Last updated
A Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" over central Ontario, Canada, c. 1918 Curtiss JN-4 in flight over Central Ontario.jpg
A Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" over central Ontario, Canada, c. 1918

Barnstorming was a form of entertainment in which stunt pilots performed tricks individually or in groups that were called flying circuses. Devised to "impress people with the skill of pilots and the sturdiness of planes," [1] it became popular in the United States during the Roaring Twenties. [2]


Barnstormers were pilots who flew throughout the country to sell airplane rides and perform stunts. Charles Lindbergh first began flying as a barnstormer. [3] Barnstorming was the first major form of civil aviation in the history of aviation.



An advertising poster for the early flying exhibition team, the Moisant International Aviators Moisant-John 03.jpg
An advertising poster for the early flying exhibition team, the Moisant International Aviators

The Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss had early flying exhibition teams, with solo flyers like Lincoln Beachey and Didier Masson also popular before World War I, but barnstorming did not become a formal phenomenon until the 1920s. The first barnstormer, taught to fly by Curtiss in 1909, was one Charles Foster Willard, who is also credited as the first to be shot down in an airplane when an annoyed farmer fired a squirrel gun and broke his propeller. [4]

During World War I, the United States manufactured a significant number of Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" biplanes to train its military aviators, and almost every American airman learned to fly using the plane. After the war the U.S. federal government sold off the surplus material, including the Jennys, for a fraction of their initial value (they had cost the government $5,000 each, but were being sold for as low as $200). [5] This allowed many servicemen who already knew how to fly the JN-4s to purchase their own planes. The similar-looking Standard J-1 biplane was also available.

At the same time, numerous aircraft manufacturing companies sprang up, most failing after building only a handful of planes. Many of these were reliable and even advanced designs which suffered from the failure of the aviation market to expand as expected, and a number of these found their way into the only active markets—mail carrying, barnstorming, and smuggling. Sometimes a plane and its owner would drift between the three activities as opportunity presented.

Combined with the lack of Federal Aviation Regulations at the time, these factors allowed barnstorming to flourish.

Growth and heyday

Flying circuses

Although barnstormers often worked alone or in very small teams, some also organized large "flying circuses" with multiple planes and stunt people. These acts employed promoters to book shows in towns ahead of time. They were the largest and most organized of all of the barnstorming acts. Well-known circuses included the Five Blackbirds (an African American flying group), the Flying Aces Air Circus, the 13 Black Cats, Mabel Cody’s Flying Circus, the Inman Brothers Flying Circus, and the Marie Meyer Flying Circus. [6] Perhaps the largest and most successful of these was the Gates Flying Circus, which attracted in its heyday tens of thousands to a single show. [7] A Time magazine article estimated it staged 2000 air meets in 44 states. [8] [9]

Women and minorities

Barnstorming was performed not only by former military men, but also by women, minorities, and minority women. [10] For example, on July 18, 1915, Katherine Stinson became the first woman in the world to perform a loop. [5] Bessie Coleman, an African-American woman, "not only thrilled audiences with her skills as a barnstormer, but she also became a role model for women and African Americans. Her very presence in the air threatened prevailing contemporary stereotypes. She also fought segregation when she could by using her influence as a celebrity." [10]

Charles Lindbergh, before his fame

Charles Lindbergh engaged in barnstorming in his early years, with the Marie Meyer Flying Circus and others, making a marginal living; Errold Bahl hired him as an assistant, and as a promotional stunt, Lindbergh "volunteered to climb out onto the wing and wave to the crowds below," a performance known as "wing walking." [1] During a barnstorming tour in Minnesota and Wisconsin in 1923, he made the "decision to pursue further formal instruction with the U.S. Army Air Service." [3]

