Barnstormers

A dream as compelling as this does not die easily.

June 1, 1993

Of all the romantic aviation images that have developed over the years, one of the oldest and most enduring is that of the dashing, adventurous barnstormer. With his worn leather flying jacket and a white silk scarf tossed casually over his shoulder, he symbolizes freedom, adventure, and all the best parts of flying wrapped up in one. Making a living by following the winds from town to town in an oil-spattered biplane, thrilling local crowds and sharing the joy of flight with others, his seems the perfect existence.

This romantic picture has motivated many a pilot to learn to fly over the years and is as strong an image today as it ever was. But in our modern world of avionics-laden aircraft and regulated airspace, it also seems like a lost dream of the past. Airplanes were a magical novelty in the grand heyday of the barnstormers. If Johnny Livingston were to try to ply his trade today, he would probably be overwhelmed with angry noise complaints from local residents and a Federal Aviation Administration ramp check in every town, not to mention the liability burden of flying perfect strangers out of unimproved airstrips. "No," we conclude with a resigned sigh, "it's a wonderful notion, but the day of the barnstormer is long gone."

Yet even as we say it's impossible, there is a part of us inside that hopes we are wrong. How refreshing it would be to think that even in these days of technology, liability, and regulation, a pilot could be welcomed into a small town, that ordinary people would still dream of flying with the wind in their face, and that airplanes could still be seen as magical mystery ships instead of just noisy intruders or tools of transport.

Fortunately, a dream as compelling as this one does not die easily, even when confronted with all of the obstacles of a modern, technological society. Some of the components have changed, and the practitioners of the art may not be as numerous as they once were. They may fly out of airports or grass strips instead of hayfields, and they might not always sleep under the wing — but the barnstormers still live.

Cap'n Mac

In 1966, a 19-year-old dentistry student named Stuart Sandy MacPherson was so captivated by the romantic image of the barnstormers that he cajoled aviation writer Richard Bach into taking him along to sell tickets and do parachute jumps on a summer barnstorming adventure across America. Their exploits became the basis of Bach's book Nothing By Chance and left MacPherson with a love of barnstorming so great that he has spent almost every summer since then hopping rides in a 1929 Travelair biplane.

During the winter and three days a week during the summer, MacPherson is a dentist in southern California. But on his long summer weekends, he becomes "Cap'n Mac," chief pilot of the Great American Flying Circus and owner of the World's End Air Transit Company. MacPherson has several old airplanes, but it is as a barnstormer pilot in his immaculate, pure-white Travelair that he is best known.

MacPherson estimates he has given almost 9,000 biplane rides over the past 18 years. The Travelair can carry two passengers, and on a typical day, he will make 16 to 20 half-hour flights. The only time in eight to 12 hours of flying that he gets out of the airplane is when he fuels it. "There are certain times during the day or summer when I question why I do this," he says. "But then I'll have a liquid golden ride where everything flows together perfectly, and I remember, 'Oh, yeah. This is why.' "

MacPherson confines most of his travels to northern California and the Pacific Northwest, partly for convenience but also because he can't think of a more beautiful place to fly. His only advertising consists of posting a sign near the airplane and flying the Travelair over the town where he is hopping rides. "Apparently," he says, "the sight of a biplane over town still has a fascination for people."

Some things have changed over the years. He rarely operates out of hayfields anymore, preferring small airstrips and fly-ins. "Barnstorming is bringing people, airplanes, and sky together, and you can do that as well out of an airport as you can out of a hayfield, without having to ask permission or worry about conditions," he explains. The price of his rides has gone up to $35 per adult or $25 per child from the $3 he and Bach charged in the mid-1960s. And while he still sleeps under the wing of his airplane, or at least in a tent nearby, he now has company. Cap'n Mac fell in love with one of his passengers on a summer evening flight and married her in 1989. Now his wife, Roni, and their two-year-old daughter, Skye, accompany him on all his barnstorming trips. Roni sells the tickets, and Stu gives the rides.

