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The Great American Airshow

The Great American Airshow Featured

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There are now more than 325 airshows held each year across North America drawing millions of spectators. This year, airshow promoters expect attendance numbers of 10 to 12 million which illustrates that even in a recession, airshow attendance is strong. Why? Airshows are one of the best entertainment values around.

Consider a trip to Disneyland. Tickets for a family of two adults and two children to step through the gates of the Magic Kingdom total just over $250, and that’s before you get a mouse-eared beanie or have lunch outside the Country Bear Jamboree. Add in a hotel room at the end of your monorail ride and, well, you get the picture.

The average cost of an airshow in the United States is $12, and many are absolutely free. It is all part of a continuing love affair Americans have had with those magnificent men and women and their flying machines that dates back literally to the dunes of Kill Devil Hills.

The Amazing Flying Machine

Almost from the outset, Americans couldn’t get enough of aviation. Black-and-white silent films like “The Air Ship Fugitives” and “The Air Pilot” played to standing-room-only houses. In 1910, the runaway best-selling sheet music was “Come Josephine in My Flying Machine.” Americans were hungry to see something they had never seen before: those amazing men and their flying machines.

The city of Baltimore offered $5,000 to the first “lunatic” who would fly an airplane across their city. Like believers centuries before who clung to the idea that the world was flat, it was a time when many people didn’t believe that flying was possible. So, the sight of even the simplest aircraft flying overhead was nothing short of a miracle.

Not only was there no shortage of enthusiasm for the new phenomenon, there was also no shortage of men and women who fancied themselves as pilots. After all, there were no pilot licenses then, and many wannabes merely taught themselves how to fly.

The most daunting task was not flying itself, but getting your hands on an airplane. And once you got one, you had to find a way to make a living. The answer was barnstorming, a word which originally described traveling plays or political speeches (frequently taking place in a barn) but was quickly adapted to describe the “gypsy pilots” who traveled the country putting on shows and offering airplane rides. This was the beginning of the Great American Airshow.

This sudden onslaught of flyers was fueled by the American public’s absolute fascination with aviation. Even in the early days, it was not uncommon for 30,000 to 50,000 people to turn out and watch an exhibition of flying skills. For many it was a first glance at powered flight, and it would change their world forever. At one such exhibition in Los Angeles, a young Amelia Earhart was so awestruck she begged her father to buy her an airplane ride, and from that experience at an airshow, the story of world’s best known aviatrix began.

Other Aviators’ Humble Beginnings

Other names associated with these early airshows are surprisingly familiar. Like the Stinsons—Marjorie, Eddie, John, and Katherine—who in 1912 at age 17 was known as “The Flying School Girl.” The next spring she would begin a barnstorming tour through Louisiana, Texas, North Dakota, Montana, Michigan, Missouri and Coney Island, N.Y. She took along her older brother Eddie as mechanic, a job for which she compensated him by teaching him to fly.

Katherine gave up the airshow circuit when she married at age 25, but Eddie Stinson continued the family tradition, barnstorming across the country, and eventually beginning to sell airplanes which bore his name.

The greatest boost for the barnstorming phenomenon came at the end of World War I. Glenn Curtiss, who had spent his time dreaming of using the newfangled gasoline combustion engine to build motorcycles, found himself in a front row seat to build airplanes for the United States military. His JN-4D, later nicknamed the “Jenny,” cost the Army $5,000. But after the war, the wood and canvas biplanes were resold to the public for as little as $200. It was just what aviation needed to flourish.

The Beginning of an Industry

By the 1920s nearly 600 barnstormers crisscrossed America at any one time, and aviation was getting big enough to spawn the first non-cockpit jobs. After buzzing the town and turning final to land in a farmer’s field, the flyers were nearly always greeted by a host of young awestruck enthusiasts willing to do anything to be near aviation. (Sound familiar?)

Frequently a local boy was hired to sleep near the airplane and guard it. Small rodents looked at the aircraft as wonderful new nesting territory, and cows apparently loved the glue (“dope”) that held the planes together. Unattended airplanes could actually be damaged by a nighttime of serious licking.

Job descriptions also included keeping the airplanes clean of the cow manure that the props tossed up. One kid assigned to babysit the airplane is known to have caught the aviation bug. When he had saved enough money, he bought his own Jenny. His name was Charles Lindbergh.

Contests and Races

Barnstorming was not the only offshoot of aviation that led to the modern American airshow. Contests and challenges were established to attract these barnstorming pilots. In 1920 alone, $2 million in prize money was offered for a variety of aerial feats, among them a $25,000 reward for the first flight from New York to Paris.

After a series of attempts to cross the pond ended with airplanes falling into the Atlantic, Asa Redman, a 1920s barnstormer, shrugged off the critics with a statement typical of the barnstormers’ laissez-faire attitude: “The ocean isn’t half full of aviators yet.” It would be seven years later until barnstormer Charles Lindbergh would trade his Jenny for a Ryan and collect the prize.

Air racing was another lucrative variation that drew in a huge number of pilots. One, the colorful Col. Roscoe Turner, who had dazzled the crowds with his “Falling a Mile in Flames” stunt (a vertical dive with “smoke on”), left barnstorming to take a shot at the unimaginable cash prizes air racing put on the table.

