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.
September 13, 1970
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."
In a sense it is like the good old days, when the whole town turns out to watch torque rolls over Oshkosh, Immelmann turns over Odessa, Cuban-8s over Farmersville or the lovely Lomcevak (falling leaf) over Dothan.
There is no really dependable census of the number or variety of performers willing to stunt fly. Some work in leaky AT-6s, fouling the air with noise and smoke while doing limp barrel rolls in front of the stands. Some soar in the sparkling hummingbird beauty of the tiny biwinged Pitts Special. Others appear in flip little clipped-wing Cubs, in snorting 450 Stearmans, in mystical aerobatic Piper J-3s, in De Havilland Chipmunks and—yes, occasionally, in whining P-38s or even that grotesque tin goose, the Ford Tri-Motor.
The cockpit geniuses may be men like Hal Krier or Duane Cole or Bob Hoover, who wears a schoolteacherish black suit and flies his Shrike like a demon. Or Barbara O'Connor, mother of two, from Fayetteville, N.C., or Bud Fountain, the crop duster from Modesto, Calif., or perhaps Bevo Howard, the fellow who loves nothing so much as hanging upside down, his hands waving at the crowd from his open cockpit, his propeller kicking up dust from the ground—which is streaming past about five yards below his head.
It is natural to assume that Bevo Howard is one of an admirable but utterly incomprehensible breed of rakish bird, somewhere between Smilin' Jack and Steve McQueen, flying a Buecker Jungmeister, a dashing red and white biplane that was made in Germany in 1936 and transported to the U.S. via the dirigible Hindenburg. Howard thrills half a million or more people each year with his act. Every weekend for a fee that is never less than $500 he dons a soft leather helmet and goggles, cinches himself into the cockpit of his snarling museum piece, cries "Contact!" to some fellow who cranks his propeller and vaults into the skies over Charleston, S.C., bound for Pensacola or Santee or Bridgeport. Howard has a routine of three dozen delicate maneuvers, and he ends his performances by gracefully rolling the Buecker on its back and roaring inverted beneath a red ribbon stretched 18 feet above the ground. Sometimes he does it with no hands—the stick pressed between his knees—and the crowds adore him. Whenever he steps out of his plane Bevo has to sign autographs. For Bevo Howard is an authentic defier of death, is he not—a crazy aviator, a smiling flyboy, vintage Lincoln Beachey?
No, really he is none of these. Beverly E. Howard is 56, with a snow-white crew cut and a well-seamed face that can break easily into a grandfatherly smile or set severely into an expression of elderly disapproval. To stay in shape he swims each day at the YMCA pool, and he is quite proud of what he has done. "I've swum 1,850 miles in 6½ years. My goal is to go 2,200 miles in 7½ years because that's the distance from Charleston to Los Angeles." He is president of Hawthorne Aviation. Inc., and in his paneled suite of offices at the Charleston airport there are dozens of mementos of his flying feats. There are autographed photos from the Air Force's Thunder-birds inscribed to "The Master" and from the Navy's Blue Angels addressed to "The World's Greatest Aerobatic Pilot." There are oil paintings depicting Howard in his inverted flying position and a favorite painting hung in the office shows several Canada geese flying upside down.
Bevo Howard does not want visitors to mistake his major purpose in this world: "People look at my gray hair and they say to me, 'Bevo, why? Why do you do it? You have all the success, all the honors a man could want, so why do you keep flying air shows?' And I tell them that it is my hobby and that I love it. I tell them I would not do it if it weren't extremely challenging." Howard's blue eyes become rather hard and he speaks with distinct emphasis. "I'm a businessman first and an acrobatic-show pilot second. Hawthorne Aviation employs 700 people and we have eight affiliated businesses in six different states. We are extremely diversified. We do $11 million in sales a year. I have been president since I was 21 and I am the sole stockholder."
When Bevo Howard flies into town for a show, instead of doing a couple of chain loops and roller coasters over Main Street to announce his arrival, he passes out to the press and to the air-show announcer mimeographed sheets which list some proud accomplishments: voted in 1943 South Carolina's most outstanding man by the Junior Chamber of Commerce, member of the board of the Citizens & Southern National Bank, listed in Who's Who in the South and Southwest, chairman of the 1967 Charleston United Fund campaign that raised $846,000. Howard makes it clear that he would like the announcer to use this information in introducing his act.
