Sky and Canvas

15 biplanes tour nine cities

December 1, 2006

Propeller blast from the biplane I am flying in enters the left sleeve of my shirt until it becomes a balloon slapping against my face; I twist a handful of sleeve and shirt together and clamp the wad under my arm. Winds are calm in the center of the cockpit, but that space is taken by our gypsy pilot luggage.

Sixty feet away David Mars is flying in another 1929 Travel Air 4000 biplane. His expensive 1920s-era ball cap shoots upward suddenly, spirals left, and flutters to the field below to be shredded by a corn picker in the fall or interred by a plow next spring. We're en route to the third stop along the American Barnstormers tour, a new city every day.

At 800 feet the year could have been 1929 with both pilots in period costume — but one missing a cap — and the view across the Indiana farmland south of Fort Wayne couldn't have changed that much since then. The towns have grown, but many of the buildings in their centers were 20 years old when these Travel Airs were built. Almost no one was outside to watch our parade; on the ground it was 2006.

Then my pilot, American Barnstormers founder Clay "Pork Chop" Adams, found a field he liked, and we headed down. He knew the location of every cell-phone tower and broadcast antenna along this Indiana Air Tour — the route from Fort Wayne to Bloomington. Amateur radio operators were stationed along the way to report our progress.

Stunts of the 1930s

We descended above the cornfields, which stretched uninterrupted for miles — no buildings, no houses, just growing corn shining bright green from days of rain — and reveled in the sense of speed: 85 mph wasn't so slow anymore. In the old days it would have been time to throw out the rope ladder and retrieve a stunt man or woman from a speeding car. Sometimes stunt men fell from the ladder, like Clyde Pangborn of the Gates Flying Circus; he recovered to fly again. Back then stunt men also hung by their teeth — or at least it appeared that way to the rubes below — from beneath a biplane while hundreds of feet in the air, much as Charles Lindbergh did in 1922.

Over time the suckers on the ground got wise, so the stunts got crazier. There was roller skating back and forth on a board platform, ending with the stunt man sailing off the wing tip and opening his chute. We had no time (courage?) for such silliness; we needed to be in Bloomington by 11 a.m.

Tour's hot start

The tour had started in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on the ramp of the Air Zoo, a world-class aviation museum with two large buildings; the temperature was 105 degrees Fahrenheit — part of a national July heat wave. Although the number of people taking rides was disappointing, 70 percent of all who paid the museum's $20 admission went on to buy a $45 ride. One tower operator complained that the biplanes were slowing down his modern airport, and made a few angry comments to biplane pilots giving rides — something on the order of, "You'll do what I tell you!" Barnstorming is best done at a nontowered field where access to the aircraft by the public is unimpeded by fees or foes.

It hadn't been easy to assemble the fleet in Kalamazoo. The aircraft were coming from all over the nation, California, Florida, the East Coast, the South — at 100 mph or less — and weather did its best to delay them.

Bob Lock, father of full-time barnstormer Rob "Waldo" Lock, had rushed the restoration of his 1929 Command-Aire 5C3 in order to make the tour, but he had more problems than just weather. He first broke an oil line, stopped to repair it, and then broke a fuel line that sprayed its volatile mist out of the left side of the engine cowling — the exhaust stack is on the right. But he made it on time. It's the only Model 5 flying (the phrase "only one flying" appears a lot in my notes for this story). The tour's Travel Air 4-D — a playboy's airplane in its day — owned by Bruce McElhoe — is the only one of 12 built that is still flying.

Most of the costly restorations took a great deal of time. Dave Allen, owner of a rebuilt 1930 Waco ASO, reports a five-year effort, but Alan Buchner says it took 15 years to restore his 1932 cabin Waco QDC. After he got it finished, he discovered his father had once owned the same aircraft — a fitting reward for all his hard work. It also took 15 years to restore Richard "Speed" Hornbeck's 1929 Waco ASO, painted in the old Texaco star scheme (flying circus operators negotiated for free fuel and oil in return for advertising). Hornbeck says he adopted the name "Speed" because he flew from Maine to California and back in only seven days, each way at more than 90 mph, but his friends say it refers to the speed with which his airplane is repaired.

Chris Price, 31-year-old pilot of the 1929 Fleet owned by his father, named himself "The Great Diablo" for the tour, a reference to stunt men who lost their lives flying with the Gates Flying Circus in 1922. One died when his parachute failed to open; the other landed in a tree, but the branch broke and he fell, breaking his back across a tombstone below. The book, Chewing Gum, Baling Wire, and Guts by Bill Rhode tells what happened next: Circus owner Ivan Gates had to throw away expensive posters and large lithographs with the names of the two stunt men on them, so he coined the name "Diavalo" as the generic name for all future stunt men. If a stunt man died, Diavalo could continue on.

