Defying Death

Rodgers was cut from the same cloth as hundreds of other daredevils who criss-crossed the country in those early days of aviation, wowing crowds with dangerous stunts and taking thrill-seeking passengers on $15 sight-seeing jaunts. If a passenger plunked down another $10, a barnstormer might perform a loop-the-loop, where the pilot pulled the nose of the plane higher and higher until it was upside down before continuing in a vertical circle back to level flight.

Defying Death

On Course

Want a "crash" course on barn­storming and the days of flying circuses? Rent or buy a videotape called The Great Waldo Pepper, starring Robert Redford. The film, co-written with director George Roy Hill, may capture the rip­roaring spirit of the day better than any other movie. Watch for the real-life Irfe-and-death wing walking stunts by stunt flying leg­end frank Tallman.

But when there were no passengers aboard, nothing was too dangerous for daring barnstormers to try at least once. Photographs from the era show wing walkers trotting cavalierly about the airplane and scrambling from bottom wing to top wing and from cockpit to tail. One publicity photo even shows two wing walkers facing each other along the length of the top wing of a vintage biplane, each brandishing a racquet and pretending to play tennis. It was common for wing walkers to not only move around the wings during flight, but also to dangle beneath the wings and even drop from the bottom wing of one plane to the top wing of another while flying thousands of feet in the air—all without a parachute.

It was also typical for pilots to fly without a parachute. In those days parachutes were bulky contraptions that were as likely to tangle as to open safely, and even if the canopy did open, the descent speed was still fast enough to break a few bones. Besides, barnstormers and stunt pilots had more daring than sense.

Defying Death

Plane Talk

• Barnstormers weren’t the only daring flyers in the sky during aviation’s early years. Holly­wood’s hunger for cinematic thrills gave birth to a new specialty vocation—the movie stunt pilot One group of pilots who specialized in onscreen flying thrills called themselves “The 13 Black Cab." They published a ‘‘menu" of stunb they would perform on film along with, a price for each:

“Crash ships into trees or houses: $1,200

Loop with man standing on center section: $150

Drop from airplane to train: $150

Blow up plane in mid air, pilot parachutes out: $500."

“The 13 Black Cab" were expensive, but so was life insurance.

Defying Death

The golden era of barnstorming started coming to a close in 1927. That year, a former barnstormer shed forever the carefree life of thrill flying to break a geographic boundary that some thought would never be breached: Charles A. Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic Ocean nonstop, and in the process achieved worldwide fame that “Lucky Lindy’ could never shed, no matter how he tried. Lindbergh also proved to a skeptical world that the continents were no longer separated by impenetrable barriers but now could be easily visited by friends—or menaced by enemies.

Also that year, air mail began to enter the American lexicon as government backing helped spur the very earliest airlines toward profitability. Starting as early as 1918, Congress and Washington bureaucrats foresaw that the future of transportation lay in the skies. It was in 1918, when America was fighting World War I, that the first government air mail route was inaugurated between Potomac Park in Washington, D. C., and a makeshift landing field at Long Island’s Belmont Park race track.

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