Beverly Howard is a stern and straightforward fellow, and neither his positions nor his values alter when he changes from his executive blue suit and tie into dungarees, white sneakers, red shirt and that leather helmet and goggles.
"When I throw my leg over that cockpit there's nothing on my mind but concentrating on flying—on doing my maneuvers so that the crowd gets its money's worth. I'm no daredevil. What I do is perfectly calculated. If I had to believe I was risking my neck every time I flew upside down, I would soon enough grow bored with it." The Buecker goes bump-bumping down the runway and climbs into the sky, only to come raging back upside down with Bevo Howard waving both arms. It is hard to believe that the man at the controls is not some kind of swaggering freak or madcap kid. It is hard to believe that on the ground he can fade into a crowd of Rotarians without a ripple.
Howard is no aviation aberration. For the world of air circuses is not generally inhabited by the young, the romantic or the Easy Rider kind. "I suppose it is a little depressing," says Carl Craft, a 42-year-old pilot from Shreveport who stars in a Pitts Special. "But you don't see much but grayheads around this business anymore. There are many more good aerobatic flyers in the country than we've ever had, but the majority are in their 40s and 50s. Graybeards. and they're fairly wealthy, besides. No one can perfect this kind of stunting without a sizable income or someone subsidizing him on the side. And even if kids could afford it, you just don't find them hanging around airports like they used to. Kids need something more exciting than watching airplanes land to turn them on these days."
But if there is an aura of middle age about the performers, there also is a dearth of the rambunctious, crazy, flapdoodle flirtations with violent death that seemed to be the hallmark of circus flyers at the dawn of the air age. Marion Cole, a 45-year-old corporation pilot, says, "People would like to think we are up there cheating death every time we do a snap roll. I've had dozens of people ask me if I ever flew through a hangar. Or they want to know when's the next time I'm going to fly under a bridge, because they want to be there to see me do it. Well, no pilot who has any sanity is going to fly under a bridge these days. For one thing, he will lose his license. For another, it is awful easy to splatter out when you're going under a bridge, and the most sensible show pilots like to calculate their odds for life a little better than that. And if you fly under bridges it gives you a really bad reputation among reputable pilots. They laugh at those guys, and when a man earns a reputation for being a daredevil in this business he is considered a fool."
Still, no one in airborne show biz would deny that the impression of defying death is extremely important in holding a crowd's interest. Sandi Pierce, a bubbly, plump young mother of a baby girl, teams with her husband as aerobatic pilot, parachutist and wing rider. "Walt's got that 450 Stearman because it makes a howling big noise and keeps the crowd glued to their seats whenever it is in the air," she says. "But also, almost every 450 Stearman that ever flew in air circuses ended up killing a pilot, and this makes the plane a good seller—if the announcer knows enough to accentuate the deaths involved in that kind of plane. People come out to air shows because they want to be there if there's an accident. I don't think they consciously wish someone to crack up, but if something happens they want to be able to say they were there that day." It would seem that Sandi's act of riding on a wing—lurching through loops, hanging head down for inverted passes and tensing against a ton or two of gravity pressure during rolls—would offer risks beyond those any normal mortal would care to take. But Sandi has found that feat lacking in all-round danger. "No one walks a wing anymore, of course, it's just riding. But I just belt myself to a stand on the wing. I don't use foot straps, and during loops or inverted flying my feet slip around, but I know I won't fall. The wind does burn sometimes, though. I heard once of a girl who had her clothes slashed off when she was riding a wing in the rain."
Simple and safe though it sounds, wing riding for women has not attracted many volunteers. One lady who has probably spent more time than anyone smiling into the teeth of the gale atop a wing is Judith Cole, wife of Duane Cole; she did the wing-walking act for more than seven years with the Cole Brothers Air Show. "I wore white because it stood for purity and because it was easier for people to see," says Judy. "I was never afraid because the pilot for most of my rides was my son Roily. He was a smooth flyer, and we were the only mother-and-son wing-riding act in the history of aviation. I haven't ridden a wing since Roily died, but I still get letters now and then from girls asking me how it's done."
