"Vagabonds of the Sky," by Bruce McAllister
Vagabonds of the Sky: A Photographic History of America's Barnstorming
Pilots & Daredevils
By Bruce McAllister
Published by Roundup Press
A new book by Bruce McAllister is good news for aviation history buffs. The Colorado resident has created a series of books, notable for their fine photography, lively subject matter and smooth writing. Many of them focus on Alaska and the north.
His newest, "Vagabonds of the Sky," has less about our state than most, but it does contain an entire chapter devoted to Alaska flying pioneer Noel Wien, another on well-known Canadian Ernie Boffa and scattered references throughout to other names familiar from this region's aerial legacy, such as the Crossons.
McAllister's focus this time is on barnstormers, who combined skill, glamour and sometimes foolhardiness to create one of aviation's most flamboyant phases. The author attempts to include a representative cross-section of North American barnstormers, male and female, living and deceased, within the constraints of available documentation.
He goes back to the world's first air show, in France in 1909, which featured the first air race.
"This air show established aviation as a major entertainment business," he writes, "a true sport that continues to this day with air shows, large and small, all over the world. Barnstorming, which quickly caught on, would enhance these air shows with loops, spins and daredevil acts."
Most of the book talks about the golden age of barnstorming during the Roaring Twenties. World War I created numbers of skilled pilots and airplanes (frequently outdated and dinged up) that were at loose ends after the war. With aviation being the great new thing, the U.S. public was hungry for opportunities to hitch rides into the sky and to watch new technology limits tested.
The barnstormers delighted in feats such as plucking knobs off the tops of flagpoles or picking up passengers from speeding cars on the fly. They carried wing walkers who performed stunts such as handstands and fencing aloft.
The downside was an appalling casualty rate. Eventually many people came to see barnstormers as dangerous and irresponsible; insurance companies and regulations closed in, ending an era.
Later barnstormers found work doing movie stunts. McAllister brings their history into the present by paying homage to our contemporaries who lovingly restore the planes barnstormers used and keep their history alive. The author interviewed several and includes their reminiscences about lifetimes of flying on the edge.
Wien took part in barnstorming's heyday. McAllister credits him with putting Alaska aviation on the map. The young man from Minnesota also did his share of aerobatics during the 1920s, when he flew with the Federated Flyers Flying Circus in the Lower 48. "Vagabonds of the Sky" pictures him wing walking and racing on a motorcycle, among other archival images.
It was Wien who put on the first barnstorming shows in Anchorage and Fairbanks in 1924, the year he started charter service out of the Interior town.
"Wien took the locals on joy-hopping and sightseeing flights, making lots of money for his new employer," McAllister writes. "Alaskans got their first taste of barnstorming."
The images in this book are outstanding. McAllister, a talented photographer in his own right, has gathered an array of striking action shots old and new. In addition to portraits of flyers, these include photos of stunt flights crashing into buildings and colorful handbills advertising old barnstorming shows.
The book also contains references and a bibliography at the end, although an index also would have been helpful.
As a subject, barnstorming is tangential to Alaska's distinguished aviation history, but it is chocked full of derring-do and colorful personalities.
McAllister's previous books have included "Wings Over the Alaska Highway," "Wings Above the Arctic" and "Wings Over Denali." "Vagabonds of the Sky" is not as long or detailed as some of these other books, but it makes for a swashbuckling read replete with eye candy and high adventure.
Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.
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