Barnstorming Biplane Pictures
The Golden Age of Aviation
By Larry Brian Radka
Barnstorming or stunt-flying biplanes and their pilots for the most part were products of the aerial combat in World War I—and not of earlier Wright brothers' biplanes being pushed into barns as shown in the photograph above.
On the morning of 11 November 1918, the combatants signed an armistice in the Forest of Compiegne that ended the “Great War.” The nations that had fought in that war suddenly found itself with more aircraft than they needed. The United States alone had almost 3,000 De Haviland DH-4s. At most, the US Air Service could use only about 250 of these a year. If they were used at that rate, the supply of DH-4s would last for almost 12 years! It would be a big problem to try to keep a large number of grounded planes in safe flying condition for such a long time. Furthermore, in the meantime, advances in aeronautical science could be expected to produce planes that were far superior to the DH-4 biplane.
During the war, the DH-4 had undergone some improvements such as placing the gasoline tank in front of the pilot instead of behind him, and the machine no longer deserved its nickname—“Flying Coffin.” The plane, however, was so heavy and so expensive to keep up that individuals were not interested in buying it.
Civil airlines were able to use some of the DH-4s, and the Post Office Department acquired a few and flew them after having the cockpit, plywood fuselage and heavy-duty landing gear modified for mail service. Many—if not most—of the rest of the surplus DH-4s were dismantled. Some parts were salvaged and set aside to be used in repairs, and junk dealers got the rest.
The JN-4, the Curtiss “Jenny” was different—and in great demand. The “Jennies” were light, easy to maintain, and so slow that they could easily roar in and land nearby almost any barn—which perhaps explains the name “barnstorming.” Furthermore, and more importantly, the Jennies were cheap—especially at the prices the Government was willing to accept to get rid of them. Some of the Jennys sold for as little as $200, which, although a lot of money in those days, was a fraction of the original $5,000 production cost.
When World War I ended, almost 9,500 men were in the Air Service. This was more than eight times as many as had been in the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps before the United States went into the war. Yet in the in the frantic demobilization of 1918-1919, almost 95 percent of the men in the Air Service were released to return to civilian life.
Many of these young flyers returned to their homes scattered throughout the United States. They were thankful for having survived the dangers of wartime aviation and were happy to be with their families and friends again. But before long, they became restless. They had enjoyed flying and did not really want to give it up so they began to wonder what they could fly again and for what purpose.
"The Post Office Department would hire a few."
A few commercial airlines were being formed, but they were doing very little business and needed few pilots. The Post Office Department would hire a few. Nevertheless, if most were to fly again, they would have to buy their own airplanes and sell their services. These were the men who bought many of the surplus “Jennies” from the government. Some of the veteran flyers bought the JN-4s and eked out a living by taking up passengers who wanted a thrill and by giving flying lessons—in a time when flying was not yet regulated by laws and required no licenses. However, the demand for such services was so slim that one of the old-time pilots is quoted as saying that the “greatest hazard in flying is the risk of starving to death.”
I can remember my father telling me that at times pilots used to land alone in little two-cockpit Jennies on a field near the old Monongah No. 5 Coal Mine in the 1920’s. Teenage farm boys like him usually only earned 50 cents a day for pitching hay, and he would take his meager day’s wages and invest all in a fascinating ride with one of those starving biplane flyers. This price for my father was a bargain because most of the hungry barnstorming pilots--who flew around the countryside randomly landing at any opportunity on various farms to attract a little business—charged from 3 to 5 dollars. His most outstanding recollection of his aerial adventures was his surprise that he could not voluntarily fall out of the open cockpit when the pilot turned the plane upside down.
However, at the same time these starving pilots were flying alone and struggling to sell rides to poor farm boys at bargain rates to feed their wind-chapped faces, a more lucrative market—flying exhibitions with several actors—was taking center stage. WWI pilots, and anyone else who could fly and afford a cheap biplane and a small entourage of reckless actors took to the air like a covey of quail, made money in the roaring twenties, and even survived in the austerity of the Great Depression in the nineteen thirties. Those aerial stars opened their stage curtains in the beautiful blue skies, above county fairs, carnivals, and anywhere else that crowds gathered and were willing to pay to see them perform awesome acts on those strange flying machines—and the performers were not limited to the male gender.
