Flight as entertainment: a brief history of barnstorming

Written by: Sara Bohuch, BA Archaeology (Simon Fraser University) , MSc Conservation Practice (Cardiff University)

In 1903, the New York Times predicted that it would take a million years for humanity to be able to fly. Two months after this opinion was published, the Wright Brothers successfully launched their homemade aircraft in North Carolina, beginning the rise of North America’s aviation age. The lesson to take from this is, of course, to never completely write off the human race’s capacity to discover, innovate and possess a deep desire to see their siblings launched off of things. 

Aviation, being a handy way of exploring wide open places, made its way north of the border into Canada swiftly after. The idea to use flying these machines to entertain the masses came about at almost at the same time.

The term ‘barnstorming’ refers to a style of stunt flying where pilots would perform tricks in an airplane to the amazement of a crowd below. The style gained huge popularity after the First World War when many newly trained pilots came back to North America. This was before large-scale commercial aviation, and jobs in the aviation industry were few and far between. Performing to crowds in whatever airplane they could scrounge up was one of the only ways aviators could make money, and the crowds loved it. Not many had even seen an airplane let alone someone do aerial tricks in one. 

This curiosity about aircraft became key for drumming up business for a practicing barnstormer. The pilots would fly their aircraft low over a small rural town and, when they had gotten the attention of the people, would land in a nearby farmer’s field. After negotiating with that farmer to use their property as a runway, the barnstormer proceeded to offer airplane rides to interested townsfolk or offer them flight shows filled with stunts like the good old loop-de-loop. Once the show was done, it was off to the next town.  

This sort of door-to-door spectacle worked well within the Albertan landscape. During the early  part of the 20th century, the population outside of Edmonton and Calgary was scattered into a series of these sorts of small rural towns. However, setting up a financially reliable entertainment circuit had a lot of unknowns: how friendly was that town you flew over? Would any farmer actually let you use their field? Would the weather cooperate? Did the town even have money to spend? A much better (and more consistent) way of making money as an aviator would be to secure a lucrative gig performing in your airplane during the summer festival season in the province. 

One of the first documented cases of aerial shows in Alberta happened in April 1911. Hugh Robinson and “Lucky Bob” St. Henry (famous American actors/pilots) were contracted to come to the Edmonton Exhibition to fly over the city. The demonstration was thrilling as most fair goers had never seen an aircraft before and they drew a considerable crowd. Not wanting to be outdone by their rival city, three months later Calgary invited pilot Howard LeVan to perform in their Summer Fair, which was held in the city’s Victoria Park. LeVan’s flights became especially notable in Alberta aviation history for two reasons: they were some of the very first performed in the city of Calgary and they were rife with catastrophe.

LeVan was only able to make two flight attempts during his festival contract, both of which failed during the landing. The first flight landed in a fence due to the landing strip being less a landing strip and more a very a sticky and muddy field. The aircraft he flew ended up with broken wings and a trashed landing gear. LeVan, undeterred and only mildly injured, spent the night repairing his biplane and took to the skies the very next day. This time the plane’s landing was just as spectacular a failure due to an unlucky series of gopher holes present throughout the designated landing area. Upon touchdown, the wheels of the aircraft became ensnared in one and almost flipped both the aircraft and the pilot. With the plane broken again, no more flight attempts were made for the rest of the fair. LeVan however was a practical sort, and still managed to profit off his misfortune. The next day he set up his damaged aircraft under a tent and charged visitors extra to come in and examine the carnage for themselves.  

Airplane’s were a rare site, but were not impossible for an aspiring aviator to get a hold of. Around 1913-14, Calgary realtor Tom Blakely purchased his very own for the low price of $200 and set about preparing to build the first airplane in the city. His airplane did not arrive assembled since he had ordered the parts separately, so Blakely put an ad in the paper seeking assistance in building the darn thing. Frank Ellis answered the ad and, slowly but surely, the two men constructed an aircraft that they christened “The West Wind”. They flew their creation successfully around the city until the summer of 1915, when they decided and fly it in the newly designated Shouldice Park. Prior to 1910, Shouldice Park was nothing but farmland that had belonged to James Shouldice. Converted to a park after his death, the space was cleared of pesky trees and shrubs and was thought to be the perfect space to fly their new airplane.

