By the end of his long career, John Paul Riddle (1901-1989) had received the British Empire award and been inducted into the Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame and the Florida Aviation Historical Society. But on July 4, 1923 the Pikeville, KY native and ex-Army airman was busy flying his Jenny under the town’s Middle Bridge and barnstorming his way across the countryside.
They were the most exciting daredevils of their day. Stunt pilots and aerialists–or “barnstormers” as they became known–performed almost any trick or feat with an airplane that people could imagine. During the 1920s, barnstorming became one of the most popular forms of entertainment. It was the first major form of civil aviation in the history of flight.
Two main factors helped barnstorming grow in America after the war–the number of former World War I aviators who wanted to make a living flying, and a surplus of Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplanes. During that war, the United States had manufactured a multitude of Jennys to train its military aviators; almost every U.S. airman had learned to fly using a Jenny.
Consequently, when the federal government priced its surplus Jennys for as little as $200 during the postwar period (they originally cost approximately $5,000 each), many of the servicemen, who were already quite familiar and comfortable with the JN-4’s, purchased their own planes. These two factors, coupled with the fact that there were no federal regulations governing aviation at the time, allowed barnstorming to flourish during the postwar era.
On any given day, a pilot, or team of pilots, would fly over a small rural town and attract the attention of the local inhabitants. The pilot or team of aviators would then land at a local farm (hence the name barnstorming) and negotiate with the farmer for the use of one of his fields as a temporary runway from which to stage an air show and offer airplane rides to customers.
After obtaining a base of operation, the pilot or group of aviators would fly back over the town, or “buzz” the village, and drop handbills offering airplane rides for a small fee, usually from one to five dollars. Pilots could make terrific money for a day’s work. John Paul Riddle, for example, was flying from Pikeville to Cincinnati one day, when he ran out of gas and landed in a polo field, instantly attracting the usual curious crowd. Once refueled, he started taking folks up for rides, making a quick $150 for his efforts.
The advertisements would also tout the daring feats of aerial daredevilry that would be offered. Crowds would then follow the airplane, or pack of planes, to the field and purchase tickets for joy rides.
The locals, most of whom had never seen an airplane up close, were thrilled with the experience. For many rural towns, the appearance of a barnstormer or an aerial troop on the horizon was akin to declaring a national holiday; almost everything in the town would shut down at the spur of the moment so that people could purchase plane rides and watch the show.
Of all the places that John Paul Riddle had barnstormed, Ohio proved the most beautiful. The “big open fields” and “so many places to land” made Ohio attractive as well because a pilot could generally put his plane down on any farm without anyone noticing.
And so the ambitious young businessman, who had operated a flight training and charter service in eastern Kentucky, moved to Cincinnati in 1925. There he and T. Higbee Embry formed the Embry-Riddle Flying School at Grisard Field, which became a very successful training and aircraft sales company.
Embry-Riddle also carried air mail. They bid on and won the government mail contract route from Cincinnati to Chicago, and soon they were also carrying mail from Cincinnati to Cleveland, Cleveland to Dallas and Chicago to Atlanta. The flying school was incorporated four years later as part of AVCO, which in turn became American Airlines.
The partners also went on to create the Embry-Riddle School of Aviation in Miami, FL, which later became Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. During World War II, John Paul Riddle’s companies trained thousands of World War II pilots for both the US and Britain, and developed a major air cargo airline.
Quite a long flight path for a daring young man swooping under local bridges.