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.  

Read more

A giant aircraft carrier made of ice? A giant aircraft carrier made of ice.

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

In terms of places rich with classified war time projects and military intrigue, Alberta is rarely the first spot that people think of. But history holds no bias in terms of where it takes place, and Alberta had its own part to play in the eccentric branch of the military arms race circa WW2. This was in part due to the plentiful excess of one of Canada’s most abundant and hated elements: ice. 

In 1943, the Chief of Combined Operations for the British War Office had a point to prove about ice. His name was Lord Mountbatten, and he sincerely believed that ice could be used to defeat the Nazi menace during WW2. To establish his argument, he brought two huge chunks of it into the 1943 Quebec Conference. The secret conference was host to the likes of Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and William Lyon Mackenzie King, and Mountbatten had to justify the validity of his ice-related project to the leaders and their staff.

In front of a skeptical crowd of WW2 brass, he set up two ice blocks right next to each other. The first block was pure ice, while the block next to it was a new manmade composite mixture of ice and wood pulp. He retreated to the other side of the room, removed his gun, and shot a bullet into the first ice block. It predictably shattered to pieces. Mountbatten then reloaded his gun, took aim at the second block, and fired. This time, the bullet could not penetrate the ice, instead ricocheting completely off the block, flying through the pant leg of a nearby admiral, and ending up in the wall. The new material remained remarkably intact.

Artist’s rendering of what would be Project Habbakuk. Source: cnn.com.
Read more