What Is Barnstorming?

Barnstorming was popular throughout the mid-19th century.
Barnstorming was popular throughout the mid-19th century.

The term “barnstorming” can be used in reference to two different activities. Barnstorming can refer to the performing of dangerous aviation stunts on biplanes, which was popular in the 1920s. The term can also refer to the process of sports teams who travel to different locations and participate in exhibition competitions.

Aviation Barnstorming

Modern aviation stunts are just but a shadow of what barnstorming used to be during its glory days of the 1920s, also known as the “Roaring Twenties.” Interestingly, barnstorming did not start as a dangerous stunt show, but as a simple means of civil aviation. The Wright Brothers, known for building and flying the world’s first plane, would often organize exhibition flights which were humble precursors of barnstorming. In the 1920s, the United States government had so many Curtiss Jenny biplanes in the wake of the WWI and disposed of countless of them at a throw-away price. Hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of Americans purchased these biplanes, with many of the buyers having prior flying experience.

Origin of the Term

During that period, aviation laws were quite relaxed, and pilots would take flights between towns and giving locals a brief flight. With time, an attempt to attract customers, pilots started to outdo each other by doing stunts while flying. The original simple stunts gradually morphed to death-defying stunts including free falls, and the dangerous sport was born. The origin of the term “barnstorming” has brought forth numerous theories. The widely accepted theory has it that these pilots would often fly to a city, landing on a large farm where they would request permission from the farmer to use the field as a runway to perform the stunts. Barnstorming became a national sensation, attracting fans from all walks of life. Interestingly, even African-Americans featured in these barnstorming events during a period when racism was rampant in the United States. Some barnstorming crews grew in number and were known as “flying circuses” with dozens of stuntmen and multiple biplanes.

Decline of Aviation Barnstorming

Barnstorming would grow to become a nation-wide phenomenal and would even spill over to other countries. However, the early 20th century was not known for aviation safety, and many accidents were experienced during barnstorming and this waned the popularity of the stunts. The Jenny biplanes that had become synonymous with barnstorming also became hard to come by, with the existing fleet experiencing mechanical problems attributed to age. Additionally, the United States aviation industry had grown by leaps and bounds, and the US government established aviation laws that discouraged performing of dangerous stunts. All these factors cumulatively led to the decline of barnstorming, and by the late 20th century, only a few barnstormers existed.

Barnstorming in Reference to Sports

The sporting world also has its version of barnstorming where sportspersons go on sporting competitions hosted in different locations, something that is seen with teams that have no official grounds. In barnstorming, the athletes are not restricted to participating in a single sport and can take up different sports in different locations, meaning a team can participate in a baseball competition in town A and then feature in a basketball match in town B.


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