They flew machines that were little more than sticks, wire and fabric, and in the words of South Dakota artist John Wilson, had “very short careers.” That’s the way he describes the daring fellow perched on the wing of a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” in his painting Flying Circus.
In his acrylic on canvas painting, Wilson drew on his boyhood memories growing up on the northern prairie. “I was probably 6 or 7 years old when I first got to view an airplane up close,” Wilson said. “It landed in a pasture on the south edge of town.” As to what type of aircraft it might have been, all he could remember was that it was a biplane and it had a shiny radiator. “I don’t know if it was a Jenny or not,” he said, “but the Curtiss JN-4 was the first choice of barnstormers in the 1920s and ’30s.”
The Jenny’s development started in 1913, after Glenn H. Curtiss visited England and was intrigued with Thomas Sopwith’s “tractor-type” propeller configuration. Up to that time most American biplanes had been using a pusher arrangement.
The JN-4D was the culmination of several Curtiss designs that took final shape in July 1916. The 4D model Jenny had a tandem cockpit, with an unequal span, two-bay wing and a wide stance, cross-axle landing gear for rough field landings and takeoffs. The plane was powered by a 90-hp Curtiss OX-5 V-8 engine that gave it a top speed of 75 miles per hour.
Nearly 3,000 JN-4Ds were produced between November 1917 and January 1919, during which time they served as U.S. Army trainers. When World War I ended, the U.S. government found itself with thousands of leftover Jennys. Hundreds of returning pilots bought surplus JN-4s at the bargain basement price of $200. (The original aircraft had cost more than $5,000 to produce just a few years earlier.)
Some former military aviators flew their used Jennys on newly granted airmail routes. Others found work and plenty of excitement performing solo or with teams of aerial acrobats. They became known as barnstormers, from their practice of buzzing rural towns to gain attention each time they arrived in a new community. They would then land on a nearby farm and negotiate with the farmer to use one of his fields as a landing strip.
It was in one such airshow that John Wilson saw his first airplane up close. He never forgot it. “I liked to draw pictures of World War I biplanes in school,” he said. “I guess I should have been studying at the time instead.” He remembered that the barnstormers generally offered rides for a few dollars, but in the Depression era there were few takers. Tickets for the aerial shows were considerably cheaper.
To add even more excitement to the barnstormers’ antics, some of the daredevil aerialists delighted crowds by crawling out of one of the cockpits and onto the wings to perform heart-stopping balancing stunts. The pilot at the controls would then go through a series of dives and barrel rolls while his partner perched precariously on the upper wing, as depicted in Wilson’s painting.
Another daring feat was transferring from a speeding car to a rope ladder dangling from the landing gear of a JN-4. Clyde “Upside Down” Pangborn is generally credited with perfecting this act. Standing up in an open car bouncing over an unpaved track at 75 mph was something of a death-defying feat in itself. When you consider that the “pickup aircraft” was only about 20 feet off the ground, it’s clear there was not much room for miscalculations. Pangborn also performed variations involving pickups from a train and a speedboat.
One of the premier wing-walkers was Ormer Locklear, a carpenter and mechanic from Texas who joined the U.S. Army Air Service in October 1917. He was a few days short of his 26th birthday when he entered pilot training at Barton Field. According to historians at the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission, Locklear made his first venture out onto the lower wing of a JN-4 when “he could not see some communications that were being flashed to him on the ground because the plane’s engine housing and wing were blocking his view.”
Cadet Locklear decided to leave the Jenny’s controls in the hands of his instructor to get a better view. After receiving the instructions, he returned to his seat in the cockpit and went on to pass his test that day. Though he was admonished to refrain from further “out-of-cockpit activity,” Locklear later climbed from the cockpit to tighten a radiator cap that had vibrated loose. Another time a loose sparkplug wire sent him scurrying over the side of the cockpit to fix a sputtering engine while still in flight.
Instead of court-martialing him, Locklear’s commanding officer encouraged him to continue his daring stunts, which boosted the morale of his colleagues and raised confidence in the soundness of the Jenny, which had recently seen a series of accidents. Several cadets started developing their own techniques outside the cockpit, and wing-walking became all the rage.
Lieutenant Locklear was honorably discharged from the Army in the summer of 1919, and immediately took his show on the road. Soon he was dubbed the “King of the Wing-Walkers” and netted as much as $3,000 a day. But as Wilson noted, most barnstormers had short careers. Only a few months after Locklear began his career as a professional wing-walker, eight people died trying to copy some of his acts of daring. In August 1920, while performing an aerial stunt for a Hollywood feature film, Locklear fell to his death. In the mid-’30s, as a result of new government regulations, barnstorming all but died out. In 1936 wing-walking was outlawed below 1,500 feet. At that altitude the crowds could no longer clearly see the stunts being performed, and public interest waned. The golden days of JN-4s swooping low over crowds with daring wing-walkers dancing in the face of death are long gone, but not forgotten in John Wilson’s painting Flying Circus.
Originally published in the July 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.