One thing that has not changed over the years, however, is the enthusiasm of the passengers Cap'n Mac takes flying. They range in age from seven to 70 and come from all walks of life. Some are experienced pilots; others have never set foot in an airplane before. Cap'n Mac is particularly popular among motorcyclists. "[Harley Davidson owners] say that flying with Stu is like riding a Harley through the sky," Roni says with a smile. A number of MacPherson's customers fly with him year after year and sometimes several times in one summer.

But no matter who the passengers are, they are unanimous in their opinion of the rides Cap'n Mac gives. MacPherson keeps a logbook that he asks his passengers to sign after their flights, and the impact of their experience with him is obvious.

"It was the first time I've been in a plane, and it won't be the last!" reads one entry. "Better than an F-16," notes an F-16 pilot. "Fulfilled the dream of a lifetime!" "Totally Rad!" "The best $30 I've ever spent!" "Gasp! Sigh!! WOW!! INCREDIBLE!!" "Is this Heaven?" The joy gushes on and on.

Some remarks have stories to tell. "I asked her to marry me — she said YES!" a scribbled note exclaims. Other people offer quiet, heartfelt thanks for an experience that somehow has touched them deeply. "A few minutes of heaven...thank you," one passenger writes. "God bless you," is the only comment from another.

What makes Cap'n Mac's rides so popular? In some ways, the appeal is the same as it was 60 years ago. Many of MacPherson's passengers have particular places they want to see. Before each flight, MacPherson listens carefully to the now-familiar requests. "I live on the North Fork...it's the second river over," one farmer explains. "The farm's got a barn there...." MacPherson nods, asking what color the barn is and telling the man to point down when they're over it, and he'll circle it a few times. He tries to accommodate as many of these kinds of requests as he can.

Other passengers are more interested in the pure physical sensation of "zooming and soaring" in an open-cockpit airplane. The rides last an average of 25 minutes and typically include turns, swooping descents, and usually a low-level tour of some particularly beautiful section of the surrounding countryside.

But there is something more to the barnstorming flights that keeps Cap'n Mac's passengers returning year after year and elicits reverent comments in his logbook. MacPherson doesn't just give people a ride in an old biplane. He uses the airplane and the sky to rekindle people's sense of wonder and magic in the world.

"When we land, so many people want to shake my hand," he once wrote a friend. "And they look at me with eyes that once again have life and sparkle. For a moment, their resignations and the barriers in their lives have been blown away in the slipstream." He talks about some of the passengers he has seen transformed by their biplane flights, and his eyes grow misty. Clearly, he has found a way to give people a very special gift.

Without question, barnstorming has its drawbacks. Financially, MacPherson is happy to break even with the Travelair, although he thinks that if he didn't live in southern California, he might be able to make some money. Barnstorming cuts into his time with his family, and both the commuting schedule and the long weekend hours are tiring. "We get calls at least once a month from people who say they've bought an airplane and want to go barnstorming, but they don't usually last long," Roni says. "Not too many people can sit for hours in the cockpit like Stu does. It's too grueling."

But for Cap'n Mac, the hardest thing about barnstorming is not the hours or the sacrifice, but the fact that every ride he gives cannot be perfect. "You can't manufacture magic; you just have to be there when it happens," he says. "Fortunately, flying the biplane as much as I do, I run into it fairly often. When it happens, my jaw just sort of goes slack and the eyes tear up a bit, and I thank whoever it is you thank that I'm blessed once again with such a moment. It's never gotten old for me."

Jack Greiner

Jack Greiner first got involved in barnstorming at the age of 13, when he signed on to sell tickets for a pilot hopping rides in Minnesota. The year was 1933. He went on to solo at 16 and traveled around the Midwest, barnstorming and doing air shows, until the outbreak of World War II. After the war, he flew for American Airlines, logging more than 8,000 DC-3 hours in just under eight years.

