Saturday, April 18, 2020

Barnstorming's Famous Ladies

With Nancy J. Farrier

What is barnstorming and where did the name come from? I’ve heard the term for years but knew little about the fascinating history of the sport. I knew even less about the women who participated in an area dominated by men. 

Breitling Wingwalkers:
Photo by Tech Sgt Lee Osberry
Wikimedia Commons
Barnstorming took off in the 1920’s. After WWI, the US had a surplus of planes produced for use in training pilots to fly and fight overseas. They put the planes up for sale for as little as $200. The pilots, who returned from the war with a love of flying and needed an occupation, bought those planes. Known for their daring and skill, these pilots began a series of aerial shows across the country that delighted people everywhere.

To perform in a town, the pilot or pilots would fly over a town, staying low and getting the attention of the people. Then they would choose a farm and land in a field near a barn—thus the name barnstorming. They would then bargain with the farmer for the use of his field to put on a show, and the townspeople would come to watch.

"Jersey" Ringel Wingwalking with Camera
By Underwood and Underwood, Wikimedia Commons
There were two types of showman: stunt pilots and aerialists. The stunt pilots put their planes through a variety of aerial stunts, from dives to flying upside down, they were willing to try almost anything. The aerialists put on a show on the airplane while the pilot flew above the crowd. Aerialists were the wing walkers, the ones who dangled from the airplane, or the ones who navigated between planes or from a car to a plane. They had many stunts to thrill the crowds below.

Bessie Coleman
Wikimedia Commons
In this male-dominated profession, two women who were pilots and aerialists caught my attention. The first is Bessie Coleman. Bessie was the first woman or African-American and Native-American descent to earn her pilot license. Bessie was born to a sharecropper family in Texas. She worked hard and saved money to go to a school for pilots in France since she was not allowed to take flight training in the USA. 

Bess returned to the United States and realized she needed to learn to do stunts in order to make a living. She returned to France once again and learned the needed skills both in France and Germany. In 1922, she gained recognition at an event honoring the 369th Infantry Regiment of WWI. She was billed as the “world’s greatest woman flier.” She performed many maneuvers, such as figure eights, loops, and near-ground dips. Her daredevil flying earned her great admiration. 

Bess's Aviation License
Wikimedia Commons
Queen Bess, as she was sometimes called, did not live long enough to see her dream of starting a school for young black aviators. In 1926, she was testing a plane with her mechanic and agent, William Wills. She was not fastened in as they took the plane up because she wanted to scout out the terrain for a stunt the following day.

Bess and Her Plane
Wikimedia Commons
Wills was piloting when the plane went into a dive and then a spin flinging Bess from the aircraft. She died when she hit the ground. The plane crashed and Wills also died. Many people mourned the loss of Bess Coleman. It is sad she died so young.

Lillian Boyer 1922
Wikimedia Commons
Lillian Boyer was working as a waitress in Chicago when she met a couple of pilots. They offered to take her up in their plane and she loved the ride. One of them offered to take her up again and this time she wore more appropriate clothing. When they were up in the air, the pilot asked if she wanted to stand on the wing. She did, wasn’t afraid at all, and decided to walk to the end of the wing. When she turned around she realized the pilot was screaming for her to come back, but she never felt afraid.

News of Lillian’s lack of fear ended up with her teaming up with pilot, William Brock. They made between $1,000 and $2,000 per day flying aerial shows and thrilling audiences. 

Lillian Hanging from Wing
Wikimedia Commons

Lillian performed feats that many men hesitated to try. She was the first woman to go from a speeding automobile to a plane. She also went from plane to plane, hung by her teeth, toes, knees, or ankles, balanced on her head, walked the wings, did stunts on a ladder, and more. Lillian lived a long life, passing away at 88-years of age in San Diego.

Lillian Standing on Wing
Wikimedia Commons

The end of barnstorming came in the late 1920’s. Aviation rules were made and enforced. The planes began to break down and the government quit selling any more. Many a daredevil put on shows for crowds across the United States. What an amazing sight that would have been.
Have you heard of barnstorming? Have you ever read about Lillian Boyer or Bess Coleman? They were such brave women who stepped out to do something they loved.

Nancy J Farrier is an award-winning author who lives in Southern Arizona in the Sonoran Desert. She loves the Southwest with its interesting historical past. When Nancy isn’t writing, she loves to read, do needlecraft, play with her cats, and spend time with her family. You can read more about Nancy and her books on her website:


  1. I've heard of barnstorming but am not sure I really knew what it was. I didn't realize it involved performing stunts outside of the aircraft. Thanks for the post!

  2. Great post, Nancy! I know a little about barnstorming, but have not heard of either of these two ladies. Thanks for sharing.