The History of Airshows
by John Sponauer
Published in the June 2005 issue of
The original Atlantic Flyer article can be found here.
With today’s multi-million dollar flightlines,
professional performers, and routine appearances by top-of-the-line military
aircraft, it’s perhaps easy to think that today’s airshow environment is
bringing the world of aviation to the public like never before.
Millions of Americans will take in a show this year, set in one of
hundreds of venues. While
the warmer states have enjoyed some great performances already in 2005, spring
and summer opens up the rest of the nation to the airshow circuit, and crowds
will soon pack venues large and small, sharing the experience of a beating sun,
hot tarmac, and strained necks, ears, and eyes.
However, even with the huge draw of modern shows, they don’t have the societal impact as those held in the first decades of aviation, nor can most of us easily understand the sensation aviation caused in those early years.
Barely six years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, it wasn’t unusual for large airshows to attract more than 250,000 spectators in a course of a week. In fact, some crowd estimates of what’s often considered the first international airshow, the Reims (France) Air Meet of August, 1909, range as high as a half-million people. American University researcher David H. Onkst, who helped to compile a history of aviation for the Centennial of Flight project in 2003, described the airshow grounds as “a mini city.”
“They built barber and beauty shops, telephone and telegraph offices, and a huge grandstand complete with a 600-seat restaurant that overlooked the airfield. To keep people entertained between flights, they hired stilt-walkers and tightrope artists to perform.”
For those seven days, attendees marveled as nearly two-dozen aviators (all but two were French) and their aircraft raced, performed aerobatics, competed in distance and passenger-carrying competitions, and more. Not only was the concept of aviation new, but so were some of the pilots….one of the Reims competitors had only learned to fly days prior.
Coming on the heels of Louis Bleriot’s cross-channel flight a month prior, his appearance in the event’s Gordon Bennett Cup Race proved to be a major draw. However, his primary competitor, American Glenn Curtiss, completed the 10-kilometer course a mere six seconds ahead of Bleriot’s time, winning over the French crowd and taking home $5,000 in prize money.
A year later, the tables were turned on the Americans at their first major domestic airshows. In January, 1910 at California’s Dominguez Field, Frenchman Louis Paulhan broke endurance (carrying a passenger 110 miles in under two hours) and altitude (4,164 feet) records, as well as captivating the crowd with an aerial bombing demonstration. He walked away $19,000 richer, although Glenn Curtiss again claimed air speed records (55 miles per hour) and won the prize for the best quick start as well. Crowds were estimated between 250,000 and a half-million for the ten-day event.
As more shows were performed in 1910 on the heavily
populated east coast, the idea of aircraft as entertainment took hold in the
public’s imagination. Official
exhibition teams, often backed by names as famous as Wright and Curtiss, were
created to compete in competitions and shows across the country and around the
world. Races from city to
city attracted the best upcoming pilots, a demographic which still could be
counted in the dozens in 1911 (at one point that year, the United States only
had 26 certified pilots, compared to more than 350 in France).
The danger and thrill of the sport appealed to crowds in a manner perhaps comparable to stock car racing today, although (perhaps because?) aircraft performers suffered a stunningly high rate of accidents and death. Researcher Onkst cites a figure showing that approximately 90 percent of the exhibition pilots of the era died while flying.
If death and aviation were a morbid appeal to fans,
World War One brought it in spades. The
onset of war soon dashed the more frivolous air show atmosphere, but also
allowed for it to grow exponentially afterwards in America. A glut of pilots, and a surplus of training aircraft,
combined to make the 1920s a golden era for American airshows, most usually
small, informal ‘barnstorming’ events.
With surplus Curtiss ‘Jenny’ trainers being sold by the government
for only a few hundred dollars, pilots could often easily buy one and recoup
their investment by offering rides at small towns across the nation for as
little as $1. People paid; barnstormer promoter Ivan Gates’ traveling act once brought
in nearly $1,000 in a single day from dollar rides. Loops, stunts, and aerobatics were part and
parcel of the barnstorming routine, as was wing-walking and more adventurous
With little to no regulation of their flying, and a nearly endless supply of open farmland on which to land and advertise a show, barnstorming swept across America in the early 1920s, drawing in pilots later to make their indelible mark on aviation history. The likes of Wiley Post, Charles Lindbergh, and Pancho Barnes all worked as stunt performers at one point in their lives, and the spread of small, affordable airshows hastened the love affair with airplanes and aviation that continues to this day.
If the teen years were the decade of aircraft-as-curiosity, and the 1920s ushered in the idea of flight to the nation via barnstormers, the 1930s was the era of the racer, and the start of the industrialization of aircraft design.
The four major races of the era – Schneider, Pulitzer, Thompson, and Bendix – all varied somewhat in flavor and tone. While military and government teams were the focus of the Schneider Cup and Pulitzer races, the Thompson was something new and exciting…not so much a timed race by single aircraft at a time, but numerous planes and pilots jockeying for position on a pylon-marked racecourse. Private pilots and aircraft designs, such as the Granville brothers’ Gee Bee, stood out at the Thompson races, and aviation legends were made. Lastly, compared to the frantic, wingtip-to-wingtip action of the Thompson race, the Bendix competition was distance….a transcontinental race that nicely mirrored and supported the growing desire of long-distance commercial air travel.
Crowds at the races, as high as a half-million for
some in 1929, dropped as the Great Depression took hold, but even so, major
events like the 1937 Thompson Race drew upwards of 100,000 spectators.
At its heyday, air racing was second only to baseball in terms of crowd
popularity. Other factors soon
reduced attention on the sport; much
as WWI temporarily focused aviation’s attention onto the serious matters of
war, aircraft development in the late 1930s and 1940s became less of an
individual’s project, and more of a government and industry function driven on
by the massive needs of the war effort. Post-war airshows largely changed to reflect that, and
today’s major shows, to a large degree, focus on the world’s most
sophisticated aeronautical products.
The industry has come a long way from the legends of the past in their
rickety, often homemade, flying machines.
It was the early pioneers, in Reims, at Dominguez, jockeying for position in the Thompson Races, and landing in open fields across the nation, that captured the public’s attention whenever the sound of an engine appeared overhead. Their legacy is the loud, powerful, and popular airshow circuit today, which continues to bring the world of aviation to the public.
For more information about the earliest airshows and aviation history in general, read David H. Onkst’s series of essays at http://www.centennialofflight.gov
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