Wing Walkers: The Death-Defying Aerial Stunts of 1920s Barnstormers

“Up! Down! Flying around
Looping the loop and defying the ground
They’re all, frightfully keen
Those magnificent men in their flying machines
They can fly upside down with their feet in the air
They don’t think of danger
They really don’t care”

So go the lyrics to the song “Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines,” from the movie of the same name. The words aptly describe the aerial exploits of a group of stuntmen and stuntwomen who, during the 1920s, repeatedly risked their lives in a quest for thrills and entertainment; and, at the end of the day, to earn a living.

Airplane acrobats, known as aerialists, seemed to have no fear of gravity. They leapt from plane to plane while up in the air, danced or played tennis on the wings, and burst through walls of fire, as the aerialist in this photograph has just done.

In this wacky stunt, an aerialist prepares to transfer from a plane into a moving boat. With such exciting performances, it’s no wonder these air shows often pulled huge crowds of spectators. The stuntmen used the word “barnstorming” to describe their practice of touring around the country, because their shows often used farms as makeshift airfields.

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Although equality of the sexes in the 1920s may not have been what it is today, when it came to being a stunt pilot or aerialist, gender was no barrier. Here, female aerialist Gladys Ingle gets ready to jump from one airplane to another in midair. Ingle was just one of several famous women barnstormers, alongside other notable figures such as “Pancho” Barnes, Georgia “Tiny” Broderick, Mabel Cody (a niece of Buffalo Bill’s), and Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman pilot.

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Clinging to the back of this moving car in San Diego, aerialist Clyde Pangborn prepares to jump onto the ladder of a plane passing overhead. Known as Clyde “Upside-Down” Pangborn, he was one of the first people to perform this stunt, which later became a standard in any aerialist’s, or “wing walker’s”, repertoire.

As the plane approaches, Pangborn is ready to make the leap. To be successful, this stunt requires a great deal of coordination between the driver of the car, the stuntman and the pilot. Of course, though, the greatest risk is for the aerialist, who must make the leap between the two moving vehicles.

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Pangborn leaps and, just missing the ladder, falls. As his career continued for several more years, we can probably assume he wasn’t too badly injured. He and his co-pilot, Hugh Herndon, Jr., later became the first people to fly non-stop across the Pacific Ocean. Quite a few barnstormers were also noted aviators.

Naturally, as with any death-defying activity, barnstorming had its share of accidents. Here, pilot Howard Casterline has crashed his airplane into a tree in Indiana. Casterline – who can be seen climbing out of the plane – survived the incident. Crashes such as this, and those that turned out less fortuitously, spurred the government to finally end barnstorming by the end of the 1920s.

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The stuntman in this picture performs a headstand at the front of the plane. Interestingly, many WWI pilots found themselves without jobs to come back to after the war. And, with the military reselling planes relatively cheaply in those post-war years, becoming a stunt pilot or aerialist was an appealing way to earn a living.

Here, two aerialists prepare to perform a stunt together. Barnstormers could work alone or with small teams of pilots and stuntmen, and a large group was known as a “flying circus”. Pilots attracted people to their shows by flying low over small rural towns. They’d then land in a nearby field or farm and negotiate with the relevant farmer to transform their farm space into a runway from which they could stage an air show.

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Once they had secured their base, the barnstormers would fly over the town again, this time dropping flyers advertising their show and offering rides in the planes. Since aircraft were still fairly novel at the time, the barnstormers were able to draw large crowds – sometimes entire towns – to their shows. There, the spectators would see stunts like this one, in which two men hold onto a flying plane, each with only one foot and one arm.

With such thrilling aerobatics and crowd-pleasing antics, it’s no surprise that barnstorming drew the attention of Hollywood filmmakers. Flight scenes began to be incorporated into movie storylines. Pilot and aerialist teams, such as the 13 Black Cats (some members of whom are pictured here), became famous for their on-screen stunts.

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In this image, stunt pilot Earl Daugherty flies the plane while one aerialist hangs from the axle by his legs and another sits on the upper wings. Daugherty was not only a stunt pilot, but also a well-known air racer and aircraft builder. Many barnstormers had other jobs besides performing stunts – among them, smuggling and mail-carrying.

Here, barnstormers perform a stunt that involved sitting at a table on top of an airplane dressed in cowboy outfits. This would definitely have been a meal with a view! The pilot, Ronald “Bon” MacDougall, and one of the stuntmen, Ken “Fronty” Nichols, were founding members of the 13 Black Cats group.

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In this shot, we see aerialist Jack Elliot clinging to a wire on the wings of an airplane. In those early days, the stuntmen and women were not harnessed to the planes in any way. Flying wires were the only objects they had to keep them from falling to a certain death below. Today, performing such stunts without a safety harness would be illegal.

Two aerialists, Gladys Roy and Ivan Unger, play tennis atop this flying plane. All we can say is that they must have had incredibly good balance! Sadly, Roy was killed in an accident in 1927, but not while she was performing one of these dangerous stunts. Her death was the result of unconsciously walking into a propeller of a plane she had just started herself. She was only 25 at the time.

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Ex-WWI pilot Ormer Locklear hangs from the plane by one arm, in this shot. Locklear is credited as one of the inventors of wing walking, which he used to make repairs to his plane mid-flight. But his was another aviation career cut tragically short. In 1920, he died during a movie shoot when the pilot of the plane he was in was blinded by some set lighting and crashed the aircraft. The whole incident was apparently captured on film and used in the movie, The Skywayman, which has since been lost.

In this photograph, stuntman Carl “Poochy” Smith hangs from a rope and gets ready to transfer to a car. The life of barnstormers has often been romanticized. They were seen as heroes by the adoring public and were sometimes well paid for their efforts. However, barnstormer Jessie Woods says of the life, “Don’t let them kid you – it wasn’t romantic. I slept on the bottom wing of an airplane. I learned how to sleep there without falling off. I’ve gone through as much as three days without sleep. There’s nothing romantic about that.”

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Here, aerialist and 13 Black Cats member Ivan Unger looks like he’s all set to leap from the wing of one airplane to another. Barnstormers admitted that their popularity was because they offered their audience the possibility of seeing someone die. In that case, they must have been pretty relieved when they left their spectators disappointed.

Sometimes simply jumping from plane to plane was not exciting enough. Here, a stuntman transfers from one craft to another while hanging upside-down from a ladder. By the end of the 1920s, stunts like this one were on the way out.

New safety regulations meant that barnstormers could not simply perform any stunts they liked. In addition, the military stopped selling the used planes that made the profession so affordable in the past. The glory days of the wing walkers and stunt pilots were over. Today, we only have the historical records, like these photographs, to remind us of those daring men and women of the air.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

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