Air Shows: A History

The Patriots Jet Team Takes a Look at the Origins of Our Craft

By Randy “Howler” Howell

Here in the Hangar of Dreams, our Patriots Jet Team members often discuss their love of flying. It’s not uncommon to hear a team member tell the story of the first airshow they attended. They also tend to remember the first air show they attended as a Patriots Jet Team member after all the rigorous training they received at the team’s Hangar.

It makes sense. There’s nothing quite like watching an air show. With your face tilted up to the sky and your hand shading your brow, you watch in awe as pilots create beauty with enormous pieces of machinery.

But, do you know the history of the air show? You might be surprised by its relatively humble beginnings.

The First Air Shows: Air Meets
The truth is that early air shows were not designed to entertain, but to serve just one purpose: to prove that flying machines actually existed. You see, plane technology advanced so rapidly that in just a matter of a few years, what had been impossible for all of human history was suddenly a common reality.

That’s a lot for people to swallow.

Certainly, early air shows were nothing like the spectacle you see today. In fact, early air shows usually had just one plane manned by a single pilot. People woud come from all over their state to see a short demonstration. These “air meets” would often be the first time a plane ever flew in the state. The first United States Air Show was held in 1910, and over 250,000 people came to see.

Air Shows as Entertainment: Barnstorming and a Flying Circus
As is often the case, plane technology advanced very quickly because governments wanted to use it for military purposes. WWI encouraged governments to invest in design and research. After the war, fighter pilots began returning to their homes and wanted to show off their skills. They would fly their planes to towns and put on shows, or take passengers into the air. This was called “barnstorming”.

Eventually these small air shows became so popular that pilots would compete for attention and audiences by performing tricks in the air. There were no rules or regulations for these “Flying Circuses”, so these pilots performed incredibly dangerous acts, such as wing walking and flying through buildings.

Some of the most famous names in aviation began flying in these air circuses: Amelia Earhart, Roscoe Turner and Jimmy Doolittle all performed for crowds.

Racing Towards the Future: Airplane Racing and Military Teams
Directly before and after WWII, air shows evolved into long races. These races would often last multiple days and pilots would compete for cash prizes or trophies. The Schneider Trophy for Seaplanes Race and The Army Transcontinental Air Race were two very popular races.

In 1946, Admiral Chester Nimitz of the U.S. Navy developed a plan to create an exhibition team. The team’s mission was to raise interest in the Navy and to boost military support and morale following the end of WWII. The Navy created the Blue Angels, and since the 1940s, the Blue Angels have performed formation flights and aerial acrobatics for eager audiences. In 1953, the U.S. Air Force created its own aerial exhibition team, called the Thunderbirds.

The Modern Air Show: Art in the Sky
Air shows are everywhere now. Our Patriots Jet Team has performed in shows all along the Western United States.

The modern air show doesn’t just show off technology or educate the audience. Anyone who has seen our Patriots Jet Team fly can tell you how unique every show is. Air shows are art. They are beautiful and exciting, and they remind us all to continue to support aviation research.

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