20 artifacts in this set
The term "barnstorming" had its origins in the touring theater companies that traveled across the United States in the 19th century. When visiting rural communities without proper theater buildings, these companies often staged performances in barns. People took to calling the casts and crews "barnstormers." Stunt pilots didn't fly in barns, of course, but their show methods were similarly makeshift.
Notice of an Aviation Meet Featuring the Wright Brothers' Passenger-Carrying Aeroplanes, Columbia, South Carolina, 1913
Wilbur and Orville Wright struggled to find customers for their pioneering airplanes. The brothers formed an exhibition flying team in 1910 to earn money -- the team charged audiences to watch performances -- and to help promote their aircraft. The Wrights initially frowned on dangerous aerobatics but ultimately gave in to popular demand for risky stunts.
Glenn Curtiss was the Wrights' main rival, both in sales and in showmanship. Curtiss had personally set a number of motorcycle speed records and eagerly embraced the idea of aerobatic flying. The organized Curtiss and Wright exhibition flying teams were forerunners of the less formal barnstormers that followed World War I.
Curtiss's greatest pilot -- arguably, the greatest pilot anywhere at the time -- was Lincoln Beachey. The talented flyer mastered spins, loops, and spirals that thrilled spectators. Audiences especially enjoyed his steep dives, in which Beachey climbed high into the sky before plunging back toward the earth. He leveled off at the last possible moment -- sometimes inches from the ground.
Beachey retired from flying in 1913 -- but not for long. He soon teamed with auto racing driver Barney Oldfield to stage dramatic car v. airplane races. Unknown to audiences, the two daredevils took turns "winning." Beachey was flying a loop over San Francisco Bay in 1915 when the wings broke loose from his plane. He died in the resulting crash.
Early airshows sometimes featured elaborate staged battles, like this mock dogfight presented by Patterson Aviators of Detroit. One of Lincoln Beachey's more elaborate stunts involved "bombing" a large wooden model of a battleship anchored off of San Francisco. Audiences alternately cheered and screamed as the ship exploded before their eyes.
Self-trained pilot and aeronautical engineer Emil Matthew "Matty" Laird built this airplane -- his third -- in 1915, when he was not yet 21 years old. Its six-cylinder Anzani radial engine caused the vibrations that gave the plane its nickname: the "Boneshaker."
E. M. Laird's 1915 Exhibition Biplane Flying Near the Armory Building, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, May 12-13, 1916
Laird flew his biplane in stunt shows across the United States, wowing crowds with his impressive looping flights. In 1916 he loaned the plane to pilot Katherine Stinson, who flew it during an exhibition tour of Japan and China.
Attracted by the high fees paid to stunt pilots, Katherine Stinson earned her pilot's license in 1912 as a way to finance music lessons. Flight quickly replaced music as her passion and Stinson became one of the most skilled pilots of her day. Though in her 20s, the petite Stinson looked younger. The press dubbed her the "Flying Schoolgirl."
Katherine Stinson Securing Magnesium Flares to Her Laird Biplane at the Tri-State Fair, October 1916
Stinson achieved several firsts: the first woman authorized to carry U.S. air mail, the first woman to fly a complete vertical loop, and the first woman to fly in Japan and China (on her tour with Laird's Boneshaker). In 1915, Stinson also became the first woman to skywrite at night, using flares like these.
When Orville Wright refused to teach Ruth Law to fly, she found another instructor. "The surest way to make me do a thing is to tell me I can’t do it," she later recalled. Law developed a talent for aerobatic flying. This photo shows a dramatic nighttime flight. The long image exposure reveals Law's looping path through the sky.
The golden age of barnstorming began after World War I. The war left the U.S. with newly-trained pilots eager to keep flying, and a surplus of military aircraft sold at bargain prices. The Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" training airplane was the quintessential barnstormer's plane -- cheap, durable, and easy to operate. This "Canuck" is the Canadian-built version of the JN-4.
Philip "Jersey" Ringel hangs upside down from a Jenny's wing in this photo. Wing walkers performed any number of spectacular stunts. Some climbed from moving cars or trains onto airplanes. Some jumped -- midair -- from one plane to another. Some even played mock games of tennis, complete with rackets in hand and a net set up between the wings.
Lillian Boyer was working as a restaurant waitress in 1921 when two customers offered to take her up for an airplane ride. Four days later -- on what was only her second flight -- she tried climbing out onto the wing of the plane. With that brave step, Boyer began her career in aerobatics.
In December 1921, Boyer signed a contract with Lt. Billy Brock, a former World War I pilot and barnstormer, who claimed that no other aerial performers "have the nerve of Miss Boyer." After five months of intense training and practice, Boyer and Brock took their show on the road, billing Lillian as the "Empress of the Air."
Boyer's performances made headlines wherever she appeared. Newspapers proclaimed that her stunts were "unsurpassed in daring by man or woman in the history of aviation!" In her eight-year career, Lillian Boyer performed 352 shows in 41 states and Canada. While she was most famous for her wing walking, Boyer also made 143 automobile-to-airplane transfers and 37 parachute jumps.
Billy Brock was an accomplished pilot and barnstormer in his own right. In 1927, he teamed with Edward F. Schlee to fly around the world in the Stinson SM-1 airplane The Pride of Detroit. Starting from Harbour Grace, Canada, they flew east for 12,295 miles before a typhoon ended their attempt at Tokyo, Japan.
Charles Lindbergh went barnstorming early in his career. Stunt shows gave him more experience in the cockpit, and helped finance his further flying lessons. Lindbergh's showtime repertoire included wing walking and parachute jumping. He earned additional money taking paying passengers up for a quick flight -- a common practice for barnstorming pilots.
Bessie Coleman overcame racism and sexism to become the first Black aviator to earn a pilot's license. Coleman received the nickname "Queen Bess, the Daredevil Aviatrix" for her masterful stunt flying. She died in a crash while preparing for an airshow in 1926. Coleman inspired the character played by Kathryn Boyd in the film The Flying Ace.
Barnstormers couldn't fly forever. Their airplanes aged and decayed, their audiences grew harder to please, and too many performers pushed the limits too far -- often with fatal results. At the same time, the aviation industry matured with the introduction of commercial airlines, improved airplanes, and increasing government regulations. The barnstorming era was all but over by 1930.