There are pilots who refer to their vintage aircraft as time machines. You climb inside the cockpit, start it up and the years melt away. You can almost imagine yourself back in the Golden Age of aviation when pilots in open cockpit airplanes flew across the country landing in farmers’ fields to give rides to the locals and demonstrate their airplanes to the curious.
The activity was known as “barnstorming” and it is alive and well today thanks to the American Barnstormers Tour. Pilots on the tour own pre-1939 aircraft and wear period costumes as they fly to different airports en masse.
The tour is semi-annual and focuses on different parts of the country. In 2006 it took place in the Midwest. General Aviation News caught up with these modern day barnstormers when they made EAA AirVenture a stop.
The members parked their colorful aircraft in a circle on the grass near the vintage aircraft display area and strode around looking like extras from a Hollywood epic.
Bob Lock, from Hemet, Calif., was one of the participants. Dressed in knee breeches and a white shirt, he sat in the shade of a cloth-covered wing as he told us the idea for the tour was the topic of discussion in vintage aircraft circles for some time.
“Clay Adams and Sarah Wilson started the tour,” he said. “The first thing they did was try to select some airplanes that would be appealing to people. Then they contacted the owners of vintage airplanes to see if they would be interested in doing a tour.”
Air tours are not quick to plan, he added. “It was talked about in 2000, then again in 2003 and then activated in 2006,” he reported.
Some of the aircraft took part in the National Air Tour, which was done in 2003 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of powered flight. That tour was similar to the Ford Air Tours that took place between 1925 and 1931 as a way to display the latest in aviation technology to folks around the country. The vintage aircraft that took part in the National Air Tour bear a distinctive logo.
“These are all vintage airplanes, many from 1929, 1930, 1931 and 1932 — the Golden Age of flying,” Lock said. “You have to realize that the Travel Air, for example, was built just two years after Lindbergh flew solo to Paris in the ‘Spirit of St. Louis.’ Civil aviation just boomed between 1928 and 1931 — 1929 was the highlight of that boom because after that the Depression had begun and a lot of aircraft companies went bankrupt and ceased to exist. Other companies, like Travel Air, Stinson and Waco, survived.”
Lock flies a rare Command Aire, made by Command Aire Inc. out of Little Rock, Ark.
“There were only 35 of them made because the company went bankrupt,” he said. “It was designed as a three-place sport biplane. You could barnstorm and give rides in it. I think most of the time they were used by wealthy people who could afford the $8,000 or $9,000 it cost to buy an airplane to have fun.”
The airplanes were convertible from a three-place plane to a crop duster and back, he explained. “That was a factory option,” he said. “You could buy the aircraft with gas tanks in the upper wings and you could take the upper wings off and take all the stuff out of the front cockpit and put a hopper in there and go dust. When you were finished you take the wings off again and remover the hopper and put all the seats back into it.”
Barnstormers relied on ticket sales for airplane rides and the generosity of locals to make ends meet. These days the barnstormers pay their own way.
“It can be very expensive,” said Lock, “because we foot our own bills, but the fun part of this is that when we get together it is a reunion.”
It is also a family affair, he said, because family members often show up as the ground support teams. He noted his son Rob also is a pilot and flies with the tour.
The Lock men also spend time at Fantasy of Flight in Florida giving biplane rides.
“We take people flying from literally all over the world,” said Lock. “I have taken up people from Russia, Central and South America, Canada, Africa, and Australia — I mean from everywhere. The fun in barnstorming is the people you meet. If you fly all day it gets kind of old and you get tired, but it’s the people that keep you going.”
To participate in the tour you must have an aircraft that was built before 1939.
The 2008 summer tour is being planned now and will take place in the Great Plains states of Iowa, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska.
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