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Curtiss JN-4 in flight over Central Ontario, circa 1918
"Flying circus" redirects here. For other uses see Flying circus (disambiguation).

Barnstorming was a popular form of entertainment in the USA in the 1920s, in which stunt pilots would perform tricks with airplanes, either individually or in groups called a flying circus. Barnstorming was the first major form of civil aviation in the history of flight.[citation needed]

The term barnstormer was also applied to pilots who flew throughout the country selling airplane rides, usually operating from a farmer's field for a day or two before moving on. "Barnstorming season" ran from early spring until after the harvest and county fairs in the fall.

The term barnstorming comes from an earlier American tradition of rural political campaigns.


Initial growth[edit]

An advertising poster for the an 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 being popular before World War I in the USA, but barnstorming did not become a formal phenomenon until the 1920s.

During the first World War, the United States had manufactured a significant number of Curtiss JN-4s (called Jennys) to train its military aviators and almost every U.S. airman had learned to fly using the plane. After the war the U.S. federal government sold off the surplus materiel, including the Jennys, for a fraction of its initial value (the $5,000 purchase price of a Jenny could be reduced to as low as $200). This permitted many of the servicemen, who were already familiar with the JN-4s, to purchase their own planes. The similar-looking Standard J-1 biplane, almost identical in appearance to the Curtiss aircraft, also frequently found itself similarly available.

At the same time, numerous aircraft manufacturing companies sprang up, most going broke 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 during the post war era.

Regulation and decline[edit]

Initially thriving in North America during the first half of the 1920s, by 1927 competition between acts demanded more and more dangerous tricks and a rash of highly publicized accidents forced the implementation of new safety regulations that resulted in 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 several laws to begin regulating fledgling civil aviation.

The laws included safety standards and specifications that were nearly impossible for barnstormers to meet, and restrictions on how low in altitude 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, which, combined with the regulations, made it too difficult for barnstormers to continue making a living.

Some pilots continued to wander the country giving rides as late as the fall of 1941.

Contemporary barnstorming[edit]

Some modern pilots flying restored vintage aircraft, or accurate reproduction aircraft of vintage design, continue the barnstorming tradition and offer open cockpit biplane rides to the public from a handful of airports around the country.

Typical performances[edit]

Most barnstorming shows started with a pilot, or team of pilots flying over a small rural town to attract the attention of the local inhabitants. They would then land at a local farm (hence the name "barnstorming") and negotiate with the farmer for the use of one of his fields as a temporary runway from which to stage an air show and offer airplane rides to customers. After obtaining a base of operation, the pilot or group of aviators would "buzz" the village dropping handbills offering airplane rides for a small fee and advertise the daring feats that would be performed. Crowds would follow the planes to the field, purchase rides and watch the show. In some towns the appearance of a barnstormer or an aerial troop would lead to almost everything in the town shutting down as people attended the show.[citation needed]

Barnstormers would perform 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 while aerialists would perform feats of wing walking, stunt parachuting, midair plane transfers or even playing tennis, target shooting or dancing while on the plane's wings.

Flying circuses[edit]

Although barnstormers often worked in solitude or in very small teams, some also put together large "flying circuses" with several 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.

Notable barnstormers[edit]

In popular culture[edit]

  • Pylon (novel) by William Faulkner Published in 1935, is the story of a group of barnstormers whose lives are thoroughly unconventional.
  • Round the Bend (1951 novel) by Nevil Shute gives a detailed account of the activities of Alan Cobham's National Aviation Day. Archive sources show that Shute, in research for writing the book, wrote to Cobham to check details.
  • Many of Richard Bach's novels feature a modern barnstormer as a protagonist or other elements of barnstorming
  • In 1982 Activision produced a Barnstorming game cartridge for the Atari 2600
  • In 1982, Philip Jose Farmer's book A Barnstormer in Oz featured Hank Stover, a barnstorming pilot.
  • In RollerCoaster Tycoon 2, a roller coaster type titled "Barnstorming Roller Coaster" is available when the Time Twister expansion pack is installed. The coaster cars of this coaster type are replica biplanes.
  • The name of the independent league baseball team of Lancaster, PA is the "Barnstormers."
  • The name of an Arena Football team in Des Moines, Iowa is the "Iowa Barnstomers".
  • In RollerCoaster Tycoon 3's Wild! Expansion Pack, a "Barn Stormer" ride can be built.
  • ON the MTV hit show "Nitro Circus" Travis Pastrana, Jolene Van Vugt, and Erik Roner all go Wing-walking on a bi-plane with no chutes or harnesses.
  • Cadet Squadron 23 at the United States Air Force Academy is known as the "Barnstormers".
  • In the comic strip Peanuts, Snoopy's alter ego, the World War I Flying Ace, states that after the war he may do a little barnstorming.


  • Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) – comedy about "pioneer era" (1903-1914) air racing & barnstorming in Europe
  • Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies (1973) - story by Steven Spielberg. Starring Cliff Robertson as a Jenny pilot who barnstorms the United States in the 1920s with his young son.
  • The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)
  • Nothing by Chance (1975) – a documentary produced and narrated by Hugh Downs about the biplanes that barnstormed across America during the 1920s
  • "Days Of Heaven" (1978) - Terrence Mallick- includes scenes with a barnstorm troop who visit a farm, and perform.
  • The Gypsy Moths (1969) - American drama film directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, based on the novel of the same name by James Drought.

See also[edit]