Though a first place finished proved elusive to many, the pure adrenaline of air racing was enough. Fred Crawford, who worked with Col. Turner, said, “It’s 10 o’clock in the morning and the process server arrives at the airport to seize Roscoe Turner’s plane for debt. The boys service his plane out of sight and he flies the race and wins it and has the money to pay off his debts. Now that’s how we financed aviation.” One racer described the competition as saying, “Air racing may not be better than your wedding night, but it’s better than the second night.”

The Flying Circus

It was in the 1920s and ‘30s that barnstorming, contests and air racing began to show the first signs of what we now consider an airshow. As the novelty of flight became more commonplace, traveling barnstormers banded together to enhance the variety of showmanship.

Flying circuses were now the rage. Pilots arrived in colorful flying suits or whipcord breeches, waxed mustaches and high top riding boots, offset by leather helmets, long flowing scarves and goggles. They looked exactly like the American public thought pilots should look.

In the spirit of the circus-like atmosphere, pilots often thought of themselves as performers, with airshow posters and handouts boasting of appearances by “Diavalo, Supreme Daredevil of the Air,” “Upside-Down Pangborn” and the “Flying Witch.” Barkers encouraged the crowd to buy a ticket and come inside, watch the show, and take your first airplane ride. “We will take you high or low, fast or slow, any way you care to go. Fly over your house; see who’s visiting your wife! We have special flights for mother-in-laws.” The advertising delivered what it promised: airplanes and flying.

 In 1927, the Gates Flying Circus sold 100,000 airplane rides to first-time flyers, and in the decade of 1920 to 1930, it is estimated more than 10 million people took their first airplane rides with barnstormers.

As competition for the airshow audience grew, so did the complexity of the stunts. Eddie Angel of the Angel’s Flying Circus specialized in the “Dive of Death,” jumping out of airplane after dark with a flashlight and not opening his parachute until he could see the ground.

Cliff Rose of the “Cliff Rose Death Angels” wore batman wings and performed loops and spirals during a parachute free fall. Gladys Ingle shot arrows at a target while standing on the top wing of a Jenny, and later perfected jumping from the wing of one plane to another in the air. Walter Hunter of Oklahoma’s Hunter Brothers Flying Circus used to drop from airplanes onto haystacks, without wearing a parachute at all.

Dangerous Daredevils

It’s no surprise that a fair number of these early aviators died with their boots on. Ormer Leslie Locklear’s name was nearly a household word, and he was universally acknowledged as the best wing walker in the world. Until he fell. Lincoln Beachey, who would touch down and take off from inside a building, was also the first aviator in the U.S. to loop an airplane, an accomplishment he repeated over a thousand times. Until he peeled his airplane’s wings off in front of 50,000 people in San Francisco. Harriet Quimby, the first American aviatrix, was killed when she and her passenger fell out of an airplane during an exhibition over Boston.

But the flying circuses were not to be discouraged. Reacting to the fact that morbid curiosity would draw a crowd, promoters would sometimes hire an ambulance to race onto the field with its lights and sirens blaring. Another popular stunt was to send an airplane up with a dummy in the cockpit. The aircraft would perform a loop, and suddenly a body would fall out and tumble all the way to earth…

As the Roaring Twenties came to a close, the popular image of daredevil pilots gave rise to a grumbling discontent. The airplane shifted from an “unbelievable marvel” to a “fool killer.”

In 1926, Congress passed the Air Commerce Act, placing the idea of pilot licenses and aircraft under the more stringent control of the federal government. Soon to follow were regulations restricting wing walking at or above 1,500 feet (so high that nobody could see it), and participants were required to wear parachutes. Legislation also required fencing to restrain the crowd at airshows as protection from mishaps. While the days of the ragtag barnstormer were coming to an end, the impact these early flyers made is alive and well.

Six-time national aerobatics champion Patty Wagstaff acknowledges the tremendous debt the airshow owes to its earliest performers. “Many of the maneuvers I perform at airshows were originally explored and perfected by those early pioneers of aviation. All of us, from the grandstands to the flight line, owe them all a tremendous debt.”

If nothing else, the barnstormers introduced aviation to America. Their romance and infectious enthusiasm for flying undoubtedly set the stage for the public’s grassroots acceptance of the airplane, leading to any number of applications, from airmail to air transportation.

When aviation pioneer Leonard Brooke Hyde-Pearson died in a plane crash, he had left a letter to be opened on the event of his death. He left these thoughts to his fellow pilots, “When we fly we are fools, they say. When we are dead, we weren’t half bad fellows.

“But every one in this aviation service is doing the world far more good than the public can appreciate. We risk our necks; we give our lives, we perfect a service for the benefit of the world at large. They, mind you, are the ones who call us fools. But stick to it, boys. I’m still very much with you.”


To find a schedule of this year’s airshows, check the Events page in Piper Flyer magazine (page 10 in this issue). Also visit our website at piperflyer.org. —Ed.

Screenwriter, philanthropist and good guy Lyn Freeman has been writing aviation articles since before John Glenn joined the Marines. He is the former editor of Plane & Pilot magazine, founder and current chairperson of the Build-a-Plane organization, a master scuba diver, a championship table tennis player and an all-around Renaissance man. Send questions or comments to .


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