One thousand feet in the air was where Bessie Coleman loved to be--just before
turning her airplane upside down into a loop. Better known as Queen Bess,
Coleman was the first African American woman pilot. She flew stunts at air
shows across America, dazzling crowds as she delivered the message that African
American pilots could fly as well as whites. And deep inside, Coleman knew what
every stunt flyer knows: once flying is in your blood, it's almost impossible
to get it out.|
Coleman was one of a number of daring aviators called barnstormers. Starting in
1910, when they performed at the first American air show in Los Angeles, these
stunt fliers thrilled audiences from coast to coast. At first, since most
people didn't believe that flying was possible, the simple sight of an airborne
plane was enough to wow a crowd. But barnstorming teams became best known for
acrobatic flying, wing walking, and other death defying stunts. Some of these
barnstormers became rich and famous. Others paid for their daring maneuvers
with their lives.
Gates Flying Circus, founded by Major Ivan Gates in 1922, was probably the most
famous barnstorming show. It featured fearless fliers such as "Upside Down"
Pangborn and Diavalo, "Supreme Daredevil of the Air." Numerous other air shows toured America as well. Among them were the "lucky"
13 Black Cats, the Flying Aces, and the Five Blackbirds--the only African
American barnstorming team of its time. Even Orville and Wilbur Wright, who had
invented the airplane, organized their own barnstorming team.
Barnstormers often advertised upcoming shows by pulling long banners through
the air over a city, by flying low and dropping flyers over a town, or by
performing a few sample tricks where potential spectators could watch. Each
team promoted its own unique, death-defying stunts: Jimmy Angel's Flying Circus
offered the "Death Drop. The Cliff Rose Death Angels featured a spiral "batman"
maneuver. Lincoln Beachey, perhaps the greatest early stunt flier, always
reached for new challenges, from flying into the narrow gorge at Niagara Falls
to becoming the first person to fly upside down.
Barnstorming shows were held at airfields, county fairgrounds, and even cow
pastures. Admission was usually 25 or 50 cents, and daring customers could also
buy a plane ride for $1-$15. At the peak of their popularity, air shows drew
crowds of up to 50,000 people. Amazed spectators watched as barnstormers flew
loops and spins, climbed a ladder from a speeding car to a low-flying plane, or
even hung by their teeth from a trapeze dangling below a plane's
In most barnstorming shows, men piloted the planes. When women participated,
they most often performed stunts such as wing walking. Gladys Ingle was famous
for shooting arrows at a target while standing on the top wing of a Curtiss
Jenny--and for changing planes in mid-air. Georgia "Tiny" Broderick was the
first woman to parachute from a plane--at 2,000 feet--in 1913. She went on to
perform over 1,110 jumps.
Some women, such as Queen Bess Coleman, didn't want to walk on top of
airplanes--they wanted to fly them. Coleman's performance at the Chicago
Checkerboard Airdome in 1922 was the first ever given by a black woman. Mabel
Cody competed with men as well--by running her own flying circus. She performed
stunts as well, including dancing on the wing of a flying plane.
No matter what their gender, barnstormers--and their passengers--faced danger
every time they flew. Bessie Coleman fell to her death when her plane flipped
over unexpectedly during a practice flight. And Lincoln Beachey drowned after
crashing into the harbor during a show on the San Francisco waterfront.
Spectators who paid for joy rides sometimes died in crashes as well.
Stunt flying was dangerous, but the thrill of defying death was just one
element that attracted young pilots to the profession. On a daily basis,
barnstormers challenged their own abilities, strength, and courage. And while
many stunt fliers barely made enough to keep their planes running, others
struck it rich. Ormer Locklear died in a crash while doing a stunt for a
Hollywood movie. But at the time of his death, he commanded as much as $3,000
Above all, the barnstormers were heroes. Ormer Locklear had a huge
following--he posed for photographs and signed autographs for throngs of
adoring fans. Before her death, Bessie Coleman spoke at rallies, schools, and
churches to encourage young African Americans to fight racism, to reach for
personal goals, and especially, to learn to fly. And barnstormer Charles
Lindbergh catapulted to international fame when he became the first person to
fly nonstop from New York to Paris. For people across America, the barnstormers
provided thrills, chills, and a new breed of hero--the daring young stunt
fliers who risked everything to put on a show.