This article was originally published Jan. 25, 2021.
In the 1920s, a great wave of excitement about airplanes and flying swept the nation. It is remembered as the Golden Age of Aviation, part of the “Roaring Twenties,” a period of flamboyant change that overlapped with the Jazz age, the prohibition era, and the Depression.
Flying was still relatively new with lots of rough edges. The state of the art was open-cockpit biplanes with lightweight wood frames covered by doped fabric. However, aviation was developing rapidly along with other technologies that included the emergence of motion pictures, radio, and everyday use of automobiles.
First came the barnstormers, rough-and-ready pilots in war surplus airplanes bought on the civilian market for as little as $50. They fanned out in large numbers to airstrips and farmers’ fields for shows that featured aerobatic maneuvers, inverted flight, wing walkers, and stunt performers clambering from one airplane to another in flight.
After the war, stunt pilots and wing walkers brought their shows to the people, even in the most remote areas.
David Onkst, aviation historian
Higher up the status ladder were the air racers, who competed for trophy honors and cash prizes in airplanes of advanced design. Race results were front-page news in The New York Times and the most successful pilots—such as Jimmy Doolittle and Roscoe Turner—were famous.
The popularity of aviation peaked in May 1927 with Charles A. Lindbergh’s solo nonstop flight in his monoplane, The Spirit of St Louis, from New York to Paris. It was the occasion for worldwide celebration.
The romance of the air continued into the 1930s, spurred along by the movies and other factors. The barnstormers were no longer part of it, though, pushed aside by the rising cost of aviation as the old biplanes were supplanted by closed-cockpit monoplanes of all metal construction. New laws and safety regulations put an end to the more dangerous aspects of the exhibitions.
Almost all of the barnstormers flew the same kind of airplane: the Curtiss Jenny. It was America’s first mass-produced aircraft, a two-seater with a conventional wood and fabric structure, 27 feet 4 inches long and a wingspan of 43 feet.
Ninety percent of U.S. pilots in World War I trained on the Jenny. The definitive design of the series, the JN-4D, was introduced in June 1917. Total production was 6,070, of which some 3,300 were available as surplus in 1919. Jenny prices dropped as the Air Service sold its excess inventory directly to the public.
Maximum speed was 75 mph but the Jenny could be throttled down for a slow pass a few feet above the ground where the spectators got a good look. With modification, it could be landed at 35 mph.
“The slow-flying Jenny was perfect for wing walkers who clung to the Jenny’s maze of struts, the straight wheel axle, or the king posts above the wings while performing death-defying stunts for the crowds below,” says a posting by the National Air and Space Museum.
Old photos show wing walkers working in smooth-soled boots, no safety harness in sight. In an especially spectacular feat, a Jenny at low level would overtake an open-top automobile speeding along the airstrip. As the airplane approached, a stunt man in the car reached upward to grab a rope ladder dangling from the lower wing and was yanked into the air.
With plenty of airplanes and pilots on hand, between 500 and 600 young fliers flocked to the barnstorming circuit.
“Air shows changed significantly,” said David H. Onkst, writing for the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission. “In the past, spectators had usually gone to airfields to see an exhibition, but after the war, stunt pilots and wing walkers brought their shows to the people, even in the most remote areas.
“As a result, barnstorming became one of the era’s most popular forms of entertainment. Essentially, when a barnstorming show toured a region, most towns in the area would shut down on the spur of the moment so that everyone could see the exhibition.
“The pilot or teams of aviators 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 rides to the customers,” Onkst said.
It was dangerous, of course, but danger was part of the attraction. In 1923 alone, there were 179 barnstorming accidents, in which 85 were killed and 126 injured. There were no federal regulations governing aviation.
By the late 1920s, though, “new safety regulations forced the demise of the popular entertainment,” Onkst said. “Such laws made it nearly impossible for barnstormers to keep their already fragile Jennys up to specification (let alone in the air) and outlawed several forms of aerial stunts, at least at a low enough altitude where crowds could easily view them.”
Some of the larger air shows, particularly those staged from regular airports, advertised themselves as “air circuses.”
A step up from the dusty air shows were the big air races, sponsored by manufacturing companies and wealthy aviation enthusiasts and offering large cash prizes to the aviators who flew their airplanes, often custom built, to victory.
