Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Barnstorming Review

At the AOPA Aviation Summit last November I had the pleasure of meeting so many people with fascinating projects to energize and grow the General Aviation (GA) community. One of those people was Suzanne Brindamour, who wrote the music for Barnstorming, a documentary film.

Subtitled "friends really can drop out of the sky," this chronicle of two guys who landed in a farmer's field to get photos of their vintage airplanes with a tractor launched a decade old tradition.

Barnstorming was a popular form of entertainment in the 1920s in which stunt pilots would perform tricks with airplanes, either individually or in groups called a flying circus.The term barnstormer was also applied to pilots who flew throughout the country selling airplane rides, usually operating from a farmer's field for a day or two before moving on. "Barnstorming season" ran from early spring until after the harvest and county fairs in the fall.

Due to safety issues (competition to thrill the audiences called for more and more dangerous maneuvers), regulations were put in place that severely curtailed this practice by the 1940s. The Airport Facility Directory published every 56 days by the National Aeronautical Charting Office, FAA, states the following AIRCRAFT LANDING RESTRICTIONS:

Landing of aircraft at locations other than public use airports may be a violation of Federal or local law. All land and water areas are owned or controlled by private individuals or organizations, states, cities, local governments, or U.S. Government agencies. Except in emergency, prior permission should be obtained before landing at any location that is not a designated public use airport or seaplane base.

Of course, all regulations go out the window in case of emergency, which is why the pilots had an excuse ready for landing in a field should the owner be less than welcoming. It turned out that this particular farmer and his family had no problem with the interruption to their busy life on their farm. The Dirkson's accepted the offer of free rides and invited the pilots back for a BBQ the next year. It was, as they said, an opportunity for a new experience, as they can't get away much when running a dairy farm.

Call me a cynic, but what struck me most about this documentary was its tribute to the ways things used to be. Or at least how we imagine them to have been. And how we wish they still were. Simple and unselfish. Friends sharing what they have purely for the enjoyment of others. In the years since the two group's introduction, the annual event has become what they call an "airshow," bringing in about 100 locals and attracting classic cars in addition to the handful of vintage airplanes.

The pilgrimage to the Indiana farm begins with flights from all over the country to a staging base allowing them all to reach the destination at the same time. Since many of these airplanes don't have an electrical system, meaning no radios with which to communicate, this in itself is an accomplishment. The majority of the planes have open cockpits and no instruments to navigate through the clouds, so weather is a huge variable (not to mention the risks of landing in a sloppy, muddy field).

Locals say kids start asking when the planes are going to arrive in March, though they have months still to wait. The nine year old neighbor, Solana, that I was watching with, marveled at the effort involved to prepare for their arrival, and said, "I can't wait to see them land." The event brings a crowd out for the potluck so the Dirkson family sets out numerous tables and folding chairs out in the front yard. And then the kids sit out there to wait... Even I had goosebumps when they finally came into view.

The show's events feature a "Ribbon" Cutting (that's toilet paper to me and you) by one of the planes, balloon popping, candy dropping, and a contest to see who can bomb the tractor (using bags of flour). And of course, rides for the kids.

The cinematography in the film was amazing and the accompanying music transports you to a romantic place filled with the best parts of aviation and America for span of only 48 minutes. If only life were this pretty and simple more often.

Barnstorming - A Documentary Film is for those folks who would like to visit such a place. If only for a little while.