The small neat bungalow of the Coles in Burleson, Texas is filled with family memorabilia of aviation shows and contests, races and honors. There are trophies won by Duane and Roily Cole (the father finished first, the son third in the 1962 National Aerobatics Championships). There are clippings and yellowing magazines with articles about the Cole Brothers Air Show and its dazzling lady wing walker. Now matronly and graying and given to frequently interrupting herself to search for her reading spectacles, Judy Cole looks as if the closest she has been to aviation adventure is seeing Twelve O'Clock High on television. Yet, threaded randomly and constantly throughout this dainty lady's conversation are endless references to violence and tragedy. "Bill Stead started up the air races in Reno and he was one of Duane's closest friends. He's dead now.... I rode Bill Adams' wing when I first started. He's dead.... I lived in the first house south of the airport in Burlington, Iowa and in 1928, when I was just a little, little girl, I saw this parachute jumper fall. They said he cut the straps. They said it was a suicide.... Clyde Parsons flew with Duane in the international competition. He was killed last year.... The Cole Brothers had worked up a good name and a good show, but we couldn't keep it going, not after we lost Rolly."
Though they may downgrade the danger inherent in their lives, air-show pilots and performers have long been operating under the influence of death. Take the Cole Brothers Air Show, which managed to survive for 17 years during a period when sky circuses were failing everywhere. After World War II hundreds of crushed-hat Air Corps hotshots were zooming all over America, doing shows or just plain showing off. Duane Cole and his brothers, Arnold, Lester and Marion, put on their first show over the Kewanee, Ill. airport one day in 1946 and they promised no less than eight hours of action. By stretching their imaginations—and the crowd's patience—they tilled the time with such attractions as "Colonel Joe Jet and His Fighting Wing Men" (which turned out to be three guinea hens dumped out of a Piper Cub) and a pilots" pants race (in which flyers took off, landed, removed their pants, took off again, landed again, put on their pants, took off and flew past a finish line). The brothers' show went well enough until 1949, when Bill Odum, a good cross-country flyer, entered the unfamiliar skies of a pylon race in Cleveland and slammed into an apartment house, killing himself, a mother and her baby. Air racing was all but outlawed; spectator aviation was suspect. Then, in 1952, a first lieutenant came rocketing in to an air show in Flagler, Colo., decided to do a roll directly over the grandstand, lost control and plowed a horrible swath through the crowd. Twenty-two died. The very thought of show business in the sky worried many people and some Congressmen were pushing to ban all air shows. The Coles struggled on, however, and Duane helped write new regulations governing air circuses. Then, during a show that same year in Sterling, Ill., Marion Cole was trying to land his Cub on "the world's smallest airport," the top of a car driven by Duane. The field was grassy and the car was rolling over bumps but Marion succeeded in setting the plane down on the platform, when the front wheels of the auto suddenly plunged into a ditch concealed by the grass. Desperately Marion hit full throttle in an effort to take off again, but the plane lurched ahead and fell in front of the car. Still moving rapidly out of the ditch, the auto smashed squarely into the plane. Marion was miraculously unhurt, but the plane was a twisted, splintered mess. Photographers came rushing onto the field, but a CAA safety agent ordered them back until the show was over. After it did finally end, the Coles and some friends formed a grim and threatening barrier around their broken plane. When the cameramen advanced, the Coles bellowed angrily and shook their fists to keep them away, for it had dawned on the brothers that after the Flagler disaster nothing could be worse for them or for the world of air circuses than for a picture of their wreckage to appear in newspapers around the nation. They held off the frustrated photographers until it grew dark, then, in the blackness, they dismantled the plane, loaded it on a truck and sneaked it away to an empty hangar in Kewanee. By morning there was nothing but oil stains and trampled grass to mark the spot of the wreck.
The circus profited nicely, although by the early '60s Duane was the only brother remaining. Still, it was a family affair, with Judy riding the wing, Roily flying her and doing stunts and another son, John, doing the announcing. Then one evening in August 1963 after a show in Rockford, Ill. Roily went up in his 450 Stearman with a friend. No one knows what went wrong. Somehow the engine yanked loose from its mounting, smashed into a wing and the plane fell. Roily Cole, just 24 and already a magnificent pilot, coolly turned off the switch, apparently struggled briefly to free his passenger, then leaped from the plane. It was too late. His parachute opened just as his body slammed into a cornfield and they found him lying beneath a canopy of orange and white parachute silk spread atop the cornstalks. When Roily died the Cole Brothers Air Show went out of business.
