Air Shows – An International Phenomenon

Article courtesy of Centennial of Flight Commission.

Antoinette monoplane at Belment air show

Some of the earliest
American air shows were held at Belmont, New York beginning in 1910.
This photo shows an Antoinette monoplane that flew at Belmont.

Thunderbirds in formation

The U.S. Air Force
Thunderbirds setting up for the Trail Pass In Review.

Blue Angels in formation

The Blue Angels,
the U.S. Navy precision flying team, flying in formation.

Stunt flyer Lincoln Beachey races a car

Lincoln Beachey was
one of the most widely performing exhibition flyers. Here he is
racing his plane against a car. He usually beat the car.

Reims International Air Meet

Crowds cheered at
the Reims Air Meet in 1909, the first major international airshow.

Cleveland Municipal Airport viewing stands

Cleveland was the
site of many of the National Air Races and constructed viewing stands
for the spectators.

Imagine stunt
and air racers whizzing through the sky at breakneck speeds for your entertainment. Throughout the 20th
century, and up to the present day, aerial showmen and women entertained
millions in exactly that manner. Air shows, with their extreme
stunts and dazzling speed contests, became a major entertainment
during the early years of flight and remain popular today. For
many spectators, air exhibitions are an exhilarating form of entertainment
because they straddle the line between life and death.

Early exhibition aviators staged the first
air shows
beginning around 1910. Individual pilots and small
groups of aviators got together and flew demonstrations to make
a living, promote aviation, and entertain the masses. Eventually
these aviators started competing to see who could perform the
best stunts, and fly the highest, fastest, and farthest. By the
start of World War I, air shows had become a popular international

Historically, spectators have attended air shows for many reasons.
Above all, air shows are highly entertaining. While some people
enjoy watching aviators fly a variety of stunts, others have found
themselves drawn to the sheer speed of aircraft. Unfortunately,
one of the most prevalent reasons air shows have been popular
is the always-present chance that spectators might see a pilot
killed. Patriotism and national pride have also helped draw people
to air exhibitions, as people have enjoyed cheering for their
own country’s pilots.

The first major international air meet took place in Reims,
France, in August 1909, and attracted close to 500,000 spectators.
It set the precedent for all future air shows. Reims officials
faced the challenge of converting the region’s grape fields into
a place that could accommodate the expected crowd, not to mention
the pilots and their airplanes. To meet the challenge, they built
special grandstands, a restaurant, a barbershop, and even press

Although Reims held several contests, including an altitude competition,
an endurance race, and some stunt flying exhibitions, the main
drawing card was the Gordon
Bennett Cup Race
, or speed contest. Being an international
meet, the spectators rooted for their own nation’s pilots. In the end,
a handful of Americans cheered their countryman Glenn
to a six-second victory in the Gordon Bennett Cup.
Overall, the race, and the entire Reims meet, was a huge success
and helped establish air shows as a major spectator sport. A few
months later, in January 1910, Los Angeles hosted the first American
air show, drawing more than 175,000 people. Successful shows would
follow within the year in New York and Boston.

At that same time promoters were staging the first international air shows,
exhibition aviators were putting on their own demonstrations. Lincoln
, the most inexhaustible daredevil of the early exhibition
pilots, entertained more than 17 million people during a 31-week period
in the 1910s. This is especially impressive when one considers that the
entire U.S. population at the time was only around 76 million. Like all
of the early exhibition aviators, Beachey was keenly aware that many people
came to his show to see him flirt with death. Notably, at least one of
Beachey’s fellow fliers, Blanche Stuart Scott, who was the first woman
to solo in an airplane, retired soon after she began performing because
she was disgusted by the public’s morbid interest in the death of aviators.

After World War I, during the “barnstorming
era, air shows changed significantly. In the past, spectators
had usually gone to airfields to see an exhibition, but after
the war, stunt pilots and wing walkers brought their shows to
the people, even in the most remote areas. As a result, barnstorming
became one of the era’s most popular forms of entertainment. Essentially,
when a barnstorming show toured a region, most towns in the area
would shut down on the spur of the moment so that everyone could
see the exhibition.

Barnstorming shows consisted of two main components and each
contributed to the popularity of the phenomenon. One was the wide
variety of death defying stunts that aviators performed; the second
was that many loved the affordable joy rides that the aviators
and aviatrixes offered. These joy rides became so popular during
the 1920s that, in a single day, one pilot took some 980 passengers
for rides. Because many people still had not seen an airplane
up close by the early 1920s, barnstorming satisfied many people’s
curiosity about the new technology.

The U.S. National Air Races began in the mid-1920s and peaked
during the Great Depression of the 1930s. At a time when many
people were unemployed and destitute, the National Air Races proved
extremely popular. Cleveland hosted most of the yearly contests,
with Los Angeles staging the others. Thanks to extensive national
media coverage, fans could learn about the contests from sources
that included newspapers, newsreels, and the radio.

The National Air Races became extremely popular thanks to the
efforts of promoter Clifford Henderson. Beginning with the 1929
show in Cleveland, Henderson staged ten solid days of entertainment
ranging from daredevil stunts to high-speed races. The Air Races
touted almost any aerial feat or contest a crowd could image.
More than 600 aircraft were on display and at least 25 races contested.
Overall, more than half a million people attended the 1929 show.

Speed was the main focus of these races. In 1930, Henderson introduced
the Thompson Trophy Race, a closed-circuit free-for-all contest
where competitors flew against each other around a pylon-marked
course. Quickly, the Thompson became the most popular because
of its sheer speed and excitement.

