Barnstorming & the Birth of Civil Aviation

The years after the first World War saw the birth of civil aviation in the united States. During the 1920s, an activity known as “barnstorming” became one of the most popular forms of entertainment. It was also the first major form of civil aviation in the history of flight.
A set of unique circumstances existed that set the stage for this development of “commercial” aviation.
With the signing of the Armistice, a large number of unemployed pilots were seeking a chance to use their new found flying skills to earn a living. Another factor was the abundance of airplanes left over from the war that still were very useable.
During the war, the United States had manufactured a multitude of Curtiss Jennys to train its military aviators; almost every U.S. airman had learned to fly using a Jenny. Consequently, when the federal government priced its surplus Jennys for as little as $200 during the postwar period (they originally cost approximately $5,000 each), many of the servicemen, who were already quite familiar and comfortable with the JN-4’s, purchased their own planes.

Airplanes at “fire sale” prices and eager pilots ready to use their skills, coupled with the fact that there were no federal regulations governing aviation at the time, allowed what became known as “barnstorming” to flourish during the postwar era.

There were few American or Canadian towns that didn’t receive a visit from these adventurous airmen in 1919, through the 1920’s and even during the early 1930’s. These visits were met with great success, since flying was still a novelty to the public.
Everyone had heard and read about airmen in the army, but few civilians had actually seen an aircraft up close.

The word “barnstorming” was coined because the pilots used a farmer’s field or pasture to operate their business for the day. Pilots generally charged their passengers $1 for every minute of air time. Often, the pilots performed stunts, such as wing-walking and parachute jumping, to stimulate local interest. Another common practice was flying over the town and dropping handbills to advertise when and where the barnstorming would take place, as well as information about the plane and pilot. Sometimes, in a town where they didn’t think they could generate much interest they would offer a free flight to the first person to approach the pilot with their handbill.

One of those involved in barnstorming was Galena, Illinois native Robert Eustice (See page 7). For many pilots and stunt people, barnstorming provided an exciting and invigorating way to make a living, not to mention a challenging outlet for their creativity and showmanship.
Most barnstorming shows followed a typical pattern. On any given day, a pilot, or team of pilots, would fly over a small rural town and attract the attention of the local inhabitants.

The pilot or team of aviators would then land at a local farm (hence the name “barnstorming”) and negotiate with the farmer for the use of one of his fields as a temporary runway from which to stage an air show and offer airplane rides to customers. After obtaining a base of operation, the pilot or group of aviators would fly back over the town, or “buzz” the village, and drop handbills offering airplane rides for a small fee, usually from one to five dollars. The advertisements would also tout the daring feats of aerial daredevilry that would be offered. Crowds would then follow the airplane, or pack of planes, to the field and purchase tickets for joy rides. The locals, most of whom had never seen an airplane up close, were thrilled with the experience. For many rural towns, the appearance of a barnstormer or an aerial troop on the horizon was akin to declaring a national holiday; almost everything in the town would shut down at the spur of the moment so that people could purchase plane rides and watch the show.
Barnstormers performed a wide range of stunts. Although many of them handled all their own tricks, others became specialists, either stunt pilots or aerialists. Stunt pilots performed daring spins and dives with their planes, including the well-known loop-the-loop and barrel roll maneuvers. Aerialists, on the other hand, performed such feats as wing walking, soaring through the air with winged costumes, stunt parachuting, and midair plane transfers.

Essentially barnstormers, particularly the aerialists, performed just about any feat people could dream up; there seemed to be no limit to what they could accomplish. Some played tennis, practiced target shooting, or even danced on the wings of planes, while others did their own unique stunts.