In 1953, Greiner became ill with polio and had to end his commercial flying career, but he continued restoring and flying his own airplanes. And although he wasn't officially "barnstorming," he still loved to give people, especially kids, rides in his airplanes. He also let young people trade work in his hangar for flying lessons, and several have gone on to successful aviation careers.

After hearing Bach give a talk describing his barnstorming adventures with MacPherson, however, Greiner began to think about taking a biplane on the road again. Three years ago, he and his wife, June, took their 1930 Waco CTO Taperwing to Iowa, where they followed the annual week-long "RAGBRAI" (Registered Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa). Greiner would fly the Waco over the riders to arouse their interest and then would find a field and give rides at each stop. From there, Grenier continued on across Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri, visiting 40 towns and giving more than 1,000 rides in 30 days.

Since then, he has taken a little time out each summer to go barnstorming. The past two years, he has gone with his next-door neighbor, Vearl Root, who along with Grenier owns a 1939 YKS-7 Cabin Waco. "You need the open-cockpit plane to draw the crowds," Grenier says, "but there are some people who prefer the cabin."

Surprisingly, Greiner says that barnstorming is still much the same as it was 60 years ago. He and Root bring tents with them but say they rarely get to use them. Usually, they are invited home with someone from the town. If he uses a field, he makes the owner the traditional barnstormer's offer of 5 percent of the take or free rides for his whole family. "I've never yet had anyone take the 5 percent," Greiner notes. If he doesn't have someone with him to sell tickets, he recruits a local kid and offers the same deal he was given when he started out — 10 percent of each ticket sold. The only difference is that Greiner's rides are now $20 per person, instead of the $1 charge barnstormers were collecting at the height of the Depression. "I've even had a kid bring me 5-gallon cans of gas in his red wagon in exchange for a ride, just like we did when we were kids," he recalls with a smile.

The key to successful modern-day barnstorming, according to Greiner, is to visit small towns with only grass strips or open fields, where an airplane's arrival is still a big enough event to attract attention. The town of Sully, Iowa, for example, is what Greiner terms "a barnstormer's dream." Sully is a farming community of just under 1,000 people, where, even in the 1990s, homes are not usually locked and residents still hang flags out front on holidays. Its municipal airport consists of a cleared strip of grass on the very south edge of town, in- between a cornfield and a road and marked only by a lone orange windsock imprinted with the slogan "Iowa — A Place to Fly."

The day Greiner and Root arrived was overcast and threatening. But by the time the two biplanes circled Sully's water tower twice and touched down on the grass runway, a crowd had already gathered, and cars were heading toward the airstrip from all over town. There was a carnival atmosphere among the spectators as young men dared each other to go for a ride, and friends of passengers waved enthusiastically as the airplanes flew by. Business was brisk all afternoon, and there were still people waiting for rides when a building storm and sunset put an end to the barnstormers' flying day.

Although an afternoon like the one at Sully brings in a respectable income, Greiner and Root say that, by the time they account for their expenses, they do not really make much of a profit. But then, neither did most of the original barnstormers, according to Greiner. "Most of the barnstormers I knew were just trying to meet costs to support their true love, building up their flying time to get a job with the airlines," he remembers. "And a lot of them only barnstormed part-time, summers or weekends."

In any event, money is secondary to Greiner. "My main motivation for barnstorming now is that you meet the neatest people," he explains. "The world is still full of them, if you give them a chance." He also gets a lot more enjoyment now out of people's reactions to the rides, noting that "you can almost read people's minds by the positions of their bodies and communicate with them without words."

Like MacPherson, Greiner and Root have also found that barnstorming often allows them to give people a very special and emotional gift. They, too, have their misty-eyed recollections of people like the handicapped girl in Grinnell, Iowa, and the 80-year-old former Waco pilot in Hamilton, Ohio, who have been particularly affected by their biplane rides. "Jack and I are frequently overcome with the emotion of seeing somebody have a chance to relive, for just a few minutes, some really significant time in their lives through the airplane," says Root.