Regulation and decline

The sensational journalism and economic prosperity that marked the Jazz Age in the United States allowed barnstormers to publicize aviation and eventually contributed to bringing about regulation and control. [3] In 1925, the U.S. government began regulating aviation, when it passed the Contract Air Mail Act, which allowed the U.S. Post Office to hire private airlines to deliver mail with payments made based on the weight of the mail. The following year, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Air Commerce Act, which shifted the management of air routes to a new branch in the Department of Commerce, which was also responsible for "licensing of planes and pilots, establishing safety regulations, and general promotion." [11] [12]

Barnstorming "seemed to be founded on bravado, with 'one-upmanship' a major incentive." [13] By 1927, competition among barnstormers resulted in their performing increasingly dangerous tricks, and a rash of highly publicized accidents led to new safety regulations, which led to the demise of barnstorming. Spurred by a perceived need to protect the public and in response to political pressure by local pilots upset at barnstormers stealing their customers, the federal government enacted laws to regulate a fledgling civil aviation sector.

Breitling Wingwalkers photo essay 120715-F-RP755-375.jpg
Breitling Wingwalkers

The laws included safety standards and specifications that were virtually impossible for barnstormers to meet,[ citation needed ], such as the minimun altitude at which certain tricks could be performed (making it harder for spectators to see what was happening). The military also stopped selling Jennys in the late 1920s. This made it too difficult for barnstormers to make a living. Clyde Pangborn, who was the pilot of the two-man aviation team who were the first to cross the Pacific Ocean nonstop in 1931, ended his barnstorming career in 1931. [14] Some pilots, however, continued to wander the country giving rides as late as fall 1941.[ citation needed ]



"Barnstorming season" ran from early spring until after the harvest and county fairs in the fall. Most barnstorming shows started with a pilot, or team of pilots flying over a small rural town to attract local attention. They would then land at a local farm (hence the term "barnstorming") and negotiate for the use of a field as a temporary runway from which to stage an air show and offer airplane rides. After obtaining a base of operation, the pilot or group of aviators would "buzz" the village and drop flyers. [1] In some towns the arrival of a barnstormer or an aerial troupe would lead to a town-wide shutdown as people attended the show.


Stunts which were seen at the Marie Meyer Flying Circus, 1924 The Intelligencer Fri Aug 1 1924 cartoon.jpg
Stunts which were seen at the Marie Meyer Flying Circus, 1924

Barnstormers performed a variety of stunts, with some specializing as stunt pilots or aerialists. Stunt pilots performed a variety of aerobatic maneuvers, including spins, dives, loop-the-loops and barrel rolls. Meanwhile, aerialists performed feats of wing walking, stunt parachuting, midair plane transfers, or even playing tennis, target shooting, and dancing on the plane's wings. Other stunts included nose dives and flying through barns, which sometimes led to pilots crashing their planes. [5]


Barnstormers offered plane rides for a small fee. Lindbergh, for example, charged five dollars for a 15-minute ride in his plane. [3] However exciting and glamorous, it was not an easy way to make a steady living. To make ends meet, the barnstormers—including Charles Lindbergh—often had to moonlight as flying instructors, handymen, gas station attendants, etc. [1] Barnstormers often traded plane rides for room and board, both for commercial lodging and in private homes. [3]

Notable barnstormers


Movies and TV

Video games


See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alan Cobham</span> English aviation pioneer (1894–1973)

Sir Alan John Cobham, KBE, AFC was an English aviation pioneer.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Douglas Corrigan</span> American aviator (1907–1995)

Douglas Corrigan was an American aviator, nicknamed "Wrong Way" in 1938. After a transcontinental flight in July from Long Beach, California, to New York City, he then flew from Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn to Ireland, although his flight plan was filed to return to Long Beach.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Clyde Pangborn</span> American aviator

Clyde Edward Pangborn, nicknamed "Upside-Down Pangborn", was an American aviator and barnstormer who performed aerial stunts in the 1920s for the Gates Flying Circus. He was its half-owner, chief pilot and operating manager, working in partnership with Ivan R. Gates. In 1931, Pangborn and co-pilot Hugh Herndon Jr. flew their plane, Miss Veedol, on the first non-stop flight across the Pacific Ocean.