The Coles had operated what was probably the country's most celebrated air circus, but unquestionably the dean of all air-show entrepreneurs was—and is—William A. Sweet Jr. of Columbus, Ohio. He is an uncommonly talkative fellow who looks older than his proclaimed 58 years. His face is brown as saddle leather after God only knows how many hours spent in blazing air-show suns, and his forehead and balding pate are pale as ivory from being shaded beneath his black, beaked cap which advertises Kendall oil, one of enterprising Bill Sweet's several tie-in sponsors. He bills himself modestly in his program as "America's No. 1 aviation sporting events announcer-director, the famed Sill Bweet in the comic strip Smilin' Jack!" For 40 years Bill Sweet has been in the business. "I started in 1929," he says, "the year the stock market crashed and Sweet's air spectaculars first took off! Aviation is my life!" Certainly that is true, but there are some people who know Sweet and who swear that the man has never been in a plane in his life. "He won't set foot off the ground and never has," says one acquaintance. "Don't ask me if he flies," says Eddie Green, a hydraulics technician who is currently a stunt man in Sweet's National Air Shows productions. "I've never seen him in an airplane, and all I know is that I've never worked a show where Bill didn't drive a car to it—even if it's a 1,500-mile push." Sweet scoffs at the notion he is afraid to fly. "They 11 tell you that about me, all right, but I've flown a lot. I just have to drive because I got all this stuff to carry in my station wagon—the PA system and telescoping poles and parachutes and the rope ladder. See for yourself."
Bill Sweet has lived close to a vast and fascinating amount of aviation history. For example, he has a red wrench, one end broken off. Waving it about, he says, "I call this my Spirit of St. Louis wrench. One day when I was a boy, Lindbergh came through Columbus and asked at the airport to have his landing gear fixed. Someone gave him a wrench, and he worked for a while until it broke. He sent it sliding aross the floor and I picked it up and have kept it ever since." Sweet's stories go the full aeronautical circle. He can switch from personal recollections of the first transoceanic flyer to his own contact with the first lunar visitor. "Yep, we had a Ford Tri-Motor with us in this one show in Ohio, charging 50¢ until 9 in the morning and 75¢ until noon, and that's when we took Neil Armstrong up for his very first airplane ride. That's a point of some pride with me."
The world of Bill Sweet is, in effect, a living album of memories. He can pour out a rambling, affectionate stream of recollection, perhaps a better record of the life and times of aviation show biz than any formal history.
"In my first shows," Sweet begins, "I had this fellow, Dave White, a paralyzed parachute jumper. Couldn't move a muscle from the hips down. He'd come drifting down and land on his butt. People loved it, I don't know why.
"I once put on this grudge match at Norton Field in Columbus—it's a housing development now—and it was between Joe Mackey and Harold Distlehorst. There wasn't no real grudge, but we wanted a crowd. I recall Mackey was falling behind and right there in midair in the middle of the race he jumped up out of the front cockpit and scrambled into the back cockpit because he thought that would give him more speed. It didn't. Distlehorst won.
"Later on, I had a stunt man name of Jack Fink. He'd hang from a trapeze and pretend he couldn't get back up, and he'd drive the crowd nuts. He'd also hang by his knees and pick up this hanky from the ground, and he did parachute jumps. Fink was a little fellow, maybe 4' 7" tall. He was a masterful parachute packer. He packed all the chutes for Doolittle's raid on Tokyo. "In those early days Roscoe Turner was the darling of the land. Roscoe Turner had showmanship like few men did then—and none do now. He'd come blasting in in that Golden 57, The Golden Bullet, and he would jump out with that pet lion cub he had, Gil-more. That Roscoe Turner would make Joe Namath look like a hambone. Those were real stars in aviation then. Joe Mackey would wear ascots and white suits, and he never used profanity. And Harold $. Johnson—use a dollar sign for the S when you write Harold's name—he had that great act where he would first do snap rolls and loops and things with a tiny plane, then he'd taxi it in and park it under the wing of his 14-passenger Ford Tri-Motor. Then he would take off in the Tri-Motor and do exactly the same stunts that he'd done in the little biplane. Harold would wear this baby-blue uniform with a Sam Browne belt. I paid Harold $. Johnson the most money I ever paid for an act—$1,750 for one afternoon's work.
