures enemy fighters out to dogfight, most notably Baron von Richtoven's (spelling?) flying circus in WWI. It was also common in WWII I believe.


NuTT98
Posted 14 August 2006 at 03:52 pm

That's ridiculous. No machine heavier than air will ever fly. Damned early century photochoppers.


adastra
Posted 14 August 2006 at 04:24 pm

I thought "Barnstorming" came from the stunt of crashing a Jenny into a barn. If done right, it wasn't too dangerous for the pilot althought it was always fatal for the plane.


adastra
Posted 14 August 2006 at 04:51 pm

A friend who just watched me type in my comment expressed skepticism. "How do you intentionally fly a plane into a barn in a "right" way?" I think that's what he said; he was laughing pretty hard at the time.
Here' how you do it: You open the barn doors at one end wide enough to comfortably accomodate the fuselage, but not the wings, of the plane. You open the doors on the other end as wide as they will go. Then you aim the plane at the smaller opening. That removes the wings, the impact slows the fuselage, and it slides out of the other end of the barn decelerating rapidly, but not too rapidly.
This technique has also been used by small planes in emergency landings in rough country with fuel on board. Try to put it down between two trees that will shed the volatile wings.
And then there's the drunken Cessna pilot, who decided on the way back from Aspen to Denver, that he could fly his plane through a short, mountain hwy tunnel. He made an excellent approach to the tunnel mouth; you could see he was centered because you could see the marks on the concrete. about six inches on each side. The wings stayed there but the fuselage slid right through the tunnel and out the other side, containing a dazed but unhurt pilot.


frenchsnake
Posted 14 August 2006 at 08:42 pm

What are all the possible meanings of "flying circus", anyway? I have a feeling it applies to a lot more things than those mentioned in this article, but I can't think of what.


KeithLDick
Posted 14 August 2006 at 09:30 pm

Can't even imagine what it was like back then to be a *DareDevil*... Those guys had some Nerves for sure...


Drakvil
Posted 14 August 2006 at 10:02 pm

Extremely DI, Marisa, good job!

If only a plane could be had for $200 nowadays and you could fly without a license... I could cut down on that 1.5 hour commute to work.


Misfit7707
Posted 14 August 2006 at 11:21 pm

O holy crap, I can only imagine the women's clothing on those stuntplanes. What kind of clothing did they wear? Maybe it's just my imagination, but in the 20's, were women still normally expected to wear dresses? Big poofy ones? Or had the change to skirts already come forth?

Also, I'm guessing there HAD to be some kind of harness, right?

And what kinds of props did they use? I know the article mentioned some of them, but I'm sure there had to have been some props that would have been in a good deal of danger of falling off or being blown away.

One more thing and then I'm gone. How exactly did the audience see the whole thing? Did they just look through their binoculars at planes far away? Did the plane pass close by, giving the audience maybe all of two seconds of each act? Or maybe there were two planes, the one in front with seats on the tops of the wings for the audience, and the one in back with the performer? (wow, I can only imagine how this sort of idea would be percieved in today's world. Although...)


Misfit7707
Posted 14 August 2006 at 11:24 pm

By the way, amazing article, Señora Brooks!


Misfit7707
Posted 14 August 2006 at 11:24 pm

AHH Brook


ugarte
Posted 15 August 2006 at 04:27 am

To Sen. McCarhy:
Manfred von Richthofen, A.K.A. Red Baron.
From Wikipedia:
Von Richthofen led his new unit to unparalleled success, peaking during "Bloody April" of 1917. In that month alone, he downed 22 British aircraft, raising his tally to 52. By June he was the commander of the first of the new larger Jagdgeschwader (wing) formations, leading Jagdgeschwader 1 composed of Jastas 4, 6, 10, and 11. These were highly mobile combined units that could be sent at short notice to different parts of the front as required. In this way, JG1 became "The Flying Circus" or "Richthofen's Circus", which got its name partially from the aircraft of all different colors.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Von_Richtofen


PDLagasse
Posted 15 August 2006 at 05:24 am

Nicely written article and damn interesting. But... "the *notorious* Charles Lindbergh?"


another viewpoint
Posted 15 August 2006 at 05:26 am

...I've heard it "raining cats and dogs" and "watch where you walk, else you step in a poodle",

but never..."storming barns!"

Nor the one about two guys sitting at a bar when a barn stormed in and...


