By Patricia Luebke,
The only complaint Clay Adams has is that he was born 56 years too late. Given a choice, he would’ve preferred to have been born during the Golden Age of Aviation, where he couldn’t have been anything else but a barnstormer.
“Sometimes I see myself in vintage photos,” he says. Of course, he’s happiest when flying his 1929 Travel Air 4000. That’s exactly what he’ll do this summer as he kicks off the American Barnstormers Tour. The tour is set to appear at nine airports, culminating with a week on display at EAA AirVenture 2006.
A Northwest Airlines captain by profession, but a barnstormer at heart, Adams hails from an aviation family and has remained in his hometown of Rosemount, Minn. His father, too, was an airline pilot. He started with North Central, which merged into Republic, which merged into Northwest.
An early memory of his father, Adams says, is his “racing out to catch the last rays of sun in his Cub.” As Adams recalls, he was probably 3 years old when he had his first airplane ride—in the backseat of his father’s Cessna 195.
Adams soloed at 16 in the family’s Cub, an airplane he still owns today, and has now logged more than 24,000 flight hours in 97 different aircraft types. His father had flown C-47s during the Korean War; prior to joining Northwest, he managed Worthington Airport in Minnesota, where he ran a charter and crop-dusting operation. Adams’ brother Craig, a crew chief for Northwest, was killed as a passenger in an airplane accident.
“When they were both alive, we would fly in formation,” Adams recalled. “Craig had a 450 Stearman, Dad had a Hatz biplane and I had my Travel Air. We’d visit local airports. We would fly all over the countryside and then try to chase the sunset back to the airport.”
Adams formed Nostalgic Wings in 1997, shortly after he bought the Travel Air. His intent was to provide airplane rides to the public.
“No one was doing it in the Dakotas or Wisconsin,” he says.
He appears at a half-dozen air shows a season. It’s a family affair with his wife Cindy driving the support vehicle and his children selling T-shirts. When the weekend is free from air shows, Adams is typically flying passengers who’ve been given gift certificates for rides. He likes to provide more than an airplane ride, however.
“I give them the history of the aircraft so they appreciate it more, and know it’s not a reproduction,” he said. “It’s a real aircraft that has been well-maintained.”
In fact, when Adams bought the aircraft, the seller was particular about its new owner.
“He wouldn’t sell it to just anyone,” Adams said. “He wanted to make sure the airplane would be taken care of, so he checked me out with other people.”
When it comes to his Nostalgic Wings’ passengers, there’s no typical one. He has flown children as young as 4, all the way up to a woman in her nineties who had never been in an airplane before. One memorable passenger, a World War II veteran, was in his late eighties.
“He never used the intercom, didn’t say a word. He didn’t even give me a thumbs up or thumbs down to communicate,” remembers Adams, who concluded the gentleman must not be feeling well. As the engine shut down, Adams noticed the man was crying. As it turned out, his passenger had been a B-17 pilot, but hadn’t been in an airplane since the end of World War II.
The idea for the American Barnstormers Tour has been on Adams’ mind since he saw “The Great Waldo Pepper” for the first time.
“If it weren’t for this type of flying, we might not be here,” he said.
The constraints of work and family, though, left no time to make the idea a reality. The plans started to take shape at a Travel Air gathering in 2000.
“People gathered by my airplane and discussed going out and doing some barnstorming together,” he said. “We were six individuals with all sorts of ideas.”
The group jokingly referred to themselves as BRA, short for Biplane Rides of America. Time sped by and Adams realized nothing had happened, so he vowed to do what it took to make the tour a reality.
His first call was to Rob Lock, a fulltime barnstormer out of Kermit Weeks’ Fantasy of Flight. Lock flies a 1929 Command-Aire, and owns and operates two 1930 New Standard D-25s. Lock brought Sarah Wilson, who flies one of his aircraft at Fantasy of Flight, on board to handle public relations. And they were off.
The intended mission of the American Barnstormers Tour is to expose the public to vintage airplanes.
“We want to let people see what they’ve been missing,” says Adams. “When you go to the airport, all you see is metal and plastic. Stick and rudder is disappearing; this is our chance to introduce this type of flying to the world.”
The American Barnstormers Tour begins in Kalamazoo, Mich., on July 15, and will feature 15 to 20 aircraft in all. The aircraft are all originals, and the pilots and crews will dress in period costume for authenticity. For the week of AirVenture, the goal is to make the area where the airplanes are parked realistic as to what a barnstormers’ gathering may have looked like, complete with bunting and flags.
“We’re basically using photos and old movies, and, of course, we still use Waldo Pepper for inspiration,” Adams says.
From Kalamazoo, the tour moves to Smith Field, Fort Wayne, Ind. (July 17); Monroe County Airport, Bloomington, Ind. (July 18); Frasca Field, Champaign/Urbana, Ill. (July 19); Southeast Iowa Regional Airport, Burlington, Iowa (July 20); Albertus Airport, Freeport, Ill. (July 21); Wisconsin Dells Airport, Baraboo, Wis. (July 22); Wausau Downtown Airport, Wausau, Wis. (July 23-24). Then, it’s on to EAA AirVenture, July 25-30.
Each day’s show will consist of a “Barnstormers Parade of Flight.” The master of ceremonies, Frank Rezich, will entertain and inform the crowd with a history of each airplane as the pilot performs overhead. Spectators will also have the opportunity for individual flights in some of the aircraft. All shows are weather permitting.
Depending on the success of this year’s event, long-term plans are to hold the American Barnstormers Tour in subsequent years. As for Adams, he and his fellow barnstormers will see their dream come to fruition as thousands of people are introduced to these vintage airplanes and the Golden Age of Aviation. At the very minimum, for at least a week, Adams will live the life of a barnstormer.
Adams says that when his wife Cindy recognizes his occasional bad mood, she will suggest, “Go to the airport.” She knows he’ll come back renewed and refreshed after experiencing a flight like one he described.
“We were four Travel Airs and a Stearman, flying in formation over a corn field,” he recalled. “There wasn’t a car in sight.”
He remembered the image of a friend’s scarf blowing in the wind. For a moment, he says, it was easy to believe that it was the 1920s. The tour will evoke that same nostalgia for many.
For a complete schedule and roster of participating pilots and aircraft, visit