"The flashiest guy I ever had, not the best pilot maybe, but the loudest and the dressiest, was Johnny Skyrocket. I won't tell you his real name because he's a big success in Las Vegas now, I believe. But this was in the '50s, and Johnny Skyrocket flew this De Havilland jet. He named it the Golden Vampire. He would wear a cape and a golden flying helmet covered with dazzle dust, and he had a big golden J on the chest of a blue uniform. And he had a mask. He would get into town before a show and go jumping into all the TV studios and the newspaper offices and the hotel lobbies wearing that damned outfit. The suit itself cost him $1,600, he told me. Then he'd fly a show, maybe a few little rolls and stuff in that jet, and when he was done he would drive it inside a tent and put a stepladder up to the cockpit. He charged $1.50 a head to go in and look. People hadn't seen many jets in those days, and Johnny Skyrocket used to make himself a bundle. I'd give a lot for a Johnny Skyrocket these days.
"I'd give a lot for a Cyclone O'Neil, too. He was a parachute jumper in the '30s. I'll never forget it. I ran into Cyclone for the first time in Lancaster, Ohio. He had bought himself this set of white coveralls and he had his name across the back. He had a helmet and goggles and he would carry them around in his hand all the time like a lunch pail. He told everyone in town he was a famous parachute jumper and he would be jumping with our circus. He told everyone he had made 200 jumps and they all believed him, even the minister, because Cyclone O'Neil was a nice fellow. So I told him he could jump for me. About five minutes before the show Cyclone broke into a horrible sweat and confessed to me that he had never jumped at all, not even once. He was sweating something terrible, but he jumped that day. He waited almost till he was on the deck before he opened the chute, but he made it. And he stayed with the show. He was a fine piece of advertising for us because he would brag so much in every town. He'd had maybe 25 jumps, but he'd be saying 1,000, and he would carry his helmet and goggles all over and get us free meal tickets from the best local restaurants. Sometimes, though, Cyclone O'Neil would hit bad days and break into awful sweats and then he'd RJ—refuse to jump. It got so we were prepared for it. When Cyclone would RJ we'd take up a dummy in the plane—we called it Elmer Bloop. We'd throw the dummy out and I'd be yelling at the crowd about the jumper coming down and maybe it was a faulty parachute, and Elmer Bloop would be falling and falling. And then he would hit the ground. I'd pretend I was grief-stricken and hurry to my car and drive out onto the field where the dummy fell and pick it up and just drive right on to the next town where we had a show booked. The pilots would fly out and those people in the crowd would be left with the conviction that they had just seen a man fall to his death before their eyes. We finally had to stop that act because women would faint and men would get sick to their stomachs. It was pretty mean."
There was a time when Bill Sweet took his pay in chickens or shoats or produce from farmers, and most of the profit came from passenger hops. But now a Sweet-produced circus—10 acts, including car-to-plane transfer, comedy, parachute jumps and "world championship aerobatic exhibitions" of various kinds—will pull $2,500—no rides of any kind.
In the old days Sweet did his announcing through a four-foot megaphone. "I had to say everything two, three times so they'd hear me in all directions." Now he has a tiny but immensely powerful system of loudspeakers that he transports and erects himself.
So one Saturday afternoon this summer, a sticky-warm day, near the hamlet of Smyrna, Tenn., Bill Sweet went to work to put on another air circus, somewhere around the 1,600th in his life. His cast included Eddie Green for the jumps and stunts, Hal Krier and Charlie Hillard, the pilots. All had arrived separately and with no fanfare of any kind. Instead of holding the show on some level farmland as they used to in the past, it was staged on an incredibly vast acreage of baking-hot cement, the vacant runways and landing aprons of what was once Sewart Air Force Base outside Nashville. On the brink of this massive cement plateau (perhaps a mile square) a few thousand people had gathered to witness events built around the third annual Nashville Aviation Days, a Rotary Club affair to raise money for a chapel at a hospital. At first there were only oddly disembodied sounds—bird songs, crickets, the distant buzz of a plane or two, low conversations in the crowd. Then, suddenly, from four loudspeakers set on the edge of that enormous concrete table came an electrifying cry:
"Watch the skies!"
