The Flying Circus

Flying Circus Logo
Print: Barnstormer Art

The touring Gates Flying Circus was by 1927 drawing as many as 30,000 spectators to each of its performances, and selling rides to 100,000 passengers a year. They had established themselves as "The Daddy of the Air Circuses." Permanent headquarters were near Teterboro Airport in New Jersey located in a wooden factory building, on which was emblazoned the legend: GATES FLYING CIRCUS, GREATEST AVIATORS IN THE WORLD. Gates, was born in Rockford, Michigan and liked to tell reporters he had flown pusher planes before World War I. The fact is: he did not learn to fly at all until his flying circus was already well established.

Cockpit Image
The New Standard biplane carried four at a time, thus increasing income without added expense.

So successful was Ivan Gates and his circus that he had Charles Healey Day of the New Standard Aircraft Corporation, Paterson, New Jersey design an aircraft to accommodate four paying passengers in it's front cockpit. This fact increased income without added expense.

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MPG Movie Of New Standard Landing at Old Rheinbeck Aerodrome

Today there are several of these airplanes still operating in the same capacity that Ivan had them designed them for - taking passengers on aerial adventures. The other mainstay of the flying circus (and popular for barnstorming too) was the JN4, affectionately called Jenny. Charles Lindbergh barnstormed with a Jenny. This particular aircraft is owned by the Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island, New York. Jennys were usually purchased as Army Surplus.

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Handbills were nailed on trees and posts, by a "front" man several weeks before the circus arrived to drum up a crowd.

Gates and his fliers did not hold a monopoly on organized barnstorming. They shared the skies and farm fields of America with dozens of other aerial circuses. Most of these enterprises worked their way around the country from pasture to pasture, small town to small town, tacking up posters on barns and telephone poles, often advertising their arrival by buzzing rooftops along Main Street with a wingwalker out on one wing.

The circuses learned that morbid curiosity could lure many reluctant bystanders to purchase a ticket. They often hired a local ambulance to drive into their pasture with its siren screaming. Another ruse was to send a plane aloft with a dummy in the front cockpit and allow it to fall to earth during a loop.

Mable Cody
	    Transfering From A Boat To An Airplane
Mable Cody transfers from a speed boat to a rope ladder dangling from a Standard in 1926. She was the first woman to perform this stunt, and she survived a previous attempt during which the plane crashed and the boat caught fire.

Big or small, circuses did their best to offer at least one unusual stunt. Eddie Angel of Jimmy Angel's Flying Circus specialized in a "Dive of Death" - jumping out of a plane after dark with a flashlight in each hand and opening his chute only when he could see the ground. Walter Hunter of Oklahoma's Hunter Brothers Flying Circus hung by his knees from the undercarriage of a plane and dropped into a haystack without any chute at all. Cliff Rose of the Cliff Rose Death Angels fastened "batman" wings to his arms and did spirals and other stunts before reaching for his rip cord. Mable Cody, a niece of Wild West showman Buffalo Bill Cody, was a remarkable acrobat and star of her own flying circus. She made her name by performing delayed parachute jumps, dancing on wings, and on occasion grabbing the rope ladder under her Jenny while tearing across a lake in a speedboat. She made the most of a barker named Curly Burns, who urged spectators to purchase a ride by giving Mabel's pilots military rank that most of them did not possess.

Gladys Changing Planes
The Wingwalking Act Drew The Crowds

Local pilots and airport operators objected to the way circuses invaded their territory, skimmed off the cream of the aviation business, then left them to their year-round struggles to stay solvent. Federal regulations tightened by 1936. Wingwalking was permitted only above 1,500 feet, so high that nobody could see it. Wingwalkers were further required to wear parachutes. Special fencing was mandated to contain crowds, and insurance requirements were drastically raised. The flying circus was grounded, its rickety airplanes cracked up or unfit to fly, the pilots scattered or gone on their last flights.

Front Cockpit

The Cozy Front Cockpit Of A Restored 1929 New Standard D-25 Biplane.
Waldo Wright's Flying Service - Rob Lock, Pilot

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