Above, we see a good example of the opposite sex in Katherine Stinson, the first woman in the world to loop-the-loop, in front of her Curtiss biplane. She was a pioneer in stunt flying, the first woman in the world to loop-the-loop on July 18, 1915. In So Away I Went, William Bushnell Stout, who knew her, tell us that“Katherine used to fit Roman candles on the wings of her airplane, when she made exhibition flights at state fairs. In many of the exhibitions at night, she would come down after the fireworks display in the middle of a half-mile track with only a burning tar barrel to indicate where and how she was to land. In all her career, so far as I know, she never had an accident. It is said she taught Eddie Stinson to fly, and later her sister Marjorie. All three of them were excellent pilots—none better in his day that Eddie Stinson.”
Sometimes the barnstormers’ exciting aerial antics consisted of several pilots and who would work together as a team, calling them themselves a “flying circus”—which spawned a variety of creative stunts and stars. Barnstormer Al Wilson shot golf balls. Mabel Cody danced. Gladys Ingle, famous for switching planes in mid air, sometimes shot arrows at a target while there (although she didn't necessarily hit it).
But take a look at this video of her mid-air repair. Fabulous footage although grainy due to time and bad equipment in those days compared to today, but what nerve this gal had.
Gladys Ingle was a member of a barnstorming troupe called the 13 Black Cats in the 1920s. Ingle was a wing walker. In this film, she shows her fearlessness in a classic barnstorming fashion to save an airplane that has lost one of its main wheels. The daredevil is shown with a replacement wheel being strapped to her back and then off she goes as “Up She Goes,” a duet from the era, provides the soundtrack. In the video, Ingle transfers herself from the rescue plane to the one missing the main landing gear tire. She then expertly works herself down to the undercarriage only a few feet from a spinning prop. It's certainly a feat many mechanics wouldn't even try on the ground with the engine running.
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.
“Wing walking” was one of the tricks that always pleased the crowds. While the pilot flew the biplane in a circle, the stuntman would walk out on the edge of the lower wing, climb to the upper wing, and walk in toward the cockpit. Some of the wing walkers would give the viewers an extra thrill by standing of their heads.
“Breakaway” is a daring variation of wing walking. The stuntman would walk the length of the wing, appear to lose his balance, and fall. During a frantic struggle, drawing a loud awe from onlookers, he would manage to hang on, and finally to pull himself back onto the wing. From the ground, the excited onlookers could not see the stunt man was wearing a harness anchored to the plane by a cable. But even with these trappings, the stunt was difficult and dangerous.
Another favorite with the crowds was “plane change,” which required two planes with pilots and a stuntman. After the planes were both in the air, the stuntman would climb to the upper wing of his plane and wait for the second plane to fly over with a rope ladder dangling from a wing. After catching the ladder and scrambling up to the second plane, the stuntman would frequently parachute to the ground.
Charles Lindbergh (front) & Fred E. Weick with Tom Hamilton
standing at Langley Field, June 1, 1927
During Charles Lindbergh’s barnstorming days, he performed a stunt that the audiences would hardly believe. He would stand on the upper wing of a plane while the pilot flew a series of loops. The trick would not have been possible without some aids the viewers could not see. Lindbergh’s feet were strapped to the wing, and he was steadied by wires running form his belt and firmly attached to the wing, but as helpful as these devices were, they offered no guarantee of safety. Lindbergh did not win fame by barnstorming however, but by beating out M. Drouhin for the $25,000 award for the first transatlantic solo flight.
Barnstorming Aerial Cameraman
Barnstorming a biplane was a risky way to make a living.
The biplane, even when newly purchased, was frail, and its wood and canvas was held together with wire.
Engines often conked out, which forced landings.
Malfunctioning equipment and poor judgment caused accidents that cost the lives of many barnstorming performers.
These daring aviators, however, were happy before passing on, doing what they loved—flying. And they were proud to be earning a living, a virtue most of the welfare crowd can not understand today.
Perhaps without realizing it, the barnstormers performed an added service for the hardworking public and taxpayers in general—an important service for aviation development. With their exciting exhibitions, those “flying gypsies” publicized aviation. When World War I ended, many people had never seen an airplane, and if they thought of aviation at all, it was probably with fear and disapproval.
Then along came the barnstormers with air shows that may not have done away with the fears but certainly did create interests in flyers and flying.
Those brave aerial daredevils ushered in two decades between the world wars that saw improvements after improvements of aircraft designs. Barnstorming biplanes had broken through the clouds and led the way.
This page was last modified on Tuesday, January 19, 2016