There were four major trophy races—the Schneider, the Pulitzer, the Thompson, and the Bendix—and national newspapers gave them detailed coverage in front-page articles. In 1929, the Thompson competition was merged into the National Air Races, a 10-day series of events that became the most important of the racing venues. In 1929, more than half a million people attended the National Air Races, which were held in Cleveland. The New York Times called it “the greatest annual air pageant in the United States.”
The leading air racers also set important records on their own. Among the best known of the contenders was James H. Doolittle, who gained fame early. His self-deprecating wit concealed a driving ambition.
Doolittle set his first record in 1922 as the first pilot to make a transcontinental flight of the United States in less than 24 hours. He won the Schneider Trophy in 1925 and the Bendix in 1931. He went on to lead the air raid on Tokyo in 1942 and command 8th Air Force in Europe. In 1946, he was elected as the first president of the new Air Force Association.
The 1932 National Air Races were a showcase for Doolittle. He won the 100-mile Thompson Trophy with an average speed of 252 mph and in a separate event, set a world speed record at 296 mph.
In both instances, he flew a Granville Brothers “Gee-Bee” R-1 Super Sportster, which stood out—even among experimental aircraft—as strange-looking. Just 17 feet long, it has been described as “the smallest possible airframe constructed around the most powerful available engine.” The stubby Gee Bee was notoriously unstable, but very fast. Doolittle knew it was dangerous but flew it anyway because, he said, “it was the fastest thing going.”
Lindbergh bought his first airplane—a war surplus Jenny, of course—in 1923, when he was 20 years old. Even before that, “I began to do a little wing walking,” he said, “flying low over town while I was standing on one of the wing tips.” He became an air mail pilot in 1926.
His eye, however, was on bigger things. A purse of $25,000 was offered by hotel owner Raymond Orteig to the first aviator or aviators to fly nonstop from Paris to New York or New York to Paris.
Two British airmen, John Alcock and Arthur Brown, had already made the first nonstop transatlantic flight, but it was from Newfoundland to Ireland. Lindbergh’s flight from Roosevelt Field in New York to Paris would be nearly twice that distance.
Ryan Airlines Corporation built a single-engine airplane, The Spirit of St. Louis, to Lindbergh’s specifications. To save weight it had no radio, gas gauge, night flying lights, navigation equipment, or parachute.
Lindbergh landed at Le Bourget Field in Paris May 21,1927, after a grueling flight of 33.5 hours. Tens of thousands had gathered to await his arrival. He won the Orteig prize and returned to further acclaim in the United States. Four million people lined the route of a parade in New York, and he received the Medal of Honor by special act of Congress.
His flight added considerably to the public’s enthusiasm for aviation. This showed up in the form of popular songs and movies and supposedly was the inspiration for a popular dance, the Lindy Hop.
The lore of flight and airplanes flashing across the screen were an ideal fit as motion pictures expanded from silent films to higher-budget sound epics. The studios recruited former barnstormers to do the flying.
First of the major features was “Wings,” released in 1927. It was set during the battle of Saint-Mihiel in World War I and won the Academy Award for Best Picture, the only silent film ever to do so. Gary Cooper, just starting out, had a small role as a cadet.
“Wings” was a box office success and the yardstick against which future aviation films would be measured. “Hell’s Angels,” produced in 1930 by Howard Hughes, sought to rival the success of “Wings” and was well received.
Best remembered of the big aviation movies was “Dawn Patrol.” It was done twice, starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr., in the 1930s version and Errol Flynn in the 1938 remake.
Almost forgotten, however, is “Plane Crazy,” from 1928, one of Walt Disney’s last silent animated films. A rubber-legged Mickey Mouse takes his girl friend Minnie up on a flight. The silent cartoon did not go into distribution and was remade as a sound cartoon, which appeared in 1929.
Newspaper comic strips followed suit. “Scorchy Smith,” featuring pilot-for-hire Scorchy, was introduced by the Associated Press in 1930. It became the syndicate’s leading strip, published in 250 newspapers. “Smilin’ Jack,” built around another flying soldier of fortune, ran from 1933 to 1973.
The definitive artist for “Scorchy Smith” was Noel Sickles. He drew in a bold, cinematic style that was adapted and made his own by Milton Caniff, who shared a studio with Sickles. Caniff began “Terry and the Pirates” in 1934, but in the beginning, Terry’s adversaries were river pirates and renegades along the China Coast. The strip did not take on its classic aviation theme until 1941.
New possibilities were demonstrated regularly in speed, distance, altitude, and duration. The Army Air Service—the Air Corps after 1926—was in the thick of it, hoping to gain in roles and missions and the federal budget by calling public and congressional attention to remarkable improvements.
In 1924, the Army Air Service completed the first circumnavigation of the globe in Douglas World Cruisers, single-engine, two-place, open-cockpit biplanes built to Army specifications.
Four crews started on the voyage in Seattle, but only two of the airplanes made it all of the way. The route went via Japan, India, the Middle East, Europe, across the Atlantic, and back to Seattle, a distance of 27,553 miles. The trip took 175 days and overflew 28 different nations, with the aircraft making 72 stops en route.
The Question Mark, a Fokker C-2 commanded by Air Corps Maj. Carl A. Spaatz, remained aloft Jan 1-7, 1929, setting an endurance record for refueled aircraft of 150 hours, 40 minutes, 14 seconds. The crew included three future generals: Spaatz, Capt. Ira C. Eaker, and Lt. Elwood R. Quesada. It was a high point in the demonstration of aerial refueling, the first instance of which had been in 1921 when Wesley May, with a five-gallon can of gasoline strapped to his back, climbed from the wing of one aircraft to the wing of another.
The formidable Jimmy Doolittle contributed to the expansion of capabilities as well. In September 1929, Air Corps Lt. Doolittle made the first blind, all-instrument flight at Mitchel Field, N.Y., in a completely covered cockpit. He took off, flew a short distance, and landed. To cut off all visual cues other than those provided by the instruments, a hood was fitted over Doolittle in the rear cockpit. Another pilot occupied the front cockpit as a safety measure.
News reports followed the aviation exploits of a number of private individuals. Amelia Earhart, who learned to fly in 1921, was in the spotlight frequently. In 1922, she set a woman’s altitude record in an open-cockpit biplane. She set several more records in 1930 and 1931, and in 1932 became to first woman to complete a nonstop transcontinental flight from Los Angeles to New York.
In 1937, Earhart decided to make a trip around the world at its widest point, near the equator. She and her navigator, Fred Noonan, departed Miami June 1 in a Lockheed Model 10E Electra, the most advanced, long-range non-military aircraft available.
The airplane disappeared over the South Pacific off New Guinea July 2, and is the continuing source of questions about what happened. The mystery and speculation have kept the Amelia Earhart legend alive.
Wiley Post was also well-known to the public. In 1931, he and navigator Harold Gatty set a record for their round-the-world flight in eight days, 15 hours, and 51 minutes. In July 1933, Post, flying solo in his Lockheed Vega Winnie Mae, repeated the trip and beat the earlier record by 21 hours.
“On August 15, 1935, in a plane crash near Point Barrow, Alaska, famed aviator Wiley Post perished alongside his close friend, the renowned humorist and pop culture icon Will Rogers,” said Roger Connor of the National Air and Space Museum. “With the exception of Charles Lindbergh, no American aviator of the time was as celebrated as Post, while Rogers was widely considered the nation’s most gifted commentator on American society.”
“The nation entered a state of mourning that it has rarely done outside the death of presidents. Flags were ordered lowered to half-staff by federal and state authorities. Twelve thousand motion picture theater screens went dark for two minutes at 2:00 p.m. on Aug. 22 in tribute.”
The ultimate private air adventurer was Howard Hughes, who inherited the Hughes Tool Company in 1925, then moved to Hollywood to produce movies. He continued to fly his own airplane and in the 1930s set speed records in the custom-built Hughes H-1 Racer. In 1938, flying a Lockheed Lodestar, he broke Wiley Post’s around-the-world record from 1933.
Aviation Grows Up
By the end of the 1930s, aviation had moved on from the barnstormers. There were still air shows, but they were increasingly oriented to business rather than to entertainment. The war surplus Jennys were gone, replaced by more advanced airplanes that sold for high prices.
Aviation was becoming corporate, official, and established, dominated by industry and government. The new records were mostly incremental gains on previous ones, with the armed forces and government contractors central to the effort.
The number of people traveling by air increased, too, but they were not from the social levels that turned out for the barnstorming shows in the 1920s.
“America’s airline industry expanded rapidly, from carrying only 6,000 passengers in 1930 to more than 450,000 by 1934, to 1.2 million by 1938,” the National Air and Space Museum recalls. “A coast-to-coast round trip cost around $260, about half the price of a new automobile. Only business executives and the wealthy could afford to fly.”
John T. Correll was editor in chief of Air Force Magazine for 18 years and is a frequent contributor. His most recent article, “The Allied Rift on Strategic Bombing,” appeared in the December 2020 issue.