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Summer barnstorming adventure

Sarah WilsonI took off my watch when I left Florida in the beginning of June. I knew I wouldn’t need it this summer. My days would be measured in hours of daylight, gallons of fuel remaining, and the number of 30-minute flights I could do before the light, or the gas, ran out. Time is redefined while barnstorming.

In a nutshell, barnstorming is traveling from town to town, selling flights in open-cockpit biplanes. Barnstormer pilots and their antique aircraft represent a bygone era—a time of major aeronautical advances and wide-spread admiration for the thrill of flight. Modern day barnstormers revive a classic pastime and bring the joy of flight to residents of small towns throughout the country.

On this particular morning we set off to Geneseo, N.Y., from Miller Field in eastern Indiana, the big green New Standard and my Stearman. Both the biplanes and the pilots loaded up with fuel for the long trip ahead. The New Standard carries two pilots, but you can only see one because the front cockpit is piled ridiculously high with tents, banners, bins, and all the stuff necessary for us to hop rides. Scooter, the owner, knows he flies the "family station wagon" and is willing to be permanently stuck carrying everyone’s extra baggage. Somewhere in the forward cockpit another pilot, Pops, is wedged in between all our must-have, should-have, and just-in-case things.

I watch the New Standard sashaying left and right behind my wing, dropping down to look at a house or landmark, then popping back up near me. I had to keep checking over my right shoulder to see if they were still in trail. Scooter doesn’t have a radio; it’s against his "Barnstormers creed" to put one in, so I can’t talk to him.

We leave a low overcast and drizzle behind just west of the Geneseo Valley and soar over rolling green hills sprouting giant white stalks of windmills. I signal to the New Standard that I am going lower. I love windmill farms.

barnstormingWe’re filled with anticipation as we approach the new town. Will they come out to fly? Will it rain all weekend? Will people pay for rides when the economy is so bad?

We land on the thick grass runway and taxi through a path in the hay fields to the museum. The airplanes are always the first priority. Where will they be safe tonight? Banners go up on roadside fence posts and signs are staked in the ground at each intersection announcing "Biplane Flights at the Airport." Before dusk we hop back in the airplanes to circle the town and the lake to complete our advertising campaign. I need the first ride to pay for the hotel, second ride to buy me a tank of fuel, third for meals and drinks, and on the forth ride I start making money. What will the morning bring?

Rain. Thick and steady bands all morning. Around 11 a.m. cars start arriving down the long gravel road from the highway. Pick-ups and older American models packed with families started to trickle in, in the rain. Curious, they pull up next to the hangar and roll down their window, just enough to not get wet, and ask, "Are there biplane rides today?" "Sure if you don’t mind waiting with us here in the hanger until we get a break in the rain," we told them. Everyone chose to wait. By the end of the day I had seven flights.

Friday morning is slow for the Stearman, and I start to worry that these folks might not have the money to afford the "expensive" flight. After all, $200 dollars for a hands-on flight can be a lot, given the current economy, but by Friday afternoon fliers start to trickle in. Saturday the sun shines brighter and both airplanes get busy. Sunday is really busy, and I only leave the cockpit to fuel and run to the bathroom.

During the weekend the rhythm of the work sets in. Greet, photo, load, photo, fly, land, unload, photo, handshake, photo, sign card or logbook, photo, repeat.

The scenario is repeated again and again, barnstorming in small towns with names like Freeport, Wausau, and DeKalb. Each airport holds unlimited potential. Many come out to fly despite our fears that the economy will limit business.

Barnstorming is a perfect escape—the smell of the wind, the rumble of the engine, and the joy of seeing the world from an open-cockpit biplane.

December 9, 2009

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