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Look, Ma, No Hands...
William Johnson
September 14, 1970
That's the way it was decades ago when air circus pilots flew deadly competitions—and that's the way it is still as sports like Bevo Howard (preceding page) take to the skies and perform flights of fancy
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September 14, 1970

Look, Ma, No Hands...

That's the way it was decades ago when air circus pilots flew deadly competitions—and that's the way it is still as sports like Bevo Howard (preceding page) take to the skies and perform flights of fancy

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Perhaps it is not the kind of question that would bring a man bolt upright in bed, blinking into the night looking for an answer. But it is worth asking: whatever, for heaven's sake, happened to the flying circus? Are there no more stunt pilots in silk scarves? Where are the wing walkers of yesterday, the batmen and the rope-ladder artists who once did their mad acts above the pastures of this land? Who does barrel rolls under bridges? Who storms church steeples? Who knocks the weathervane off the barn with his landing gear in order to bring the farmer's daughter hurrying into the yard? Who is raising the hair on small boys' heads and who is turning the milk sour in the nation's cows?

Are there no more daredevils in the air above us?

Of course there are. It is slightly more than a year since the night we watched a man plant humanity's first footprint upon the moon. What more daring feat of aeronautics could one ever expect to witness? It was one in a millennium. Yet it was so remote, so hard to grasp. It was all done on cue from Walter Cronkite. Incredible, yet one was forced to focus upon the machines and technology, upon computers and telemetry and, perhaps mostly, upon the strangely bloodless grand teamwork that put the whole miracle in place.

There could be no sense of flamboyance, no foolishment committed merely in the name of carnival in that splendid achievement. Spacemen are brave men but such bland men. Aviation has come to symbolize nothing so much as caution and comfort, an image of conservative men in their middle age shepherding enormous power plants across the sky, while inside the planes rows and rows of people order their steaks done precisely to their liking. All quite businesslike. Utterly Establishment.

Where are men like "Professor" Washington Harrison Donaldson? One of 19th century aviation's truly certifiable maniacs, he would electrify gawking thousands by swinging by his ankles from a trapeze attached to the basket of a balloon. From a height of 3,000 feet (in those days considered not far below the altitudes inhabited by God's own angels), the professor would toss upside-down kisses to the throngs. He once promised to ascend in a paper balloon over Reading, Pa., set fire to that grand and fragile bag, then parachute to safety. Unfortunately, the thing caught fire prematurely and Donaldson had to leap for his life. Another time, the professor announced that he would cross the Atlantic with a lifeboat instead of a basket dangling beneath his balloon, but he loaded the boat so full of supplies the balloon split its seams. His last balloon disappeared in a savage thunderstorm over Lake Michigan in July 1875, but Professor Washington Harrison Donaldson's reputation for derring-do remains—as well as tales of his unearthly seductive successes with the many young ladies he took riding in his basket. (Could NASA teamwork rival such achievements?)

Then there was the late, brave Lincoln Beachey. He was called The California Flying Fool and, though he stood but five feet tall, he was a giant of aviation in the early days of this century. With checkered cap spun beak backward, goggles firmly fastened to protect his eyes from the bite of wind and water roaring through his unprotected pilot's seat, Beachey horrified a group of honeymooners in 1911 by piloting his plane to the brink of Niagara Falls—then plunging in a nose dive down the cataract, holding firm through the mist and flotsam in the maelstrom and coolly gliding out of the gorge, wet but unscathed. He was the first to fly through a hangar and live, and for a while held an altitude record of 11,575 feet. Beachey brazenly buzzed the White House, scaring the devil out of Wood-row Wilson, and after performing a madman air show over Washington, touched down on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Policemen rushed out to arrest him, but Beachey loftily explained that he had done it all to prove to the President that the nation needed an air corps. Beachey was blamed by one newspaper for being responsible for the deaths of 22 pilots, all of whom crashed attempting to imitate his fantastic feats. He died in a hot new plane he was testing when a wing wrenched off during a screaming high-speed dive over San Francisco Bay. A grandstand packed with shrieking people watched as Lincoln Beachey fell like a rock into the water.

There were other memorable performers in those times. Walt Hunter of the Hunter Brothers Flying Circus would hang by his knees from the landing gear of a plane and drop off into a haystack—all sans parachute. In Steubenville, Ohio in 1928 a pilot named Bill Brooks broke all known records for passenger hopping by landing and taking off 490 times with riders. In 1933 a former burglar-alarm salesman named Milo Burcham set a world record by flying upside down for four hours, five minutes and 22 seconds. Around that time, in Portland, Ore., Tex Rankin broke the record for consecutive outside loops by doing more than 500.

Perhaps the most extraordinary day in air-circus history came in 1924, when the proprietors of two feuding circuses—a dashing ex-Air Corps lieutenant, Doug Davis, and the busty, blonde aviatrix Mabel Cody—flew a demented acrobatic dogfight that began with a series of head-on collision-course dives, progressed to an upside-down race beneath a bridge and finally wound up with Doug and Mabel merging their shows; a deal they sealed with a handshake atop a moving freight train after both had landed their planes on a flatcar.

Regret it or not, we have missed all those things and we will not have another chance. The days of flamboyance and baling wire are long gone. The flying fools are dead. Yet the age of the air circus is by no means over. No, indeed. A few stunt men and rope-ladder swingers and wing walkers survived and they are thriving. True, the circus does not come to town with a roar anymore, only occasionally can one see true, competitive aerobatics contests, and no one storms silos or buzzes the water tower upside down. The FAA will have none of that. And there is no money at all to be made in hopping passengers—not in a day when half the country has already seen all it wants of Nebraska or Manhattan from the porthole of an airliner six miles high.

Yet the air circus lives. Harold Krier, 48, a graying, laconic flying wizard who won the National Aerobatics Championship in 1965, makes most of his living stunt flying: "Five years ago there weren't more than three, maybe four or five of us who could keep busy flying air shows," he says. "All of a sudden I'm doing 40 shows a year and the place is crawling with circuses every single weekend." Another busy man is Duane Cole, 56, who was for 17 years lead pilot for the Cole Brothers Air Show. "There's never been such a demand for air shows," he declares. "There used to be a couple a month. Now there are a dozen a weekend. Everywhere—out West, out East, down South, up North—the interest is coming back. Don't ask me why."

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