Dave
Posted 15 August 2006 at 06:18 am

Don't forget that the planes of that era flew a LOT slower than most of the planes that currently fly. Planes of that era were typically constructed of wood with a cloth fabric covering, and excessive speed was known to rip the fabric right off of the wings (resulting in a prompt crash!).

Somewhere, I have a picture of a (reproduction) Wright flyer in the air beside a B1B (This was staged at the Dayton (OH) air show one year.). Of course, they didn't stay beside each other very long, since the Wright flyer had a top speed of about 30 miles per hour, while the B1B would fall out of the sky at much under 200 miles an hour.

I was also fortunate enough to see a bit of modern barnstorming when I visited the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome (Rhinebeck, NY, just north of Poughkeepsie) back when Cole Palen was still alive and participating in it. That field is dedicated to preserving and flying antique aircraft (WWI vintage and earlier!). To answer the question about how does the audience view the stunts, they aircraft typically stay below 1000 feet, and, moving fairly slowly, the crowd has a reasonable view of what's happening. Plus, those aircraft were quite manouverable. One of the stunts I saw performed was that a pilot flew his biplane over at 1,000 feet, and unfurled a roll of toliet tissue so that it would float down to the ground. He then turned his plane and came back and cut the tissue as it floated to the ground with the plane's wing. He then repeated this, repeatedly. In the time that it took that streamer of toliet tissue to hit the ground, he was able to wing-cut it 11 (yes, eleven) times!

http://www.oldrhinebeck.org/

Dave


qhperson
Posted 15 August 2006 at 07:56 am

Find a copy of The Great Waldo Pepper, the old Robert Redford movie, which is about this sort of thing. One of the stunts was to have a fully-dressed woman out on the end of a wing, and then somehow almost all her clothes were torn off, leaving her standing there in just a couple of filmy undergarments. Hubba hubba! Quite a thrill for the men in the audience back then.


Metryq
Posted 15 August 2006 at 02:21 pm

Was that the same Joseph Kittinger who "jumped from orbit"?


smokefoot
Posted 15 August 2006 at 03:31 pm

Charles Lindbergh can certainly be considered notorious. Some people considered him to be a Nazi since he openly said that it would be better to be allied with Nazi Germany than Soviet Russia (he had a great hatred of communism). On the other hand he felt that Hitler was a fanatic and once the war actually started he contributed a great deal in a civilian capacity to winning WW2. Lindbergh would make a good DM article - did you know that he contributed to the development of organ transplants?


smokefoot
Posted 15 August 2006 at 03:40 pm

I meant that he would make a good _DI_ article.


Gizmo The Cat?
Posted 15 August 2006 at 05:49 pm

I'm betting that none of these performers had snakes on their plane. :p

Still, what a damn interesting article!


fizban7
Posted 16 August 2006 at 02:26 am

F*ck yeah i got comment # 22!

But seriously, that was Damn Interesting. I live in Seattle(US) were there was a Airshow right above my neighborhood. Hearing jets storm by closely in a city is very disorienting. But those old plane are Damn Charming.

I


mensadave
Posted 16 August 2006 at 05:28 am

Good article. I was going to mention The Great Waldo Pepper movie, but somebody already did. And the "notorious" Charles Lindbergh? Hmmm, that's debatable. Sure, some of his views weren't the most enlightened, but he WAS the first to fly solo across the Atlantic, and he did fight against the Japanese during WWII. Also, this article reminded me of some guy who flew a plane through the Arc de Triomph in France (I think it was in the '70s), just barely making it with a few feet to spare on either side.


ke4roh
Posted 16 August 2006 at 11:56 am

Sen.McCarthy said: "Interesting article…but last time a checked, the term "flying circus" is used when a group of fighter planes lures enemy fighters out to dogfight, most notably Baron von Richtoven's (spelling?) flying circus in WWI. It was also common in WWII I believe."

Yes, the Red Baron (a.k.a. Manfred von Richthofen) led the WWI Flying Circus, and Joe Foss led the one for WWII.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Baron#The_Flying_Circus

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Foss


Marisa Brook
Posted 16 August 2006 at 10:32 pm

Misfit7707 said: "What kind of clothing did they wear? Maybe it's just my imagination, but in the 20's, were women still normally expected to wear dresses? Big poofy ones? Or had the change to skirts already come forth?