Somewhat ironically, Calgary’s first built aircraft swiftly met its end at the park due to a strong wind almost immediately crashing the biplane once it was aloft. No one was hurt, but the plane was broken beyond repair. While this ending was rather abrupt, it was not the end of the aviation drive for either of the men involved. Frank Ellis in particular went on to become a famous barnstormer and aviator in the country, and eventually even became the first Canadian to parachute from an airplane in 1919.  

Glenbow Archives. Captain F. R. McCall, Calgary Exhibition and Stampede, Calgary, Alberta.  File Number: NA-1258-22, Calgary, August 1919.

That same year one of the most spectacular landings ever accomplished by a biplane was made here in Alberta. Freddie McCall, flying ace of the First World War, was contacted by the city of Calgary to perform aviation tricks during their 1919 Exhibition. Part of the contract was to take paying customers on flights around the city between airshows, and McCall was on a routine flight over Victoria Park when he noticed something was wrong. The biplane’s engine had completely failed and the aircraft was beginning to fall. He needed to bring his aircraft safely down with his two clients intact, both of which were the young children of the exhibition manager. Seeing as how there were very few favorable landing areas due to the size of the festival and the density of the crowd, McCall chose to land his plane on top of the festival carousel and managed to walk away with no injuries to either himself or to the children. The plane, as can be seen from the photo, was a bit of a write-off.  

By the latter half of the 1920s and into the early 1930s, barnstorming was becoming much more dangerous as a sport. Aircraft were more commonplace at this time and, though people still came to the airshows, they wanted more dramatic and dangerous tricks done by the pilots. It was much safer for any pilot looking for work to get a job transporting cargo, such as was exemplified in this advertisement for a Lethbridge brewing company below. The death and injury rate of the remaining barnstormers steadily rose. Barnstorming continued to decline slowly in popularity for about another decade until the looming specter of a second world war took everyone’s time and attention, and anyone who could fly was needed for another purpose. Barnstorming still exists today but is, understandably, much more heavily regulated than it once was. 


“2.The Barnstormers, 1906-1914.” Canada’s Flying Heritage, 1980, pp. 53–106., https://doi.org/10.3138/9781442671706-004.

“Barnstorming.” The Early Years – Barnstorming, Heritage Community Foundation, 2004, http://www.abheritage.ca/aviation/history/fairs_barnstormers.html .

Ellis, Frank. Canada’s Flying Heritage. University of Toronto Press, 2016.

“Montgomery Community Association.” Federation of Calgary Communities, 1 Apr. 2021, https://calgarycommunities.com/communities/montgomery-community-association/#:~:text=Purchased%20in%201906%20by%20James,be%20known%20as%20Shouldice%20Terrace. .

Logan, Shawn. “That Time a First World War Flying Ace Crash Landed on a Calgary …” Calgary Herald, 2 July 2019, https://calgaryherald.com/news/local-news/that-time-a-first-world-war-flying-ace-crash-landed-on-a-calgary-stampede-carousel/.

Pigott, Peter. Flying Canucks: Famous Canadian Aviators. Dundurn Press, 2008.

Pignott, P. Wing Walkers. Harbour Publishing, 2003.

Tingley, Ken. “Blatchford Field: The Emergence of Aviation as a National Fact During the 1920s.” Alberta Aviation Museum, 2016, https://albertaaviationmuseum.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Blatchford-Field-Tingley-Article-1.pdf.

“West Wind: Calgary’s First Airplane” [Exhibit]. The Hangar Flight Museum, 2022.

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