Fort Wayne packs 'em in

Business picked up for the American Barnstormers at Fort Wayne's nontowered Smith Field, the second stop where the hangar was the same age as the aircraft, but the temperature was still 105 degrees F.

One of the pilots imagined the hangar and the aircraft talking to each other that night — catching up. "This town has been hungry for something like this," one spectator said. The locals came in force, filling the small parking lot and then leaving their cars on the sides of the road alongside the airport. The local media interviewed the pilots, music was played over loudspeakers, and a model airplane vendor set up a tent.

AOPA Pilot Senior Photographer Mike Fizer passed me some news before he boarded Lock's Waldo Wright's Flying Service, which in real life is based at the Fantasy of Flight Museum in Polk City, Florida. "There are 800 people waiting for us in Bloomington," Fizer said.

And it was true. Spectators had begun arriving at 7 a.m. at Bloomington's towered Monroe County Airport — where the controllers like biplanes. The four ride providers needed to get there on time to serve those already waiting.

The race above the corn on the way to Bloomington was just a diversion for pilots who had worked hard in the heat, wearing wool, but in less than a minute it was over. We climbed to 800 feet, and soon our flight of two caught up with two biplanes and we followed them to the airport where cars filled a huge sod field.

Again, it was an instant community event. Antique automobiles waited to be parked next to the aircraft, and radio-controlled models were on display. Ice cream and soft drinks were flowing, the place was awash with media — the local newspaper, the Indiana University newspaper, TV stations, still photographers, and photography enthusiasts.

The temperature was 105 degrees F, of course, yet the men and women of American Barnstormers remained in their costumes. Ted "Scooter" Davis, traveling with Jim Hammond in a 1931 Stinson Jr. (the junior means it was smaller than the original model, to lower the price because of the Great Depression), began his hawker's spiel to sell tickets for Adams. As I raised my camera, he put his heavy, hot cap back on, saying he needed to look the part.

The pitch Davis uses sounds similar to that of Al MacClatchie, the original barker for the Gates Flying Circus. According to Chewing Gum, Baling Wire, and Guts, this is the way MacClatchie sold tickets: "We will take you high or low, fast or slow, any way you care to go. It's worth a ride to see whether you like it or don't like it. Like Castoria [children's medicine], children cry for it and old maids sigh for it. The thrill of a lifetime.

"We will bring you down so gently even the grass won't object. Our pilots land as softly as an old maid getting into a feather bed. Fly over your house, see who's visiting your wife. We have special rides for mothers-in-law. Come and fly up high with the angels — and the fairies."

By Bloomington the flying group had its routine down to a science. Rob Lock arrived first to direct display aircraft to their parking spots. Then he would establish a passenger loading area where the four ride providers could operate. He was shortly joined by Gary Lust and Stu MacPherson. Adams arrived last, staying at the previous city to ensure that all aircraft departed without any mechanical problems.

Stu MacPherson brought his 16-year-old daughter, Skye, to help sell tickets while her mother, Roni, loaded passengers. Skye was 2 years old when she appeared in a photo in a 1993 AOPA Pilot story (see " Sky of Dreams," June 1993 Pilot), arms raised to make wings, running in front of her father's biplane while Stu and Roni tied a sign to the struts that said "Biplane Rides."

Cap'n Mac, as he calls himself when out of his dental office, was featured on nearly every page of a 1969 book, Nothing by Chance, by Richard Bach. It was based on MacPherson's adventures with Bach as a 19-year-old parachute jumper during a summer barnstorming tour.

The tail of Gary "Pops" Lust's 1929 Travel Air 4000 is painted with four aces to honor the longest-running flying circus, the Flying Aces Air Circus. Jessie Woods of the Flying Aces says this about the supposedly romantic era of barnstorming: "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."

Rob Lock took an unusual course to his current job — one that he would rather play down. But, to play it up, from 1984 to 1988 the 6-foot-10-inch athlete was on the University of Kentucky basketball team and started two of those years. He was drafted out of college for the Los Angeles Clippers. That experience led to recruitment to play in Italy and Spain, where he learned Italian and also developed a healthy case of homesickness for America.

Now he works nine months a year giving rides using his two New Standard D-25s augmented with two Boeing Stearman aircraft — one of them flown by Sarah "Pancho" Wilson, who was the publicist for the tour.

The New Standard can carry four customers up front. Clyde "Upside-Down" Pangborn, after leaving the Gates Flying Circus, became New Standard's chief test pilot, leaving just one year before Lock's aircraft was built.

Barnstorming still captures America's imagination, as the American Barnstormers proved. Tours take place every other year and the next tour is in 2008. The 2008 tour is expected to take place in Kansas and surrounding states. Cities are already begging the group for a visit, just like in the old days.

E-mail the author at alton.marsh@aopa.org.