Heh. Like women pilots of the time, they tended to wear pants. Yet another way in which barnstorming was years ahead of its time in terms of equality!

Also, I'm guessing there HAD to be some kind of harness, right?

Couldn't find enough information about this, but certainly there wasn't always!

One more thing and then I'm gone. How exactly did the audience see the whole thing?

From the ground. They flew pretty low, which is one of the reasons the government's 1927 laws were so effective in basically putting barnstoming to an end. Once pilots couldn't fly within reasonable viewing range, all the excitement was gone.

Metryq said: "Was that the same Joseph Kittinger who "jumped from orbit"?"

Yep! I actually didn't realize this until the very end of the research I did here, but this article complements Daniel's earlier one about Kittinger quite nicely! (Linked at the bottom of the article, if you hadn't seen it.)

mensadave said: "And the "notorious" Charles Lindbergh? Hmmm, that's debatable. Sure, some of his views weren't the most enlightened, but he WAS the first to fly solo across the Atlantic, and he did fight against the Japanese during WWII. "

That's true. I was just being (over-)cautious. Thanks for pointing it out!

Misfit7707 said: "By the way, amazing article, Señora Brooks!"

Misfit7707 said: "AHH Brook"

Thanks! (No matter. Believe me, I've had my name mangled in far worse ways. * grins *)


qhperson
Posted 17 August 2006 at 08:20 am

Go here for an excellent article about Lindbergh before, during and after WWII.

http://www.traces.org/charleslindbergh.html
It covers everything.


JPF
Posted 19 August 2006 at 02:54 pm

adastra said:

That removes the wings, the impact slows the fuselage, and it slides out of the other end of the barn decelerating rapidly, but not too rapidly.

This technique has also been used by small planes in emergency landings in rough country with fuel on board. Try to put it down between two trees that will shed the volatile wings.

Then there is the story about the student pilot who had been told the technique of landing between two trees to slow the plane if he had to land in a forest. When he did have an engine failure he put the plane down between the only two trees on a 160 acre flat field.


fvngvs
Posted 19 August 2006 at 08:40 pm

adastra said: "... then there's the drunken Cessna pilot, who decided on the way back from Aspen to Denver, that he could fly his plane through a short, mountain hwy tunnel. He made an excellent approach to the tunnel mouth; you could see he was centered because you could see the marks on the concrete. about six inches on each side. The wings stayed there but the fuselage slid right through the tunnel and out the other side, containing a dazed but unhurt pilot."

Hey adastra; do you have any cites for this? It sounds riotously funny!

8.2 on the DI-meter. Thanks Marisa


gear
Posted 06 October 2006 at 10:45 am

As a boy, I visited the Curtiss museum in upstate NY near where I lived. In fact the place is nearly the same and the new museum is grand. Glenn Hammond Curtiss was the builder of the Jn-4d Jenny and he was an aviation pioneer. I remember see some of the shows that were closly watch by the faa. No matter how they have cleaned airshows up there is nothing like going to a grass field and watching. The barnstormer name came from the fact that many barns had their town's names on them for the fledgling air mail service. When these flying daredevils came to town they would fly so low as to cause a small storm in the barnyards . Many flew through the big barns and yes, they crashed into them from time to time. If you want to see a great show of this nature, try the Rheinbeck airshows, every weekend in Reinbeck, NYduring the summer. Just north of NY city by an hour. They have a great demonstration of bi and tri planes, hot air balloons and more. When I was 18 I got to meet the man who started it. He has left something great for us all. Make the trip!


The Thunder Child
Posted 22 February 2008 at 07:07 pm

Bessie Coleman did not really die in a barnstorming accident. She was the passenger of a plane, her mechanic was the pilot. She was scoping out the field where she was to perform her barnstorming the next day, when the plane lurched and she - who was not wearing a seatbelt - fell out and to her death. The pilot crashed the plane and was alive, but trapped in the wreckage. Some bright bulb lit a cigarette, leaking gas caught on fire, and he was burned to death. Later, a wrench was found in the controls of the plane, which supposedly caused both Coleman's death and the plane crash.


DumbGuy
Posted 07 May 2009 at 06:36 am

frenchsnake said: "What are all the possible meanings of "flying circus", anyway? I have a feeling it applies to a lot more things than those mentioned in this article, but I can't think of what."

well, we have a flying squad in the cops, and we all know what a circus the cops are right?


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