What were they thinking, those early barnstormers who took to the skies in planes barely strung together with fabric and wood?
At the turn of the 20th century, aviation was a new industry. Its leaders taught themselves to fly through trial and error.
The successful ones were the survivors, aviation giants such as Clyde Cessna and Walter Beech.
But another breed of pilot soon surfaced, and none was more daring or devilish than those who flew with the Garver Flying Circus.
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Founded in the early 1920s, the Flying Circus was comprised of Kansas co-founders Karl Garver of Attica in Harper County and Cyle Horchem of Ransom.
Garver was the son of wealthy ranchers. Horchem was a World War I Army flier who taught Garver how to fly.
Their wives – Ruth Garver and Bertha Horchem – joined them as they flew Laird Swallows for air shows across the nation.
They wing-walked, dipped and dived, often before thousands of people who lined up to see their shows.
When that grew old, they did stunts that defied reason.
On Oct. 21, 1923, Wellington boasted that the Garvers were coming to town to perform a benefit.
“5-Aeroplanes-5 An absolutely Top Notch Attraction Under Auspices American Legion. Greatest Attraction of the Southwest. Ruth Garver in Thrilling Leap From Plane. And Spectacular Production of All the Dare-Devil-Death-Defying Thrills Known to Craftsmen.”
Ruth Garver’s husband, Karl, presented a program of 10 consecutive loops, a 2,000-foot tailspin, barrel rolls and spirals.
Another employee with the Garvers, Paul Duncan, was scheduled to wing-walk amid loops and tailspins, hanging by his teeth, toes and one hand from a leather strap attached to the plane’s wing.
Their careers and company often were brief and tragic.
“While thousands of horrified spectators looked on, Mrs. Ruth Garver, daring aviatrix, jumped to her death from the wings of a plane piloted by her husband here Sunday afternoon,” the Evening Independent reported on Oct. 13, 1924, about the National Air Congress show in Wichita. “Onlookers saw Mrs. Garver climb from her seat to the wing of the plane. She balanced herself on the edge for a moment and took her fated plunge. The parachute on her back failed to open.”
Bertha Horchem died on March 2, 1924, in San Antonio when the wing of her plane crumpled at 1,200 feet and fell when she went into a loop. Cyle Horchem met his death later that year when he slipped and fell while wing-walking.
And “Many Coldwater people witnessed an airplane tragedy on last Sunday afternoon when Joe La Chappelle, a member of the R. Carter Harrison Air Passenger Service and the Garver Flying Circus dropped 200 feet to the ground from an airplane on which he was doing some acrobatic stunts and was instantly killed,” the Western Star reported on Aug. 28, 1925.
In 1926, Karl Garver sold his airplanes and died not long after from alcohol poisoning.
The Garver Flying Circus is worth noting as it helped establish Wichita as the Air Capital of the World, says Lon Smith, director of the Kansas Aviation Museum.
They were Kansans who flew Laird Swallows – the first production aircraft produced in Wichita.
At one time, the Garver Ranch near Attica was the place for all would-be aviators. It was where Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech, Lloyd Stearman, Matty Laird, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart would eventually fly through and visit, Smith said.
“It was the place to be if you were in aviation,” Smith said. “It was much like the Stearman Field is at Benton. The Garver Ranch became the Stearman Field of its day. The Garvers did some of the craziest, most daring stunts of the day. And they could party all night. They were the barnstormers of their day.”
In its own way, the Garver Flying Circus promoted the development of the Laird Swallow and introduced aviation to a wide spectrum of people.
“In one day, they gave 952 rides,” Smith said. “Think how many little kids, because of them, were inspired to go on to aviation.”
And, because of them and other daring barnstormers, the Federal Aviation Administration eventually would enact rules concerning barnstorming and stunts that pilots and their passengers could perform while in the air.