Lillian Boyer 1920's Barnstorming
A first person memoir type story about Lillian Boyer, famous wing walker for a creative research assignment.
February 2, 2010
I was born a tomboy. In fact following the boy-girl-boy-girl pattern of 7 children meant I was supposed to be a boy, perhaps that fact is captured in my personality. Being the youngest, Momma Louisa and Papa Franklin didn’t manage to keep me on the farm long. My high flying spirit was just too much for our little farm on Pelee in Lake Erie. I decided to come back to the states (born in Hooper, Nebraska) for some excitement at age 21. That longing for excitement landed me working as a waitress in a Chicago restaurant, it wasn’t exciting. Everyday though I dreamed that perhaps with my 5’ 4” curves, brown hair, and brown eyes I could allure my way into something a tad more exciting. One day just that happened.
These two pilots became my regulars at the restaurant, I dreamed they’d maybe someday take me flying, but I said nothing of course I was just a waitress after all. I had never seen an airplane up close, heck I didn’t even know what one was made of, but I just knew I’d love it. April 3, 1921 that all changed, Elmer Partridge and Johnny Metzger asked me, lowly waitress me, if I’d like to take a ride. I could hardly stand my excitement as we rode over to Cicero Airport and walked up to the Curtiss JN4D, a Jenny. Elmer took me up, and it was like magic. The wind swirled my hair round me, everything up in the air was so free, so fresh, so new. The second we landed I knew I just had to go up again. Elmer suggested I find an old sweater, some pants, and tennis shoes, I peered back at him curiously, but was so willing to do whatever it took to get back up in the air.
Just four days later that happened. Once we had climbed back up into the clouds Elmer asked me if I wanted to step out on the wing. You could do that? Willing to try anything, that whole tomboy side, I rose up from my seat and climbed out of the cockpit. I stood out beside it with the wind ripping through me. I felt alive. Elmer looked at me in shock of my bravery and gave me an ok sign and pointed to my spot in the cockpit. Never one to stop though and always a rebel, I weaved and climbed my way through the struts and wires of the twin wings all the way out to the end and gave a little wave. Looking back I realize I had fans from the very beginning, and that Elmer surely thought I was going to commit suicide, as he screamed at me to come back. I felt no fear, and Elmer told me he knew just the way to use that, wing walking.
Elmer called Billy Brock, who managed the Chattanooga airport, an Army flying instructor in WWI, Brock had the flying skill but needed a stunter to go with it, I had just the nerve to do it. Brock was a handsome kind looking fellow. I certainly hoped he was kind at the time; I was going to be trusting him with my life, a lot. He stood 5 foot 11 had a neatly trimmed mustache and light brown wavy hair, with beautiful blue eyes. I’d later learn that he was nice but also that strong silent type of guy, I suppose the army does that to fellas. That December I signed a contract with Brock committing to five months of training, thank goodness for my farm upraising, it certainly benefitted me greatly. I moved to Chattanooga and trained in Brock’s barn. It was much like learning to be a gymnast except my high and low bars were top and bottom wings. We brought in a physical education instructor and crafted a mock up plane with a mat underneath, just in case. I worked so hard those five months; I wanted this more than anything. I ran everyday - for endurance, squeezed rubber balls - to better grip the wings, and watched what I ate. We tried everything in the barn at first, but it’s always different in the air where no foam will catch you. I learned “never to let go of one support until grasping another” and to "Keep fit, keep your nerve, think quickly." After five months Brock and I took the show on the road. I completely trusted Brock so deeply, a truly talented pilot. I was quoted many times in articles saying, "He was a wonderful man and, to my estimation, no other pilot was as good" and oh boy was it true. He always checked things carefully, turnbuckles, wires, telling me where to step. I always felt safe.
As we begun my barnstorming career of 352 “Lillian Boyer's Flying Circus” shows, the press began to call little me so many big things! I was “Queen of the Air”, “Girl of Nerve”, “Empress of the Skies”, and the “Supreme Queen of the Flying Machine.” I had “more thrills a minute than any other aerial artist.” Though I wasn’t so sure about this they claimed I was “unsurpassed in daring by man or woman in the history of aviation!” Later in my life they said I “was to the barnstorming of the 1920s what the sauce is to the taco, the afterburner to the jet airplane--that delicious and powerful boost that helped to make the decade roar.” So I suppose I made the 20’s roaring, I suppose that was my goal. While I don’t know if that’s really what I did, what I did do was show the world that this new-fangled thing called flying was safe and the future of our world.
