Why you should care
Because these daredevil pilots helped convert America to high-powered technology.
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The locals who lived around Niagara Falls were used to daredevils. They would crowd around the rocks at the mighty waterfall to see people hurl themselves downward in barrels, teeter across tightropes — and often die. But they had never seen anything quite like this.
A tiny machine made of fabric and wood plunged straight down the roaring column of water. Spectators craned their necks as its wings flashed briefly — and vanished in the mist. A few moments later, an airplane roared triumphantly into view. Its daring pilot had yanked its nose up less than 20 feet from the deadly rocks at the waterfall’s base.
The 150,000 people who turned out to see aviator Lincoln Beachey that day in 1911 didn’t know it at the time, but they had just witnessed something much more than Niagara Falls’ latest stunt. Beachey, an angry young man who had fought tooth and nail to learn to fly one of the unwieldy new contraptions that passed for a flying machine, was the beginning of a movement that got America hooked on going fast.
The appeal was an age-old one, but barnstormers had an attraction no predecessor could beat: the thrill of a brand-new, superfast technology.
Before World War I, few Americans owned a car. Fewer still had seen an airplane, which had been invented just over a decade earlier. Outside cities, people were more accustomed to the pace of horses and bicycles than of trains or cars.
But after the war, the U.S. had a surprising surplus of the fastest machines in the world: airplanes. Americans had enthusiastically mass-produced planes for the war, but found when they got to the Western Front that the British, French and Germans were far ahead of them when it came to cutting-edge flight technology.
The U.S. government’s postwar solution for all these spare flying machines? To use planes like the Curtiss “Jenny” as trainers — and then sell them off for as low as $200. For many ex-fighter pilots and aspiring adventurers left adrift by the end of the war and economic hard times, this was an offer they couldn’t refuse. These pilots were called barnstormers, and they were about to accelerate the country to a 21st-century pace, as Martin Caidin explains in Barnstorming: The Great Years of Stunt Flying.
As aviation came into its own as a reliable, affordable technology, pilots found themselves in a curious position. Since 1903, people who drove cars had needed to have a license. There were already rules of the road and strict standards for drivers. Right after World War I, though, pilots didn’t need to have a license to fly a plane — or to have taken flying lessons, for that matter. That meant they were free to develop this new American pastime no holds barred.
Part entertainers, part thrill-seekers, barnstormers made their way across the country as solo acts and in groups called flying circuses. Some were racers, flying customized planes that roared around pylons at speeds that broke records set just weeks earlier. But most modeled their acts on old-time Western shows like Buffalo Bill Cody’s, combining circus flair with impossible stunts.
The appeal was an age-old one, but barnstormers had an attraction no predecessor could beat: the thrill of a brand-new, superfast technology. This loud, dangerous machine was addictive, and barnstormers quickly created their own unique acts to stand out. Eddie Angel did a 5,000-foot plunge in the dark holding two flashlights called the “Dive of Death.” Charles Lindbergh got his start walking on airplane wings in the sky. Clyde Pangborn was known for changing planes — in midair. Many stunts were deadly, resulting in many barnstormers’ careers ending as soon as they started. But some paid off as risky one-shots, like a flying circus known for playing tennis on the top wings of their airplanes.
“It’s pretty amazing what they managed to pull off,” says Kit Curtis, a crop-dusting pilot for 24 years from Greeley, Colorado. His profession, as well as air-show stunt teams, has inherited the barnstormers’ niche in aviation. “Most of the things barnstormers made famous — wing-walking, the drunk pilot act — you can still technically do with an airplane like a Cessna. But pilots aren’t trained to do that anymore. Now, it’s safety first.”
Barnstormers brought aviation out of newspapers and into rural America. Their audiences weren’t big-city circus crowds, but rather America’s farm towns. They specifically targeted people who hadn’t seen airplanes before, dropping leaflets and doing loops over towns to capture people’s imaginations. Once they’d gotten a town’s attention, they’d charge admission and jack up prices for a five-minute — but once-in-a-lifetime — ride.
Barnstorming also reached people who might not otherwise have gotten a chance to experience this new technology. Because aviation was not yet regulated and planes were often less expensive than cars, women and people of color could find a place in barnstorming while other entertainment avenues remained closed to them. Pancho Barnes was a brash, broad-shouldered female barnstormer who broke Amelia Earhart’s speed records; the Five Blackbirds was a much-loved all-African-American circus.
By the end of the 1920s, barnstorming had become less practical. Aviation had had its biggest firsts, and regulation slowly made flying more about getting places than doing so with style. But once the barnstormers gave the country a taste of the future with a dash of fun, aviation jump-started Americans into the modern world.