Today we can see pilots performing various tricks with their planes. Flying under bridges, doing flips and loops. With aerobatic teams, such as the Red Arrows or Thunderbirds, they attract a huge amount of spectators during airshows.
And the teams do not only do it for fun – they compete with each other, divided into 5 different categories depending on the difficulty of individual aerobatic maneuvers.
But let us go back in past. If you ever saw an aerobatic performance, we can bet you lost your mind at the tricks performed. Now imagine these tricks taken to the next level of danger, difficulty and entertainment. That is where Barnstorming comes in.
During World War 1, the United States built many Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” aircraft. The purpose of these biplanes was to train military personnel and pilots so that they would join the war with some kind of experience in the air. After the war ended, there was a lot of surplus Jenny’s left. As a result, the U.S. government sold them off for a small portion of the original value. While initially, they cost $5,000 to build, people could buy them for as little as $200. Also, businessmen were establishing a lot of aircraft manufacturing companies. But, as the decade went on and aviation did not take off as expected, a lot of them went bankrupt. As a consequence, there was a lot of stock of airplanes, which were reliable and durable, yet cheap at the same time.
The Roaring Twenties were in their peak and culture was booming throughout the United States. People were open-minded and loved to attend various events so that they just could be entertained – Barnstorming had the perfect timing to become popular. Barnstormers (pilots who flew these planes) would fly by small towns to attract local attention. Later on, they would set up a based nearby a town, usually on a farm. That is how the activity gained the name Barnstorming.
The lack of regulation has allowed Barnstorming to flourish. That is why the pilots could fly as low as they could and perform dangerous tricks. Barnstormers did not earn much from their activities, so they would offer plane rider or even get second jobs to get by daily.
Barnstorming performances included a wide variety of tricks. They involved not only a pilot but an aerialist – a person who would walk on wings, perform stunts while jumping with a parachute and midair plane transfers. Various other extreme activities were also present, such as tennis (yes, you read that right – aerialists played tennis while walking on wings) or dancing.
In 1927 Barnstorming was at its peak. But as it flew high, it got shot down quickly. The competition between the pilots got very intense, thus resulting in very dangerous tricks. Consequently, this led to many accidents that got a lot of bad press and new safety regulations. The military also stopped selling “Jenny” aircraft, making it difficult to replace an aircraft after an accident.
The fact that Barnstormers were taking the jobs of the local pilots, such as flying routes and mail service also did not help. They pressured local governments to change the laws of civil aviation. Most barnstorming pilots ended their careers in the early 1930s.
Although dangerous, yet entertaining, Barnstorming has left its mark on aviation. It was the first form of civil aviation and was one of the icons of the Roaring Twenties.
And their heritage is never forgotten – they were the ones who made the foundations for aerobatic performances.