Brock and I toured fairs dotting across 22 states in our trusty Curtiss Jenny. Our shows were generally 30 minutes give or take depending on the weather. I had so many tricks, some simple, some never before attempted, some my invention, my training paid off. I’d hang by a hand, a knee, an ankle, or even just my tippy toes.
I was the first woman to transfer from an automobile to a plane. The car would speed a long a race track Brock would swoop down from above, letting down a rope ladder. There was an important key to climbing that ladder, grabbing the second rung with your hands. One day I didn’t, and I’ll never forget it. Oh how Brock yelled at me and called me every which thing. It was out of love though.
I’d balance on my head. I even did standing loops from the top wing. It’s pretty simple really, just slipped my feet into straps on the top wing like slippers, physics did the rest at 65 MPH. I hollered “Hot dog!” when I first tried it January 5, 1922, boy was it cold up there though!
I did parachute drops too, those were fun. I dropped myself right into Lake Erie thirteen times, even though I couldn’t swim worth a lick. Never had a problem with the water though, it was other things that caused the problems.
The trick that dazzled the most though was the breakaway where I dangled by just my teeth, well so they thought 3,000 feet below us. I’d leave the cockpit but bring a tiny cable with me. I’d climb out on the wing and loop it round a strut. One end Brock and could reel up and the other had a mouth piece. I do a few oooh, and ahhh moves on the tip of the lower wing , then I’d stick in my mouth piece and climb over to the skid, a few more oooh and ahh moves and I’d let go. The cable went taut with my petite weight and I’d twirl a bit, do a spread eagle or two, never letting my jaw unclench. Brock would then let the ladder down giving my jaw some much needed relief. That was certainly the most dangerous trip, a snap of that cable, and down I’d go.
I try and forget about the close shaves I had with death, I was the “the most daring girl in all the world” after all. There was that time I my parachute and I landed in the Ferris wheel, but I got a free ride down. The next day I landed on the grandstand, the following day I fell 50 feet with an inside out parachute. I broke so much of myself that day, spent two months in the hospital. Being on the ground scared me more than the air for one reason, there are no obstacles up there, clouds are soft.
We made big money, Brock and, I for the time, $1,000 to $1,200 a day, for a 3-7 day event. It was good to be a daredevil rather than a waitress.
One day though it came to a halt. My last day of reign as “Empress of the Sky” was September 8, 1928, in Bethany, Missouri. I hung by my toes, hung by my ankles, did the standing loop, the breakaway and the spread eagle all for the very last time. The new FAA refused to allow licensed pilots to fly low. They wanted to strap, cable, and confine my free spirit to where it would have been impossible for me to have gotten a thrill from my work.
After eight glorious years of excitement, I was forced back to the boredom of pedestrian life and took a job as a hat-check girl, even more boring than waitressing, hats don’t chat.
Even so I was never afraid of the crazy stuff I did, but I never left the ground without a prayer to God, and when back on terra firma I thanked Him.
Brooks-Pazmany, Kathleen L. "United States Women in Aviation 1919-1929." Smithsonian Institution Libraries. 1983. 05 Feb. 2010
"Heroes of the Sky at Henry Ford Museum." The Henry Ford: America's Greatest History Attraction. 05 Feb. 2010
Love, Syd. "That Daring Young Gal on a Flying Machine On a Wing and a Prayer, Lillian Thrilled Fans." Los Angeles Times 19 Feb. 1989. 5 Feb. 2010
Thornton, Jimmy. "She flew on a wing and a prayer | Lillian Boyer found the skies friendly as a wing walker :[1,2,3,4,5,6 Edition]. " The Tribune 26 September 1986 ProQuest Newsstand, ProQuest. Web. 3 Feb. 2010.
Whitley, Sharon. "Lillian Boyer remembers days winging it as aerial daredevil :[1,2,3,4,5,6 Edition]. " The San Diego Union 24 March 1987 ProQuest Newsstand, ProQuest. Web. 3 Feb. 2010.