Last week's blog introduced some of the basics of the barnstorming era - its short history, the airplanes used, the cow windsocks. This week, we'll talk about the guys (and girls) who flew the airplanes and gave the crowds a great show every time. Sometimes it was the accidents that made the shows memorable, but we'll (mostly) concentrate on the days when the landings equaled the take offs.
Probably the most famous of the barnstormers was Charles Lindbergh He was just 25 when he made his famous flight from the U.S. to France in 1927, but the years before that accomplishment had included time with a barnstorming troupe. He was always known to be an excellent pilot, but soon after joining the troupe he added wingwalking and aerobatics to his list of accomplishments.
Barnstormers as a group had a lot of tricks up their collective sleeves. With what appeared to be minimal effort, their airplanes danced across the skies doing loops, rolls, lazy 8s, hammerheads and spins. To add to the thrill, they often performed their tricks at low altitude. The brave (or crazy) ones moved from plane to plane. One of the best at this type of trick was Gladys Ingle who was lucky to work with pilots who had very steady hands on the stick. Click here to see her in action as she straps a spare landing gear wheel on her back before stepping onto a wing and being taken aloft to perform the fix. No body wires, no leaning platforms and no safety straps - it was just Gladys heading up into the wind on a wing (and a prayer?). Guess the goggles were her version of a safety device!
Bessie Coleman - the subject of our very first actual blog story - was also a barnstormer. She had gone to France to learn to fly since her black skin limited her options down to "slim and none" in the U.S. when it came to finding a flight instructor. When she returned to the States as a fully licensed pilot, she gave instructions and put on acrobatic shows before she fell out of her airplane to her death while doing a stunt in 1926.
The Tuskegee Airman who led the 332nd Fighter Group and later became the Air Force's first black general, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. got his first taste of flight from a barnstormer at the age of 14. He had fully intended to follow his father, Ben Davis, Sr., into the Army and become a line officer, but that first plane ride gave him the aviation bug and when the opportunity to train to fly for the U.S Army Air Corps at the new base in Tuskegee, Alabama opened up, he jumped at the chance to learn to fly and fight. It was his leadership and discipline that helped the Tuskegee Airmen earn their reputation as bomber escorts. Davis was adamant that the Tuskegee-trained pilots should always work as a team with the bombers they were assigned to protect. Leaving the bombers to seek out enemy fighters was not an option. As one Tuskegee Airmen in the "RISE ABOVE" movie says, "We stuck with those bombers because we were more afraid of 'B.O' than we were of the Germans!"
Getting back to the barnstormers... As the competition between the "flying circuses" grew, the tricks got crazier. Crashing an airplane into or through a building was particularly popular. In an effort to limit the most dangerous stunts, controls were tightened up by the U.S. government starting in 1926. The stunts didn't really stop, but the shows became more disciplined which placated the government for a while. Wingwalkers now wore parachutes and the airplane "tricks" had to take place at certain altitudes instead of close to the ground. More restrictions were implemented a couple of years later and many troupes just closed their shows down rather then try to comply. Finally, new restrictions imposed by the 1938 Civil Aeronautics Act forced the last of the flying circuses to close.
The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven 501c3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit redtail.org.