Some things have changed since Greiner began barnstorming 60 years ago. He now has to carry extensive liability insurance, for example, and an engine overhaul now costs 30 times what his entire airplane was once worth. But even in today's high-tech world, Greiner has found that there is still a place for the simple barnstormer. "There is a great nostalgia in our country for how it used to be," he says. "And there are still a lot of places where, if you fly in with an antique biplane, they still give you the keys to the town."

Craig McBurney and Jon Rising

In some ways, Craig McBurney and Jon Rising are classic barnstormer pilots. They are outgoing young men who spend 9 to 10 months a year flying their airplanes around the country, staying only one or two days in a town before heading off to the next.

Instead of delicate, fabric-covered biplanes, however, McBurney and Rising fly lumbering, four-engine World War II bombers. And although they take some people for rides, they make their money by selling tours of the aircraft on the ground.

McBurney and Rising are self-employed pilots, paid by the nonprofit Collings Foundation, tasked with taking its B-24J Liberator and B-17G Flying Fortress on a tour of 120-plus cities a year. Like many early barnstormers, McBurney and Rising have to be not only pilots and mechanics, but also a combination of public relations specialists, salesmen, and supply sergeants.

Although the two bombers have only been touring together for two years, they are immensely popular. Rising estimates that more than 100,000 people a year pay to walk through the two airplanes ($7 for adults or $3 for children), and many more see them fly. At each stop, the airplanes are usually greeted by a crowd of local residents. Some are curious youngsters, impatiently hopping from one foot to another as they wait for the airplanes to appear. Others are former World War II bomber pilots or crewmembers, clothed in their old leather jackets and B-24 or B-17 baseball caps and often carrying wartime photographs of themselves and their crews. Many have not even seen a B-24 or B-17 fly since the end of the war, but the stories they tell are as sharp and detailed as if they had flown them only a week ago.

The tour is organized by the Collings Foundation in Stow, Massachusetts, which selects the cities the bombers will visit. An extensive volunteer network of World War II veterans around the country then handles local arrangements for the airplanes and some advance publicity for each location. Several additional volunteer pilot-mechanics travel with the airplanes as their schedules permit. But from the time the airplanes come into sight over the horizon, the success of the stop largely depends on McBurney and Rising.

"Our call sign should be '24 Juliet Request,' " says McBurney, "because we ask for so many special things from controllers. We want to do a low approach, circle the town, come back and do another low approach, and land. But we don't want that runway because the crowd's on this runway, and could we have a right pattern, not a left one, and so on."

Once the bombers land, the propellers scarcely have a chance to stop turning before the two pilots are out of the airplanes, unloading cones and equipment and setting up tour signs and ticket tables with an efficiency honed over 245 stops in two years. On a good day, McBurney says, they're open for business in nine minutes.

As soon as the essentials are taken care of, the two then make a beeline for any press in the area. Barnstormers have always had to have a nose for publicity, but McBurney and Rising have had to develop a modern- day media savvy, mastering the art of the "sound bite" in addition to their other mechanical and flying skills. "We've done this enough so that in 30 seconds, we can say what needs to be said to make the evening news," McBurney explains. "That's important because we don't advertise, so if we don't get on the 6 o'clock news or get our picture in the paper, we don't make it."

Their public relations duties also involve working the crowds to drum up business, negotiating admission prices when necessary, and offering money back if the experience is a disappointment. When they're not talking to reporters or spectators, McBurney and Rising are busy cleaning and working on the bombers. Because the two airplanes fly an average of 300 to 400 hours a year, there is always something to do. Jobs range from installing new spark plugs to changing an engine, but they all have to be completed within 48 to 72 hours to keep the tour on schedule.