Like the early exhibition contests and barnstorming shows, the
National Air Races saw their share of fatalities, but as aviation
historian Terry Gwynn-Jones argues, that was precisely what the
crowds wanted to see. As he notes, “The spectator’s thirst for
thrills and danger was unquenchable.” With the Thompson Trophy
Race in mind, Gwynn-Jones goes on to state: “The races had all
the glitter and glamour of a Hollywood production, though some
likened them more to a Roman forum with the frenzied crowd screaming
at the spectacle as aerial gladiators dueled head-high around
the pylons. And, as in Rome, many of the competitors died, their
flaming fireball crashes adding a gory edge to the glamour.” During
the 1930 National Air Races, two pilots died in crashes. In subsequent
years, the death toll would climb, especially in such controversial
aircraft as the Gee Bees.
Nevertheless, due to the fans’ desire for speed, the pilots continued
to push their limits and the limits of their aircraft.

After World War II, when airplanes were no longer a novelty (having
become a major source of transportation), the demographics of
air show spectators changed. Crowds were less socially and culturally
diverse than they once had been. The majority of spectators now
tended to be sport enthusiasts and military plane buffs.

During the post-war period, air shows sprang up worldwide. Many
cities, aircraft societies, and military organizations began staging
their own events. According to the International Council of Air
Shows, as of July 2002, somewhere from 15 to 18 million spectators
attend North American air shows annually. Demographically, the
average spectator was 38 years old, college-educated, and possessed
an annual household income of a least $35,000.

Significantly and not surprisingly, one of the most active promoters
of modern air shows has been the military. Two of the most popular
and famous military air show groups have been the U.S. Navy’s
Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds. Both units
are high-precision flight teams that perform breathtaking stunts
at top speeds. Each entertains a vast number of people worldwide.
The Blue Angels estimate that they perform before approximately
15 million spectators annually, while the Thunderbirds entertained
more than 12 million people in 1997.

Modern air shows do not differ much from their historic predecessors.
Although aircraft have gotten faster, spectators still go to see
the basics, stunts, speed, and to watch pilots flirt with
death. And, as Rob Reider, the announcer at the Dayton Air Show
has noted, “Air shows are probably one of the last places where
a person can be patriotic without feeling silly about themselves.”
Throughout the 20th century, air shows were a constant
source of entertainment, and there is every reason to believe
that they will continue to remain so in the 21st century. 

-David H. Onkst

Sources and further reading:

Addison, Colin. Oshkosh: The World’s Biggest Aviation Event.
London: Osprey, 1990.

Corn, Joseph J. The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance with
Aviation, 1900-1950
. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Gunston, Bill, ed. Chronicle of Aviation. London: Chronicle
Communications Ltd., 1992.

Gwynn-Jones, Terry. The Air Racers: Aviation’s Golden Era,
. London: Pelham Books, 1983.

___________. Farther and Faster: Aviation’s Adventuring Years,
. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press,

Handleman, Philip. The Book of Air Shows. Atglen, Pa.:
Schiffer Aviation History, 1993.

Herbert, Frank. Threshold: The Blue Angels Experience: The
Text and Full Color Photos from the Motion Picture
. New York:
Ballantine Book, 1973.

Hildebrandt, Erik. Front Row Center: Inside the Great American
Air Show
. Minneapolis, Minn.: Cleared Hot Media, 2000.

Hull, Robert. September Champions: The Story of America’s
Air Racing Pioneers
. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1979.

Jessen, Gene Nora. The Powder Puff Derby of 1929: The True
Story of the First Women’s Cross-Country Air Race
. Naperville,
Ill: Northam, 2002.

Marrero, Frank. Lincoln Beachey: The Man Who Owned the Sky.
San Francisco: Scottwall Associates, 1997.

McGuire, Jim. A Pictorial History of the Blue Angels: U.S.
Navy Flight Demonstration Teams, 1928-1981
. Carrollton, Texas:
Squadron/Signal Publications, 1981.

O’Neil, Paul. Barnstormers and Speed Kings. Alexandria,
Va.: Time-Life Books, 1981.

Prendergast, Curtis. The First Aviators. Alexandria, Va.:
Time-Life Books, 1980.

Rausa, Rosario and Roy M. Voris. The Blue Angels: An Illustrated
. Baton Rouge, La.: Moran Publishing Corporation, 1979.

Reinhardt, R., “Day of the Daredevil,” American Heritage of
Invention & Technology
, Fall 1995, 10-21.

Sullivan, George. The Thunderbirds. New York: Dodd and
Mead, 1986.

Wohl, Robert. A Passion for Wings: Aviation and the Western
Imagination, 1908-1918
. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University
Press, 1994.

“About Air Shows.” International Council of Air Shows.

“Air Racing.” Hickok Sports History.

“Blanche Stuart Scott.” National Air and Space Museum.

“Blue Angle FAQ.” U.S. Navy.

Lienhard, John H. “The First Daredevil.” University of Houston
Engines of Our Ingenuity.

“National Air Races.” Cleveland National Air Show.

“The Paris Air Show.” Paris Air Show.

“Reno National Air Races.” Hickok Sports History.

“The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds History.” U.S. Air Force.

“The Vectren Dayton Air Show,” Dayton Air Show.

“Welcome to the World’s Fastest Motor Sport!” Reno Air Racing

“What is EAA AirVenture Oshkosh?” AirVenture.