Clyde Pangborn
Schneider Trophy
the great air races
Hollywood stunt pilots
early women aviators

Ormer Locklear and the “Lunatics"

Aerobatics were a part of flying from the start: they were certainly an important element of Lilienthal’s career. The Wrights indulged in aerobatics, though they probably would have bristled at the suggestion that they were having any fun at it. Curtiss, a seasoned racer, understood the entertainment potential of flying and fielded an exhibition team around 1909. One of his fliers, Charles “Daredevil” Hamilton, survived sixty-three crashes, only to die in bed of tuberculosis in 1914 at the age of twenty eight.

A newspaper advertisement for Ormer Locklear's Flying Circus, 1919. The photo at left shows two Curtiss JN-4D biplanes in formation flight with a wingwalker hanging by his knees from the axle of the higher aircraft. The photo at right shows a clown on a JN-4.

(Hamilton’s observations about his 1911 flights in Mexico with Roland Garros and the Moisant Brothers first alerted tacticians to the military uses of airplanes.) Before the war, planes were limited in the manoeuvers they could perform and fliers were still grappling with the basics of flying. The feats of Adolphe Pegoud captured the imagination of many young fliers and spurred them on to try stunts neither they nor the planes were prepared to do. One such flier was Lincoln Beachey, a member of  the Curtiss team whose stubborn determination made him the most daring and celebrated of the pre-war fliers.

Portrait of barnstomer Ormer Locklear, 1919

Beachey is credited with dispensing once and for all with the forward elevators of the Curtiss planes; he once set an altitude record of 11,642 feet by simply climbing until he ran out of fuel and then gliding back to the ground with a dead engine. His stubbornness resulted in many crashes, and he must have had a very high threshold for pain to have survived some of them. Dressed in a pinstripe suit, a high collar, and fancy tie, and wearing a large golf cap turned backwards, Beachey would fly close to the ground, let go of the controls and wave to the crowd; he would loop over and over, getting closer to the grandstands with each loop; or fly under, through, or around bridges, streets, hangars open at both ends, and even inside large exhibition halls.

Lincoln Beachey

His most famous stunt was to fly over Niagara Falls, dive down toward the foam below and pull up in the mist just as he was about to crash into the river then fly under a bridge and land, dripping wet and smiling to the crowd of 150,000. In 1914, after a brief retirement, Beachey toured the country racing auto-racer Barney Oldfield (“The Daredevil of the Air” vs. “The Demon of the Ground”) in front of large audiences. Beachey died on March 14, 1915, performing a stunt near the San Francisco pier as part of the Panama-Pacific Exposition.

After World War I, aviators were to be found almost everywhere in the American countryside. These young fliers often slept Out in the field under the wings of their machines, and frequently they would offer a ride in return for a meal or enough gasoline to get them to the next town. They had to learn how to fix their own machines, and they frequently came up with novel solutions to problems. They performed ever more complex and dangerous stunts because the jaded public demanded it. Some barnstormers travelled with an ambulance that would simply drive through the town with its siren blaring, leading customers to the airfield. In time, fliers pooled their resources and formed little troupes, and sometimes the best partnerships were formed when a flier and a talented promoter joined forces.

Lincoln Beachey’s flights in and through enclosed buildings (as in this 1913 demonstration) required careful planning and deft airmanship

One such team became the most successful barnstorming act of the post-war period—the flier Ormer Leslie Locklear and the promoter William Pickens. Locklear had been trained at the Army Air Service flight school at Barron Field, near Fort Worth, Texas, and was performing stunts on the wings of his Jenny even while in the service. Wingwalking was not new in 1918; it was not unheard of that a pilot or passenger would (if he absolutely had to) climb out onto a wing to make a timely repair or pry loose a stubborn control surface. But Locklear took the practice to new levels, devising new stunts that seemed aimed at nothing less than tempting fate. He perfected the use of the over-wing struts on the Jenny as a brace for wingwalking; spectators who never noticed the structures before thought they were made specifically for Locklear.

Four images of barnstormer Omer Locklear performing various wingwalking stunts with his Curtiss JN-4D, around 1919-1920.

When Locklear met Pickens in 1919, the promoter already had a great deal of experience promoting barnstormers like Lincoln Beachey and some post-war fliers, but from the very beginning Pickens knew he was going to have his greatest success with Locklear. Jumping from one plane to another was Locklear’s trademark stunt, and then, when the public tired of that, he worked on jumping from a car to a plane and from a plane to car. Locklear was severely injured in some of the earlier attempts of this stunt, but Pickens used that (and exaggerated bandages) to heighten the drama and stir public interest.

View of Clyde Pangborn caught mid-air, falling, during his unsuccessful attempt to make an airplane-to-automobile transfer at Coronado Tent City, Coronado Beach, California, on May 16, 1920.

One stunt of Locklear’s, the “Dance of Death,” is difficult to believe and is probably the most thrilling aerial stunt ever performed. Locklear would pilot one plane and fly right next to a second plane, with the two aircraft almost touching wings. At a signal, with the controls locked in place, the two pilots would change places, passing each other as they scampered across the wings! Locklear and Pickens became wealthy and lived in high style, in contrast to the poverty of most other barnstormers. They became even more successful when they brought the act to Los Angeles and came to the attention of the movie-making community. After several highly publicized exhibitions at an airfield owned by Sydney Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin’s brother, Pickens arranged for Locklear to appear as a stunt man in Universal’s The Great Air Robbery in 1920, and an offer was made by Twentieth Century Fox for a feature film, the Skywayman. Locklear took to Hollywood very well.

Roscoe Turner was one of the daredevil pilots on the barnstorming circuit.

He became a hit. Buzzing the lot, he perfected a manoeuvre in which he ricocheted off the roof of the sound stages, calling it the “Locklear Bounce,” and he romanced a rising young actress at Metro, Viola Dana (though he had a wife back in Texas). During the filming of The Skywayman, Locklear insisted on performing his stunts as realistically as possible, including those scripted to take place at night (and forgoing the device of using filters to make daytime scenes appear as though shot at night). On August 2, 1920, while filming one of the night scenes, Locklear was apparently blinded by a spotlight; the Jenny went into a tailspin and crashed. Locklear received what might be called a gala Hollywood funeral (complete with Viola weeping, alone in her limousine). Locklear had made the entire enterprise respectable and profitable, and with the help of the hundreds of fliers who flew for meal money, he rekindled the nation’s interest in flying.

Beachey on his last flight, just moments before he plunged into San Francisco Bay, on March 14, 1915.

After January 1920, however, many fliers moved south and saw their fortunes take an immediate turn for the better. The passage of the Eighteenth Amendment—Prohibition—had provided them with a new source of income: using their planes to smuggle liquor from Mexico into the United States. One barnstorming troupe operated out of Dallas, Texas, under the name “The Lunatics of Love Field,” managed by the irrepressible Floyd “Slats” Rogers. Rogers would conduct air shows in the afternoon and send one of the planes across the border for a shipment of whiskey.

Pancho Barnes was a well-known daredevil pilot of the barnstorming era.

If Slats suspected a government agent was in the crowd, he would have the plane smuggling in the contraband join the stunt or formation as if it had been stunt-flying all along. The Lunatics operated successfully until Congress passed the Air Commerce Act of 1926. The law called for the licensing of aircraft and pilots, and laid down strict rules about the kinds of stunts fliers could perform. Ironically, the law was passed at the insistence of the fledgling air transport industry, who saw the barnstormers as fostering the idea that flying was dangerous and difficult — which, of course, is the whole idea behind barnstorming in the first place.