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The Advent of Aviation With aircraft came the death-defying daredevils who flew them. Performing gasp-inducing spins and dives. Flying upside down. Wingwalking. Changing planes in midair. Swinging from trapezes mounted to the landing gear. There seemed to be nothing they wouldn’t try. As early as 1910, crowds gathered across Kansas (and nationwide) to marvel at these new machines. And to thrill at the ever-present possibility of a crash. Populated by hundreds of jobless World War I pilots, by the early 1920s barnstorming was a major source of entertainment – part technological wonder, part Roman Coliseum.
To announce these unscheduled traveling exhibitions, a pilot would buzz a community, dropping leaflets that a show was about to commence at a nearby farm – hence the barnstorming name. The town would literally shut down as everyone headed to the country for an impromptu holiday. And they did more than watch. Pilots could pocket a fair amount of cash by giving joy rides for as much as $5.
Birdie and the Flying Squirrel Many barnstormers worked as teams in “flying circuses,” complete with booking agents.The much beloved husband-wife duo Cyle “The Flying Squirrel” and Bertha “Birdie” Horchem used the tagline, “If done in the air, we do it.” And they did. He was a world champion upside-down flyer and she held the women’s altitude record (16,300 feet). Bertha could do 15-25 consecutive loops as well as a 2,000-foot tailspin. They did loop-the-loops with trails of fire. Shot fireworks from their Wichita-built Laird Swallow. From their home in Ransom, Kansas, their air circus traveled the country, amazing and amusing crowds nationwide. Birdie died in a plane crash at age 24; a brokenhearted, increasingly fearless Cyle, 26, fell to his death eight months later.
Government Steps In Attica, Kansas-based Garver’s Flying Circus tagline promoted, “We Have Flown Over 500,000 Miles and Never Had An Accident.” Barnstormers’ thriving, unregulated business received a crippling blow in 1927 when the federal government introduced safety regulations outlawing a number of stunts and setting aircraft standards most barnstormers’ planes couldn’t meet. An era ended. But the memories of these brave, push-it-to-the-limits aviators remain.