<i>The Great Waldo Pepper</i> 1975 film by George Roy Hill

The Great Waldo Pepper is a 1975 American drama film directed, produced, and co-written by George Roy Hill. Set during 1926–1931, the film stars Robert Redford as a disaffected World War I veteran pilot who missed the opportunity to fly in combat, and examines his sense of postwar dislocation in 1920s America. The cast includes Margot Kidder, Bo Svenson, Edward Herrmann and Susan Sarandon. The Great Waldo Pepper depicts barnstorming during the 1920s and the accidents that led to aviation regulations by the Air Commerce Act.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Clarence Chamberlin</span> American aviation pioneer

Clarence Duncan Chamberlin was an American pioneer of aviation, being the second man to pilot a fixed-wing aircraft across the Atlantic Ocean, from New York to the European mainland, while carrying the first transatlantic passenger.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">The Barnstormer</span> Roller coaster at Disneys Magic Kingdom

The Barnstormer is a junior roller coaster. It is located in the Storybook Circus section of the Magic Kingdom at the Walt Disney World Resort. The Great Goofini's Barnstormer is the successor to The Barnstormer at Goofy's Wiseacre Farm which closed in February 2011 as part of the Fantasyland expansion.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Otto Timm</span>

Otto William Timm was a California-based barnstormer and aircraft manufacturer of German descent. Charles Lindbergh's first flight was flown by Timm. Timm partnered at times with his brother Wally Timm who did a lot of flying for the nascent Hollywood movie industry.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Wing walking</span> Aerial barnstorming daredevil stunt

Wing walking is the act of moving along the wings of an aeroplane during flight, sometimes transferring between planes. It originated as a daredevil stunt in the aerial barnstorming shows of the 1920s, and became the subject of several Hollywood movies. An early exponent was Ormer Locklear, who was killed performing a dive on film. Charles Lindbergh began his aviation career as a wing walker.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Giuseppe Mario Bellanca</span> Italian-American airplane designer

Giuseppe Mario Bellanca was an Italian-American aviation pioneer, airplane designer and builder, who is credited with many design firsts and whose aircraft broke many aviation records. He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1973. The Bellanca C.F., one of the world's first enclosed-cabin monoplanes, is on display at the National Air and Space Museum. Bellanca was known mostly for his long range aircraft which led the way for the advancement of international and commercial air transportation.

<i>Reaching for the Skies</i> British TV series or programme

Reaching for the Skies was an aviation documentary TV series made by BBC Pebble Mill in association with CBS Fox. The first episode was transmitted in the United Kingdom on 12 September 1988 and in the US in 1989.

Stunt flying refers to any stunts performed in an aircraft. It encompasses aerobatics, wing walking, and transferring from one airplane to another or to a moving vehicle on the ground, such as an automobile or train, and vice versa.

Moye Wicks Stephens was an American aviator and businessman. He was a pioneer in aviation, circumnavigating the globe with adventure writer Richard Halliburton in 1931, and co-founding Northrop Aircraft, Inc.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tex Rankin</span> American aviator (1894-1947)

John Gilbert "Tex" Rankin was an aerobatic pilot, barnstormer, air racer, and flight instructor from the 1920s to the 1940s. He created the Rankin Flying Service which trained thousands of pilots at Rankin Field for the US Army Air Force in World War II. He was the 1935 US Aerobatic champion and 1938 World Aerobatic champion.

<i>Sky Bride</i> 1932 film

Sky Bride is a 78-minute 1932 drama film, produced by Paramount Pictures and directed by Stephen Roberts. The film stars Richard Arlen, Jack Oakie and Virginia Bruce. Sky Bride depicts the life of barnstorming pilots flying in the years following World War I. All over North America, skilled pilots, many of them veterans of the aerial combat of World War I, plied their trade on the barnstorming circuit of the 1920s in small towns where impromptu air shows were staged.

