One of the most fascinating periods of aviation history is the age of barnstorming in the 1920s. The end of World War I left many trained pilots out of work and itching to fly again. The military also had a surplus of aircraft, mostly the Curtiss JN-4 Biplane “Jenny,” biplanes, which they sold to former aviators and civilians for a fraction of their original price. The former pilots’ boredom and bravery combined with access to inexpensive planes eventually led to the rise of barnstorming as a wildly popular source of entertainment in the Roaring Twenties.
Barnstorming earned its name from the aerobatic pilots who would land their light planes in fields and use local barns as venues for their impromptu airshows. Paying spectators would gather to watch these daring pilots attempt a variety of dangerous tricks. Daredevil stunt pilots would perform maneuvers like spins, dives, loop-the-loops, and barrel rolls at dangerously low altitudes, and aerialists would attempt feats like wing walking, jumping from plane to plane, and even mid-air tennis matches.
Not all barnstormers were former military men, however. Several famous stunt pilots were ordinary citizens, minorities, and women. Some barnstormers traveled in troupes called flying circuses, dazzling spectators with their coordinated mid-air routines.
By 1927, barnstorming became more competitive, resulting in several dangerous accidents that were highly publicized. The risks of barnstorming soon led to enforced safety regulations by the government. By limiting how low in altitude certain tricks could be performed, it was nearly impossible for spectators to see what was happening in the air. Eventually, these restrictions brought an end to barnstorming as a profitable career.
Barnstorming is still celebrated today as the foundation of modern airshows. Pilots across the country are passionate about preserving vintage planes and continuing the barnstorming tradition by offering open-cockpit biplane rides to the public. Modern airshows still feature daring stunt pilots and wing walkers, though their tricks and maneuvers are much safer than the experimental flying of the 1920s era.