Planes, Trains, and…Barnstorming?

Originally published August 8, 2014

Updated note: My great-uncle, Peter Setera, was a barnstormer and in 1928, at the age of 33, he went up in flames as he hit the ground. My dad’s a librarian, so I get lots of fun facts 🙂

For the past two weeks, my work has been consumed with aviation. Research, profiles, aircraft engine facts…I feel like I could rattle on about F-16s and C-130s at any given time. After collecting data on wingspans and figuring out just how fast Mach 2.5 really is (1,930 mph thank you very much), I gathered some interesting information about barnstorming, a particularly influential piece of aviation’s history that I thought I’d share.

At the start of World War I, the Allies quickly realized they needed to gain some kind of tactical advantage over the highly successful German zeppelins used for reconnaissance missions, bomb raids, and scouting for enemy artillery fire. By targeting London, German airstrikes infused fear into their enemies while igniting the imagination of many in regards to a different form of warfare.

For the Allies, air warfare appeared questionable. Many older commanders were hesitant to employ the newer technology, but change needed to happen to shape the outcome of the Great War. At first, aircrafts were used for reconnaissance missions, spotting, and observation, but later evolved into being used in bomb raids and aerial attacks. This took off, especially when aircrafts and pilots began carrying grenades and grappling hooks, and later upgraded to handheld firearms, and finally, the machine gun.

As the War came to an end, manufacturers in the United States had produced a huge number of planes, in particular the Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane, which had been used to train pilots. Usually costing around five thousand dollars, the U.S. federal government sold these planes at a fraction of the cost, some down to $200, to veterans, servicemen, and civilians.

First designed and built in 1915, The JN “Jenny” was a two-seater biplane mainly used as a training airplane for the army, but later modified to be an aerial ambulance. Classically recognized with a front propeller and dual wings, the JN “Jenny” became an incredibly popular and famous aircraft during World War I.

While the aircraft industry boomed during wartime, afterwards, many airplane companies went broke, flooding the market with even more discounted planes for sale. Many pilots put their aviation skills to good use by gaining employment as crop dusters, mail carriers, and as good old-fashioned smugglers. Others flew around the country selling airplane rides. Landing in a farmer’s field, the pilot would negotiate with the farmer for the use of his field as a temporary runway and arena to showcase his plane. These ‘barnstormers’ then created a buzz in the nearby towns or farms by dropping handbills advertising the pilot’s daring aviation feats, marketing plane rides, and stirring up a carnival-like ambiance. In some instances, pilots were forced to land in fields because they simply ran out of fuel. Thus, the farmer was stuck with the grounded flyer until the pilot could make enough money to buy enough fuel to leave.

On the other hand, wing walking started with Ormer Locklear as a means to repair his plane mid-flight in World War I. By literally climbing out of his cockpit mid-air, walking along the wing, and attending to the mechanical problem, he soon began a trend that quickly transform into handstands and parachute jumps.

With rising popularity, barnstormers cashed in on their fame by forming troupes of elaborate flying circuses known for their stunt pilots’ aerobatic maneuvers, such as plane dives, loop-de-loops, and barrel rolls. Wing walkers, usually beautiful women, strong men, or even the pilots themselves, would walk, dance, or perform acrobatic stunts along the plane’s wings while in mid-air. In time, stunts became so incredible that they ranged from planes flying side by side and each pilot exiting their cockpit, wing walking, and trading places with each other to wing walkers being picked up by other planes, much like a trapeze artist. Some of the most famous flying circuses were “The Five Blackbirds,” “The Flying Aces Air Circus,” “The 13 Black Cats,” and “Gates Flying Circus.”

During the 1920’s and into the 1930’s aviation regulations were extremely loose, allowing pilots to do any combination of daredevil stunts that became more dangerous and insane to quench the crowd’s thirst for adrenaline. Once regulations started to be enforced, barnstormers and flying circuses had a difficult time maintaining their audience’s awe while still sticking to these safety standards. Once the military stopped selling Jenny’s, barnstorming steadily decreased into obscurity in the 1940s. Luckily, wing walking and flying circuses continued after World War II to this day.

“Wingwalking History.” Wingwalking History. Silver Wings Wingwalking Team, 2013. Web. 06 Aug. 2014. <;.

White, John M. “The History of Barnstorming.” All Things Aviation: Informing, Education, and Entertaining Pilots. N.p., 31 May 2011. Web. 06 Aug. 2014. <;.

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