Barnstormers: The History of a Short-Lived Commercial Venture7 min read
I’m an old army dog. I joined in the ‘90s and spent a while working in Army Aviation as grease monkey, fixing broken helicopters and swearing at the flight suit inserts that broke them. In spite of the fact that the AH-64A is doubtlessly the ugliest, dirtiest hanger queen I’ve ever had the displeasure of being around I still love that bird years after I got out.
It seems that military aviation is something that sticks with you even after you get out. I know a lot of my pilots were talking about flying after they left. Many of them were interested in oil rig flying in the gulf or medevac work for the EMS. It was the same thrills without that whole messy getting shot at thing as a downside. Of course, for fixed wing pilots the big draw is flying commercial jets for the airlines and shipping companies. Flying commercial jets is considerably saner than wrangling a giant fan blade that’s shaking itself apart. (No, seriously.)
I’m sure many people suspect that civilian flying was the result of military pilots leaving the service and offering their skills to the public. They’d be right, of course. But I also suspect that the general assumption is that these pilots were doing what they do now – flying for the airlines. Well, one out of two isn’t bad, right? It turns out that the first significant public engagement with flying was former military pilots with former military planes showing off.
How WWI Set the Stage For Commercial Aviation
The U.S. was a latecomer to WWI (a habit of ours when it came to the big wars). We waited to join up until 1917, three years after the war started. It took us almost a year after that to really get into the fighting. U.S. troops finally entered the trenches in force in October of 1917. Above their heads flew the men of the Aviation Section, Signal Corps.
When the U.S. entered the war this fledgling air force contained approximately 1,200 men and 280 crates, none of which was combat capable. A small portion of these men and aircraft had seen limited service during the punitive expeditions against Pancho Villa in Mexico four years earlier, but otherwise they were green and ill prepared to face the Germans and their three years of combat experience.
A year into combat, however, and the “Organization of the Air Service of the American Expeditionary Force” was in fighting trim. When the U.S. took over the trenches opposite of the St. Mihiel salient near the German border in September the 1st Army Air Service fielded almost 600 planes, 100 more than the Germans had in the same area. France, Britain, and Italy provided 900 more for the largest air battle of the war, and one of the largest in all history to date. The German air force would be crushed. U.S. pilots alone would fly almost 2,500 sorties.
The skills they had to use in this fight were nothing short of dangerous. Pilots had to engage in high speed, daring turns and loops to chase (or avoid) German aircraft. Attacks on observer balloons required high speeds at low altitudes while avoiding ground fire, often requiring pilots to fly between trees and hills rather than over them. Bombing missions called for high speed dives towards the ground and careful timing lest a slight misjudgment cause the pilot to join the bomb in cratering the target.
After the war ended the United States released most of its pilots from service. Alongside of those now very skilled men, it began selling off most of its aircraft. Hundreds of SPADs, DeHaviland DH-4Bs and Salmson 2 A.2s were sold on the cheap. Nearly 7,000 pilots and 6,000 aircraft (along with nearly 70,000 support personnel) were back in the States looking for new jobs, and many of them didn’t want to leave flying for the farm, the factory, or the family store.
A Doughboy and His Jenny
The most popular plane to be sold off after the war was one that never saw combat. The Curtiss JN-4 had been designed as the primary training aircraft for U.S. airmen. Nearly every American pilot to earn his wings had spent time in a “Jenny”, along with many Canadian and British pilot trainees. With a rugged airframe and easy controls, this bird was a dream to fly and easily modified.
After the war the army “dumped” Jenny’s for as little as $50 (less than two week’s pay for the typical pilot during the war). Pilots who couldn’t walk away from a life on the edge began buying these inexpensive but excellent planes and looking for a way to earn money with their combat skills. They found their way with barnstorming.
The barnstormers of the 1920’s would wander from place to place, usually choosing small town rather than big cities. They would announce their presence by buzzing the town, sometimes dropping hand bills in the process (a skill that had been picked up dropping propaganda on German trenches during the war). A farmer’s field made for an excellent impromptu landing field, the barn an ersatz hanger (and occasional crash site for pilots with large egos and small front and back doors to fly through).
Once the town was aware of the pilot (and the farmer agreed to the use of the field after the fact), the barnstormers would put on impromptu shows. Single barnstormers would use their combat maneuvers to attract and entertain a crowd by pulling spins, loop-the-loops, or barrel rolls. Some were fortunate to have partners with whom they could form a “flying circus”. These shows were particularly spectacular, as pilots could mock dog fights in the air above the crowd, or stage stunts similar to those performed by groups like the Blue Angels today. Some even employed stuntmen to perform wing walks, acrobatics, or even transfers between the plane and moving trucks, boats, or other aircraft while in flight.
The real money, however, was in rides. Between shows the pilots would take locals up on a flight for a small fee, letting them see the world they knew from a new perspective. Crowds would line up for the chance to take part in this very new and very thrilling new experience. Those who got to enjoy a flight often became absolutely fixated, dreaming of the chance to take another flight.
Barnstorming Comes To An End, and Airlines Begin
Barnstorming was a short-lived commercial venture. Within ten years of the end of combat, these daring and experienced pilots were being regulated out of business. Flying safety rules and the market crash of 1929 put most barnstormers out of business. The era of the barnstormer was over.
Their impact, however, was far from ended. Tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands had taken a flight in a Jenny or one of her sister aircraft during that decade. What had been a novelty read about in the papers before or during the war, or seen in silent films in darkened theatres had become a very real, very personal experience for many. Thousands of people who had been too young (or too unlucky) to receive flight training during the war became inspired to learn. Tens of thousands became interested in seeing how flight could change their worlds in a positive way.
Air mail had first entered regular service in the U.S. while the war was still six months from ending. However, it was the experience of barnstorming that made air mail take off as the public came to trust the speed and reliability of flight (after a few fits and starts). A demand for air travel as a means to get around faster than a car or train led to the development of the Ford Tri-motor in 1926. Much like his cars, Henry Ford’s airplane was simple, reliable, and inexpensive. By the 1930s many of the major airlines we know today were ferrying passengers around in Ford’s famous 12-seater.
Commercial air travel is taken for granted today. The FAA reported that in 2011 passengers logged 815 billion miles in flight. They expect that annual number to triple by 2031. People have grown used to same day delivery nationwide, and cargo planes contribute to this casual expectation. The largest cargo and passenger jet, the Airbus A380, has a wingspan more than twice the length of the Wright Brother’s first flight and can fly non-stop to almost any location in the world from any other.
But none of this was imaginable to the average person during WWI. At that time flying was something very rare, very remote, and very strange to ordinary folk. But then came the end of the war, and with it, the advent of Barnstormers as the first commercial flying to interact with the everyday person. From there, well, things took off.
James Hinton is an army vet and former avionics and electronics mechanic on attack helicopters. When he’s not busy boring his daughters to tears with miscellaneous aviation history trivia he stares at the sky through binoculars from his home near Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho.