Commentary
6:52 am
Wed July 24, 2013

Spectacle and Heroism - the Colorful History of the Air Show

Earlier this summer, a pilot named Charlie Schwenker and a wing-walker named Jane Wicker were killed at the Vectren Air Show in Dayton, a tragedy in the midst of an event laden with history. Air Shows as public events began more than 100 years ago. WYSO's aviation commentator Dan Patterson loves that colorful history full of spectacle and heroism.

Not long after the Wrights taught the world how to fly, people all over the world wanted to see what they thought was a miracle: a man-made flying machine, with a man piloting in the air, defying gravity and death.  Orville Wright recalled in later years, "Flight was generally looked upon as an impossibility, and scarcely anyone believed in it until he had actually seen it with his own eyes."

And so, to satisfy that curiosity, the air show was born.

The first one was in August 19009 in Rheims, France.  It was called an aviation, and it was held just one month after the Frenchman Louis Bleriot flew across the English Channel.

Aviators gathered from many countries including the USA to show off their slow and fragile and unreliable machines.  Awards were given for speed, altitude, carrying passengers and time aloft.

"There wasn't anybody who believed an airplane would really fly. In fact, they gave odds. But when you flew, oh my, they would carry you off the field."

The first major US international air meet took place the following January just south of Los Angeles, and it was a huge success.  254,000 spectators showed up.  The Los Angeles Times called it, "one of the greatest public events in the history of the West."  In those crowds were men who went on to write their own chapters in aviation history: Eugene Ely, the first to land and take off from a ship and four men who went on to build giant aircraft companies and airplanes that made history, William Boeing, Glenn Martin, Donald Douglas and Lawrence Bell.

The next June, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosted an air meet where Orville Wright himself made the first-ever airplane flight in Indiana.

Air meets across the USA in 1910 and were often the first time an airplane had ever flown in the state.

A pilot named Beckwith Havens, who flew for Glenn Curtiss, a rival to the Wright Brothers, said, "There wasn't anybody who believed an airplane would really fly.  In fact, they gave odds. But when you flew, oh my, they would carry you off the field."

Barnstormers going from car to airplane or the other way round mid-flight.
Barnstormers going from car to airplane or the other way round mid-flight.
Credit courtesy of Museum of Flight in Seattle, WA, USA

The advancement of flying was all about flying faster, higher and further, and during that early period of flight, around WWI, those achievements were topped over and over again.  In the US, the aircraft industry was booming until the war ended in November 1918, and suddenly a lot of pilots were out of work.  The US Army was selling aircraft, though, at times for the cost of the fuel in the tanks.  So enterprising pilots, creating work for themselves, flew away and landed their planes all over the country in farm fields.  They sold rides and created death-defying aerial acts.

There were no rules other than the laws of nature and physics, which includes the fact that the ground is very hard when an airplane comes to earth without control.  Pilots tried everything: flying through barns - which was called barnstorming - flying in formation, crashing on purpose for a film, and climbing from one airplane to another in mid-flight, which developed into wing-walking.

The single-pilot acts developed into what were called Flying Circuses, and, along with air racing, drew hundreds of thousands of spectators.  The pilots were heroes and heroines of the Great Depression era; Jimmy Doolittle, Amelia Earhart, Roscoe Turner, their quest for speed and endurance in the air made headlines.

Jimmy Dorsey looping in formation with Harold Johnson
Jimmy Dorsey looping in formation with Harold Johnson
Credit Dan Patterson

Harold Johnson was a local pilot and entrepreneur, known as the Flying Mayor of Moraine.  He was one of the last barnstormers and performed in his red Waco with style and drama, though always based on flying safely.  Today, most airshow acts are jets that fly at blinding speed.  Harold flew low and slow and in total control of his aircraft, always aware of the audience.  I heard someone ask him once if the skies were getting too crowded.  He answered with a glint in his eye, "plenty of room up there for everyone, just gotta keep your eyes open."

He taught a young pilot named Jimmy Dorsey how to wing-walk and along with pilot Darrell Montgomery, they barnstormed around the Midwest.  Jimmy told me that the first and most important rule of wing-walking was, "you never let go of what you're holding onto til you grab hold of something else."

Haorld Johnson's red Wace is on display at the Waco museum in Troy along with many other aircraft that made history.  And in September there is a fly-in at Waco Field there where you can see row after row of the brightly colored biplanes and listen to the gentle sound of radial engines over the late summer Ohio countryside.

Dan Patterson is an aviation historian and photographer. You can see more of his photos at his website, www.flyinghistory.com

Aviation programming on WYSO is supported in part by the National Aviation Heritage Alliance and The Air Force Museum Foundation.