Barnstorming was a form of entertainment in which stunt pilots performed tricks--either individually or in groups called flying circuses.
The Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss had early flying exhibition teams, with solo flyers like Lincoln Beachey and Didier Masson also popular before World War I, but barnstorming did not become a formal phenomenon until the 1920s.
During World War I, the United States manufactured a significant number of Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" biplanes to train its military aviators and almost every U.S. airman learned to fly using the plane. After the war the U.S. federal government sold off the surplus material, including the Jennys, for a fraction of its initial value (they had cost the government $5,000 but were being sold for as low as $200). This allowed many servicemen who already knew how to fly the JN-4s, to purchase their own planes. The similar-looking Standard J-1 biplane was also available.
At the same time, numerous aircraft manufacturing companies sprang up, most going broke after building only a handful of planes. Many of these were reliable and even advanced designs which suffered from the failure of the aviation market to expand as expected, and a number of these found their way into the only active markets--mail carrying, barnstorming, and smuggling. Sometimes a plane and its owner would drift between the three activities as opportunity presented.
Combined with the lack of Federal Aviation Regulations at the time, these factors allowed barnstorming to flourish.
Barnstorming was performed not only by former military men, but also by women, minorities, and women minorities (e.g., Bessie Coleman). For example, on July 18, 1915, Katherine Stinson became the first woman in the world to perform a loop. Bessie Coleman, an African-American woman, "not only thrilled audiences with her skills as a barnstormer, but she also became a role model for women and African Americans. Her very presence in the air threatened prevailing contemporary stereotypes. She also fought segregation when she could by using her influence as a celebrity".
"More than any single event, Lindbergh's historic 1927 flight made Americans aware of the potential of commercial aviation, and there followed a boom in aviation activity during 1928 and 1929". In fact, Charles Lindbergh engaged in barnstorming in his early years; Errold Bahl hired him as an assistant, and as a promotional stunt, Lindbergh "volunteered to climb out onto the wing and wave to the crowds below", which came to be known as "wing-walking".
The sensational journalism and economic prosperity that marked the Jazz Age in the United States allowed barnstormers to publicize aviation and eventually contributed to bringing about regulation and control. In 1925, the U.S. government began regulating aviation, when it passed the Contract Air Mail Act, which allowed the U.S. Post Office to hire private airlines to deliver mail, with payments based on the weight of the mail. The following year, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Air Commerce Act, which shifted the management of air routes to a new branch in the Department of Commerce, which was also responsible for "licensing of planes and pilots, establishing safety regulations, and general promotion".
Barnstorming "seemed to be founded on bravado, with 'one-upmanship' a major incentive". By 1927, competition among barnstormers resulted in their performing increasingly dangerous tricks, and a rash of highly publicized accidents led to new safety regulations, which led to the demise of barnstorming. Spurred by a perceived need to protect the public and in response to political pressure by local pilots upset at barnstormers stealing their customers, the federal government enacted laws to regulate a fledgling civil aviation sector.
The laws included safety standards and specifications that were virtually impossible for barnstormers to meet, and restrictions on how low in altitude certain tricks could be performed (making it harder for spectators to see what was happening). The military also stopped selling Jennys in the late 1920s. This made it too difficult for barnstormers to make a living. Clyde Pangborn, who was pilot of the two-man aviation team who were the first to cross the Pacific Ocean nonstop in 1931, ended his barnstorming career in 1931. Some pilots, however, continued to wander the country giving rides as late as fall 1941.
"Barnstorming season" ran from early spring until after the harvest and county fairs in the fall. Most barnstorming shows started with a pilot, or team of pilots flying over a small rural town to attract local attention. They would then land at a local farm (hence the "barnstorming") and negotiate for the use of a field as a temporary runway from which to stage an air show and offer airplane rides. After obtaining a base of operation, the pilot or group of aviators would "buzz" the village dropping flyers. In some towns the arrival of a barnstormer or an aerial troop would lead to a townwide shutdown as people attended the show.
Barnstormers performed a variety of stunts, with some specializing as stunt pilots or aerialists. Stunt pilots performed a variety of aerobatic maneuvers, including spins, dives, loop-the-loops and barrel rolls, while aerialists performed feats of wing walking, stunt parachuting, midair plane transfers, or even playing tennis, target shooting, and dancing on the plane's wings. Other stunts include nose dives and flying through barns and this sometimes led to pilots crashing their planes.
Barnstormers offered plane rides for a small fee; Charles Lindbergh, for example, charged five dollars for a 15-minute ride in his plane. However exciting and glamorous, it was not an easy way to make a steady living, and to make ends meet barnstormers, including Charles Lindbergh, had to moonlight as flying instructors, handymen, and sometimes even gas station attendants. Barnstormers often traded plane rides for room and board, both for commercial lodging and in private homes.
Although barnstormers often worked in solitude or in very small teams, some also put together large "flying circuses" with several planes and stunt people. These acts employed promoters to book shows in towns ahead of time. They were the largest and most organized of all of the barnstorming acts. Some of the most famous were "The Five Blackbirds" (an African American flying group), "The Flying Aces Air Circus", "The 13 Black Cats", "Mabel Cody's Flying Circus", "Inman Brothers Flying Circus", and the "Gates Flying Circus", to which Clyde Pangborn belonged until 1928.
At an individual level, barnstorming "provided an exciting and challenging way to make a living, as well as an outlet for their creativity and showmanship", for many pilots and stuntsmen. For example, it allowed Charles Lindbergh to make a marginal living, and he always spoke fondly of the "old flying days" and the freedom of movement. It was during a barnstorming tour in Minnesota and Wisconsin in 1923 that led to his "decision to pursue further formal instruction with the U.S. Army Air Service".