<i>Nothing by Chance</i> 1975 American film

Nothing by Chance is a 1975 American documentary film based on the 1969 book by Richard Bach, Nothing by Chance: A Gypsy Pilot's Adventures in Modern America. The film centers on modern barnstorming around the United States in the 1970s. One of the driving forces behind the production, star Richard Bach, is a pilot in real life, and recruited a group of his friends who were also pilots to recreate the era of the barnstormer.

Clifford Ball was an American farmer, soldier, bookkeeper, clerk, automobile dealer, airplane dealer, airline owner, airline operator, airline executive, radio manufacturer, Civil Air Patrol officer and chaplain, and aviation pioneer.

Emma Carter Browning was an American pilot and aviation executive from Texas.

Ivan Rhuele "Van" Gates was an American aviator and entrepreneur. While a member of the San Francisco Police Department, he is credited with being the first to transport a prisoner by air. He founded or co-founded the barnstorming Gates Flying Circus, which attained much success and fame in the 1920s. Later, he and designer Charles Healy Day established the Gates-Day Aircraft Company, subsequently renamed the New Standard Aircraft Company, to design and manufacture airplanes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Marie Meyer (aviator)</span> American pilot, wingwalker and parachutist

Marie Meyer, later Marie Meyer Fower, was an American barnstorming pilot who ran the Marie Meyer Flying Circus in the United States in the 1920s. She was a pilot, a wingwalker and a parachutist. She competed in international air races in both St. Louis and Dayton.


  1. 1 2 3 4 "Daredevil Lindbergh and His Barnstorming Days". PBS. Retrieved 26 March 2015.
  2. David H. Onkst. "Clyde 'Upside-Down' Pangborn". U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission. Retrieved 26 March 2015.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 Bruce L. Larson (Summer 1991). "Barnstorming with Lindbergh" (PDF). Minnesota History. Minnesota Historical Society. pp. 231–238. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-07-01. Retrieved 2015-03-26.
  4. "Charles F. Willard, Who is Trying to Perfect Monoplane; Bullet Hit Airship of Boston Aviator; Charles F. Willard of Hull Has Become Prominent in Aeronautics". Boston Journal. Boston, Mass. June 2, 1910. p. 3. It was a Boston man who figured in the first case recorded of an aeroplane brought to earth by a bullet...Charles F. Willard, whose machine was wrecked in Joplin, Mo., during a cross-country flight
    • AP News (February 2, 1977). "Charles F. Willard Is Dead". The New York Times. New York. p. 17.
    • Willard, Charles F. (February 1956). Frank H. Ellis (ed.). Frail were my Wings. pp. 31, 70.{{cite book}}: |magazine= ignored (help)
  5. 1 2 3 "Barnstorming History". Southern Biplane Adventures. Archived from the original on 24 March 2015. Retrieved 26 March 2015.
  6. Cooper, Joan (1999). "Marie Meyer's Flying Circus". In Corbett, Katharine T. (ed.). In her place : a guide to St. Louis women's history. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press. pp. 241–242. ISBN   978-1883982300.
  7. "Can You Outdo This??". San Diego Air & Space Museum.
  8. "Aeronautics: Ringling of the Air". Time . December 5, 1932.
  9. 1 2 "The History of Barnstorming". May 31, 2011. Archived from the original on August 12, 2016. Retrieved March 26, 2015.
  10. 1 2 David H. Onkst. "Women in History: Bessie Coleman". USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Archived from the original on 16 February 2016. Retrieved 26 March 2015.
  11. Andrew Glass (May 20, 2013). "Congress passed Air Commerce Act, May 20, 1926". Politico .
  12. "The Air Commerce Act of 1926". AvStop Online Magazine. Archived from the original on 14 March 2015. Retrieved 26 March 2015.
  13. "Aviation Pioneers". National Park Service . Retrieved 26 March 2015.
  14. Priscilla Long (October 12, 2005). "Pangborn, Clyde Edward (1894-1958)". HistoryLink.