As one the crowd looked up. A plane was drifting along at about 3,500 feet. Two others, piloted by Krier and Hillard, were circling at either end of the runways. And that powerful rasping voice boomed again:
"Watch those pearly blue skies! We may be going to—yes! We may and we could and we should and we might and we ought to—he going to see a parachute jump at this time. He'll fall from those pearly gates over Tennessee, ladies and gentlemen, little Eddie Green, with Old Glory furling out beneath him. Bombs will burst. Our champion of champion pilots will paint a rhapsody in smoke. Watch the skies. Ooo-o-o-o-ohhhhh, My-yyyyy!"
Bill Sweet was hunched over his walk-around microphone in a kind of Rum-pelstiltskin crouch, dark glasses glinting as he romped vigorously about in the knee-high milkweed and grass off the runway. Harold Krier, in his easy, low-key way, had said earlier, "Bill doesn't very often call the maneuvers right, I don't guess. And any pilot knows that his whole spiel doesn't really make much sense. But the crowd thinks he's saying something important, and that's what counts in a situation like this."
"The best way, folks, to watch an air show is just le-e-e-an hack in your neighbor's lap. And if she's good-lookin'—hey, boy!—just stay right there. Ooo-o-o-o-ohhhhh, My-yyyyy!"
Now Eddie Green came tumbling out of a plane, floating beneath his red, white and blue parachute and an American flag unfolded from a harness at his waist. Krier and Hillard opened smoke cannisters and red plumes billowed behind their planes as they performed loops and rolls around Green's drifting descent.
"It's the Red. White and Blue Network. On the air! God Bless America!"
With a quick swooping motion Sweet took his lighted cigarette and held it to the end of a fuse laid in the grass. It fizzed, then ignited three aerial bombs which exploded smartly, startling the crowd. He darted 10 yards through the grass and punched a small tape recorder in the rear of his station wagon. The national anthem roared out of the speakers, followed immediately by Kate Smith's one-of-a-kind God Bless America. With an impish grin Bill Sweet confided to a potbellied Rotarian who was watching his actions with some surprise, "Don't ever say things aren't first-class when Bill Sweet comes to town." Then he got back on his microphone as Krier and Hillard completed their aerobatics and Eddie Green tramped out of the grass where he had landed after his 1,143rd parachute jump.
They're really pounding that sky. Hey, there. Harold Krier! Look, he's out of control! Come on, Harold, straighten out! That's a boy! Without Champion Spark Plugs and Kendall oil reinforced by good old STP, folks, he might not have made it out of that. Their lives depend on having the best products working in those planes, folks. And you can get the best for your car at your neighborhood gas station. Ooo-o-o-o-ohhhhh, My-yyyyy! Rhapsody in smoke! That's fleur-de-lis they're doing, folks, which is a kind of French rosebud or something close to it. You better believe it!"
The show continued—Eddie Green's car-to-plane rope-ladder trick, some magnificent aerobatic flying by Krier and Hillard, a rather flat little comedy routine in which Hillard pretended to be a farmer who stole an airplane. Two hours passed. Bill Sweet never once stopped talking. And the crowd? Quiet and sober, utterly restrained and quite courteous. This was rural Tennessee; the roadsides were decorated with billboards of the Bible Belt—SPEAK THE TRUTH & SHAME THE DEVIL. But this is no longer a land of hicks and hayshakers. No. There are no rubes with bib overalls and open mouths come to gawk at the newfangled flying machines. The air show crowd at Smyrna was neat, colorful, well-groomed in Ban-Lon shirts and bell-bottoms, granny sunglasses and nicely pressed Bermudas. They had driven to the air base in GTOs and Mustangs and air-conditioned station wagons. They had left their color TVs and their power mowers and their barbecue pits to see Bill Sweet's production and they were mildly amused. Perhaps what Bill Sweet says is true: "Air show audiences are the highest class of spectators outside of college football. We don't get the hippies or the longhairs or the radicals. Just respectable, clean, down-to-earth folks."
They seemed to be that—not rich people, but straight people who keep their clocks set right and their bills paid on time. The pilots and the stunt men could have blended right in with them all. Now that the Washington Harrison Donaldsons and the Lincoln Beacheys and the Cyclone O'Neils have departed, to be replaced by corporation presidents and insurance salesmen and crop dusters, the air circus has come to be about the straightest scene in show biz. A place where the Establishment turns out to watch itself perform, where steeple stormers and kooks need not apply. Thai's what happened to the air circus.