The Barnstormers

After the First World War, aviators returned to America in search of their fortunes in aviation.  For a mere $400 or $500 each, they were able to acquire training aircraft from the government, the most common of which was the venerable Curtiss JN-4D “Jenny.”  During the period after the war, almost every school-aged child knew of the Jenny and hoped to fly one of the wood and fabric aircraft.

For a mere $3, the pilots, commonly known as gypsy pilots or barnstormers, flew the open cockpit airplanes carrying passengers aloft over and around their towns.  Usually, it was a brave and hardy soul who flew with the early barnstormers.  The barnstormers’ Jennies were typically in ill repair with fabric patches covering damaged surfaces and engines which leaked oil and quit running with little or no warning.  For those who dared fly with the gypsy pilots, it meant the possibility of personal harm due to airframe or engine failure, enduring hot rocker cover grease, oil sprayed the face, and the loss of $3 which would go to putting gasoline in the Jenny and food into the pilot.

What did a brave passenger get for the cost of $3?

They got the chance to fly above their home; to see green fields as never before; a chance to look over the horizon; to view cars that looked like toys and friends who were no larger than dolls; they had a chance to look into the future; and if one were really brave, he or she could see the world from upside down while listening to the wind whistling in the wires.

During the 1920’s and early 1930’s, the barnstormers made their impression on America by introducing the country to aviation.  Although the method of this introduction was sometimes less than optimal, the gypsy pilots left a mark on the countryside that was indelible.  By 1925, almost everyone in America became aware of aviation in some manner or form. 

The gypsy pilots and their Jennies lit a match to shine on the aviation industry.  Unknown to them at the time, there was a wind starting to blow and that wind was fanning the fires.

As America moved from the second decade into the third, airplanes and technology improved, in some cases, drastically.  Flying became a more accepted and safer means of travel toward the end of the third decade.   

-30-

© 2010 J. Clark

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3 Responses to The Barnstormers

  1. flyinggma says:

    Where do you find a barnstormer these days? I want to hear the whistling in the wires while flying upside down!

  2. Joe Clark says:

    Believe it or not, the gypsy pilots are still among us. All one need do is visit the local country airport and talk to the pilots who like to give and share rides with those who have never flown in little airplanes. There are some books you should read; by Ernest K. Gann, Fate is the Hunter and A Hostage to Fortune; by Richard Bach, Biplane, Nothing by Chance, A Gift of Wings, and of course, Jonathan Livingston Seagull; and Rinker Buck, Flight of Passage.

  3. flyinggma says:

    My reading list is getting longer each day I know you. I’ve been reading one or two excerpts from Eagle Tales by Joe Clark each evening, nearly finished. I’ve only read one from the above list, Jonathon Livingston Seagull. I’m also reading a book titled Before Amelia: Women Pilots in Early Days of Aviation by Eileen F. Lebow

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