Although they stay in motels and have the advantage of some modern conveniences that earlier barnstormers lacked, the gypsy existence of a full-time barnstormer is still a difficult one. "There are hundreds of people who tell us they'd like to do what we do, but they probably wouldn't last more than a couple of weeks," says Rising. "We're here until 9 or 10 at night, seven days a week, we have to deal with the press and public every day, and we have no home life."

Yet they stay with it for the same reason the early barnstormers did — because it allows them to eke out a living flying airplanes they love. "Sure, there's some unglamorous parts of it," McBurney acknowledges, "but how many people get to fly a B-24 or B-17 almost every day?"

They also get the satisfaction of seeing the impact the airplanes have on the people who come to see them. "These are the glory planes," McBurney explains. "They represent a bygone era and the industrial strength of the U.S. during World War II. And since there were more than 18,000 B-24s and 12,000 B-17s built during the war, they affected a lot of people. At each stop, no matter how small the town, we'll meet someone who served in each of the crew positions of both airplanes, as well as people who worked on them."

Some of these encounters are particularly touching. Every so often, for example, people whose fathers were killed while flying or crewing on a B-17 or B-24 will come to see the airplanes. Running their hands over switches or controls their fathers would have used, they seem to feel suddenly closer to their lost parent than they ever have been. "It's rewarding," McBurney says, "because you see the look on these people's faces, and you know that you were responsible for bringing the airplane in."

The two 30-year-old pilots also know how much it means to World War II veterans to see the bombers fly again. "There's just something about a round engine coming to life," McBurney explains. "It's hard to describe, but we know that when we get ready to leave and we fire up the engines, a lot of the guys who flew or worked on these planes are feeling something again that they haven't felt in 50 years."


Unquestionably, barnstorming is a little more complex today than it was in the days before controlled airspace, liability concerns, and the FAA. But for some pilots, the rewards still more than outweigh any inconvenience they have to endure. They simply pay for liability insurance, have all the proper paperwork available for the inevitable FAA ramp checks, and keep flying.

Barnstorming is still not a terribly prosperous business. But then, it was never really about making a lot of money. It was and is, as MacPherson says, about bringing people, airplanes, and sky together.

MacPherson, Greiner, McBurney, Root, and Rising all fly different airplanes, and their schedules and operations vary. But they all touch people in a way few of us get the opportunity to do. They see old and tired eyes come to life again. They see young imaginations sparked with new adventures and sensations. And every now and then, these modern-day barnstormers find they have reawakened a sense of wonder in people who had forgotten just how beautiful the world could be.


Lane E. Wallace, AOPA 896621, is an aviation writer and private pilot who has been flying for more than five years. She owns a 1946 Cessna 120 and is restoring a 1943 Stearman.


Sky of Dreams

Living the dream of flight

"If you fly it, they will come."

"Is this heaven? No, it's barnstorming."

Barnstormer pilots frequently make allusions to the film Field of Dreams when trying to explain the appeal of a biplane to modern-day Americans. "The film was about baseball, but they could have been talking about barnstorming," says barnstorming pilot Stuart Sandy MacPherson. In fact, he believes that a simple paraphrase of one of the film's closing soliloquies explains better than anything else why barnstorming still works.

"People will come. They'll come to fly for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll drive to the airport, not even sure why they're doing it. They'll walk up to the biplane, as innocent as children, longing to fly. 'Of course, we'd love to take you up,' I say. 'It's only $25 per passenger.' They'll pass over the money without even thinking abut it. For it is money they have and freedom that eludes them. They'll climb into the cockpit and lift into the sky on a perfect afternoon. And they'll find what it is they've been searching for. They'll see the earth for the first time, looking down on the farms and the towns, the clouds, and the coastlines like they remember from their dreams as children. They'll wheel and soar and dive and touch the sky, and it will be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. Their freedom and their joy will be so thick, they'll have to brush it away from their faces. And they'll really live that dream of flight, which, until this moment, had always been denied them. It will remind them of other dreams and other desires, dismissed casually or grudgingly over the years, and rekindle their wonder once again." — LEW