By Henry M. Holden
Entrepreneurial pilots of World War I took a fledging aviation industry to the heartland and introduced the airplane to millions of Americans. Because of these daring barnstorming pilots, countless young boys and girls, after seeing, touching and sometimes riding in a barnstormer’s airplane, wanted to become pilots themselves. The barnstormers, also known as stunt pilots, would sell 15-minute rides to farmers, newspaper reporters and anybody else who had a dollar and a desire to explore the unknown world above them.
“The Barnstormers: Pioneers of the Sky,” an hour-long DVD, includes black and white footage from air shows of wing walkers hanging from wings and leaping from plane to plane at 500 feet. Hollywood stunt pilots from the Great Depression era crash through buildings, but even more arresting is the superb air-to-air photography of the modern era.
“The Barnstormers” is about as close as you can get to the real thing without strapping yourself into an airplane. After explaining the early history of barnstorming, the producers move quickly into the more modern versions of those daring aviators in their flying machines, who build and fly antique aircraft at air shows or show up at fly-ins selling rides.
“Mike McMaster, my co-producer, and I met when I was part of a group called the Vintage Years Airshows,” said Chuck Carson, senior producer of Up in the Air Pictures Productions. “Lee and Vallie Hanson had formed Vintage Years Airshows, and had hired me to be an associate producer with them for the shows. We had Michael come and shoot some footage that we could use either for the following year’s commercials or to show to civic groups. Once we captured all this on film and we sat down to view it, I said to Michael, ‘I think there’s a story here.'”
To tell the story, Carson and McMaster would have to reach back into time.
“One of the things we wanted to do was capture the essence of barnstorming in its original era by talking with people who did it,” said Carson. “I wanted to go back and see if we could track down and talk with some of the original barnstormers, and find out how some of them evolved into stunt pilots without giving the rides. We had to find the now older men who had been part of the aviation industry and barnstorming era.”
They knew reaching back 80 years wouldn’t be easy.
“We spoke with barnstormer Nick Lentine, who is still alive and just celebrated his 100th birthday,” he said. “We were able to talk with a number of early barnstormers before they passed away, and some of the modern day barnstormers, such as stunt pilot Jimmy Franklin, before he left us in a tragic accident.”
Carson and McMaster began their search by asking Bob Lock, a modern day stunt pilot, to help.
“Bob and his son Rob were gold mines of information,” said Carson. “We used Bob as our mentor, and he guided us to a number of people. The way we found the late barnstormer, Ed Nibur, is because Bob Lock had purchased a New Standard fuselage to reconstruct; it turned out to be the airplane that had belonged to Ed. Bob had found Ed, retired and living in California. That’s how small of a world this aspect of the industry is.”
When they interviewed Nibur, he was 95. McMaster made the contact with Lentine.
“He lived in an area called Terra Bella, Calif., near Porterville Airport (PTV), where Nick lived and flew from,” he said. “We interviewed Nick when he was 96.”
Most of the people Carson and McMaster interviewed lived in California, but they met others when they hooked up with the National Air Tour in Wichita, Kan., in 2003.
“We traveled with the tour from Wichita to Tulsa, Okla.,” said Carson. “The tour airplanes were on their way to AirVenture at Oshkosh, Wis., and we were able to get the footage we needed and talk with these people as they were coming in.”
The project took time, energy, money and travel.
“We shot hours and hours of footage to come up with enough material to do what we had to do in the editing room,” said Carson. “Some of the interviews went on for an hour and a half to two hours. We culled what we thought was the best and edited it.”
He said the most challenging part of the project was trying to decide what they were going to do with all the footage.
“We had air-to-air footage from the National Air Tour and interviews with the tour people,” he said. “Integrating that into the interviews we had with the older stunt pilots, plus the archived footage from the early era, and putting all that together into a one-hour seamless presentation was a real challenge. It took agonizing hours in the editing room to make that connection. It was also very satisfying to be able to give these older men an opportunity to be seen and heard telling their story, and let them know how vital they were in bringing general aviation to the forefront.”
The historic footage in “The Barnstormers” shows some legendary airplanes that are now gone. The modern footage includes airplanes that are legendary but rare and still flying. Among them are two of the last New Standard 53Cs in existence, several Stearmans and Travel Airs, a Command Air and Eddie Andreini’s 450-hp Stearman with a full canopy. Two of the many amazing acts caught on this DVD are Hartley Folstad piloting his 450-hp Stearman while veteran pilot and wing walker Margie Stivers combines challenging gymnastics and dance moves during an aerobatic routine of loops and rolls in an act called “Silver Wings.”
“After my first wing walk in 1991, I knew I was born to do this,” Stivers said.
Watching the late Jimmy Franklin light up his jet-powered Stearman and fly straight up from practically a dead stop—as seen from the sky overhead— is worth the price of the DVD.
“I think this production is generally for people who want to hear and see the people who were from the original barnstorming era,” said Carson. “This era is important because it got people interested in flying. It also gives folks an opportunity to see how modern barnstormers handle today’s challenges. We talked to the stunt pilots who are also part of what we call the barnstorming spectrum, because they still bring people out and some of these people will become interested in flying.”
If editing the footage was a challenge, then getting it to market was an even greater challenge.
“At the time we were in production the Discovery Channel had a channel called Wings,” said Carson. “We thought our production was the perfect program for Wings and hoped they would make a purchase. We knew it wouldn’t be a great deal of money, but it would help defray some of the expenses. As you know, Wings became the Military Channel, so what we were offering really didn’t fit their programming style.”
The next step for Carson was to decide where he could market the production.
“I contacted every air museum in the country to see if they had a gift shop,” Carson said. “I’d talk to the person in charge and then send them a complimentary copy, hoping they would see the quality and want to purchase it for their gift shops. We had the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum make a purchase from us and they’re still reordering it. What we’ve discovered is that right now the catalogs are our best marketing source.”
While doing research for “The Barnstormers,” Carson discovered a great many airplanes that were either one-of-a-kind or so rare that one didn’t see many of them.
“We were fortunate enough to talk to the pilots, the restorers or the owners and put together a similar production,” said Carson. “We took their scrapbooks and their stills and were able to show how they brought the airplanes back to life.”
He said they’re excited about “Rare Birds.”
“We’re hoping to be part of the first flight for one airplane—the Boeing 40 that Addison Pemberton is restoring up in Spokane, Wash.,” he said. “The Boeing 40 was the first true airliner built by Boeing and was probably the first aircraft that made aviation commercially viable.”
“Rare Birds” will be a 13-part series and will highlight one-of-a-kind aircraft, with profiles of both the planes and pilots.”
“The pilots are sometimes rare birds themselves,” said Carson. “It’s taken two and a half years. The first episode should be complete and ready for release soon.”
For more information visit [http://www.upintheairpictures.com].