Barnstorming pilots always drew a crowd

A. K. Longren and Clyde Cessna were among the most active of a “band of brothers” crisscrossing kansas from 1912 forward, demonstrating the capabilities of aircraft and providing rip-roaring entertainment at the same time.(Kansas State Historical Society photo)

By Joe EarleThe Wichita Eagle

This article originally appeared in the Eagle on Monday, December 3, 1984.

They’d set out one or two or three at a time, flying World War I surplus
biplanes low over the Kansas countryside and looking for a farm they could
turn into a temporary airstrip on the edge of a small town.

Then, after cutting a quick deal with the farmer, they were in the air
again, engines popping and throttles open. They’d buzz downtown, turn a loop or
two in the air, then hop back to their newfound airfield to greet the expected

And the crowds came. They’d follow a looping biplane out into the
farmlands and find a man or woman selling tickets for a ride in an airplane –
maybe as little as $1 for a five-minute trip around the field, $2.50 for a
chance to fly all around town.

That was the way a lot of people first saw airplanes in the 1920s. That
was the way the barnstormers came to town.

“In those days, the airplane was a novelty,” said Monty Barnes, 80, a
former Kansas barnstormer and test pilot who now lives in California. “You
could draw a crowd by going out and landing in these little towns. . . .
Barnstorming or passenger carrying was one of the big sources of revenue clear
up until the 1930s. There was a lot of people who had never flown in an

A barnstormer often was part stunt pilot, part showman, part grease
monkey, part entrepreneur. Just about anybody with an airplane could take a
shot at barnstorming, and, at one time or another, many of them did. Walter
Beech barnstormed in his younger days. So did Charles Lindbergh. So did a lot
of young pilots who bought planes and flew off across the country in search of
enough business to keep their planes in gas and themselves in nickel

While barnstormers often were crisscrossing the countryside in
reconditioned older planes, other pilots were trying to push newer, shinier
airplanes to their limits for trophies and thousands of dollars in prizes.

They were the glamorous pilots, the racers, men and women who chased speed
around pylons or who sought to show that commercial airplanes were safe and
reliable over long distances. They showcased the abilities of the latest in
airplane technology and design. They matched stamina and machinery against the
elements or one another to break down one barrier after another.

The racers also focused attention on the young companies that built their

“Aircraft of the early commercial era were purchased almost exclusively
by sportsmen pilots,” wrote Herb Rawdon, an engineer and designer for
Wichita’s Travel Air Manufacturing Co. “Obviously, under such circumstances,
racing and competitive events were the order of the day.”

Travel Air – the company that at one time housed Walter Beech, Clyde
Cessna and Lloyd Stearman, who all went on to head their own companies –
gained a national reputation and promoted sales through a series of races.

In 1926, Beech flew a Travel Air to win the annual Ford Reliability Tour,
an annual cross-country race intended to show that planes were reliable over
long distances. The next year, Art Goebel flew a Travel Air called the
“Woolaroc” from California to Hawaii and won a $25,000 prize put up by
pineapple tycoon James Dole.

And in 1929, a red-and-black Travel Air racer known as the “Mystery Ship”
or “Mystery S” because of the secrecy that surrounded its development, was
flown around the pylons at the National Air Races in Cleveland at nearly 195
mph. The Mystery, designed by Rawdon and Walter Burnham, whipped the fastest
planes of the U.S. Army and Navy. “It made them mad as hell,” said former
Travel Air test pilot Neuman Wadlow.

In 1930, the national speed race was won again by a civilian-built plane,
a biplane called the “Solution” and designed by Matty Laird – the same Laird
who founded Wichita’s first commercial airplane company and had employed
Cessna, Beech and Stearman before they founded Travel Air.

The early races were proving grounds for daring pilots and for designers
or engineers with new ideas, but early airplane companies also needed ready
money to stay in business. In the days when planes were hard to sell, the
infant companies often turned to the old standby used by the barnstormers –
taking passengers up for a thrill and some sight-seeing.

The same pilots who test-flew models just off the production lines during
the week would fly passengers on the weekends or at night. The money from
flying passengers helped some infant airplane companies meet their payrolls in
the early and mid-1920s, said pilots who flew for the companies.

Out in the countryside, the problems facing barnstormers weren’t always
simply economic. Eugene Lawrence remembers when he and Carl Winstead, who both
flew out of Wichita then, were barnstorming in Arkansas and found themselves
trapped in a fire.

They were supposed to do a show at 6 p.m. one night, he said, and arrived
at the field early that afternoon. A passing train struck a spark, Lawrence
said, and suddenly the field was ablaze.

“Carl and I tried to figure out what we could do,” Lawrence said. “The
wind was coming pretty fast.”

There was no one around, Lawrence said, and the fire was moving quickly
across the field. The fabric and wood in their planes would go up like
matches, they thought. As the fire moved closer, they took fire extinguishers
and sprayed the planes’ tails. Then they pushed the planes through a thin part
of the fire, onto the blackened grass that had already burned. Both planes
were saved, Lawrence said, but “we looked black as coal.”

While barnstorming was one way a pilot could pay the bills, Jessie Woods
and her husband, Jimmy, set off on another.

The Woodses started out as barnstormers. They barnstormed for about a
year, she said, working their way from Wichita to Florida for the winter and
then flew back in May. And, she said, they almost starved.

“That (first) year, I learned many things,” said Woods, 75, who has now
retired to Florida. “I soloed an airplane. I learned how to wing-walk,
parachute, do rope-ladder work (underneath a flying airplane). I learned how
to grind valves. I finally figured out I was getting used. I learned to live
without eating, sleep without a bed. I learned everything you saw wasn’t
necessarily what it looked like.”

After their first year on the road, the Woodses started a flying circus
based in Wichita. They called themselves the Flying Aces.

“My husband . . . decided that we couldn’t make any money barnstorming,”
she said. “He decided that if a man could pay a dollar for a short plane ride,
he would pay that dollar to take his whole family to an air show.”

The flying Aces traveling air show took five planes and midair acrobatics
to towns from the Rockies to the Atlantic, from Canada to Florida. The Woodses
employed several Wichita pilots off and on and used Wichita-built planes such
as Swallows and Travel Airs. They averaged one show a week for nine years,
Woods said.

“We lived on the road, in hotels and tourist courts. Sometimes we slept
under the wings,” she said. “Don’t let them kid you – it wasn’t romantic. I
slept on the bottom wing of an airplane. I learned how to sleep there without
falling off. I’ve gone through as much as three days without sleep. There’s
nothing romantic about that.”

The Woodses’ show was entirely self-contained. An advance man would go
into a town a few days ahead of the circus and line up a local sponsor, such
as a civic club, and a field. Then the Flying Aces would come to town, do a
few shows and move on.

Pilots were paid $200 a month and mechanics about $150, she said. And the
pilots could use the Woodses’ airplanes to barnstorm on the side, she said,
which added a nice income. The Woodses themselves got whatever was left over
after expenses.

“Some weeks we didn’t clear anything. Some weeks we’d clear $800 or
$900,” she said. “But when you’d make it big, there was always something to
take it away. There were times when we were riding high and times when we were
down in the gutter.”

The flying circuses were finally run out of business, Woods said, by the
federal government. The government wanted to promote the safety of flying; it
didn’t want daredevil pilots and aerial acrobats doing crazy stunts to thrill
the crowds.

The wild days of barnstorming and flying circuses were over. Aviation had
become an industry.

©The Wichita Eagle