Review of "Barnstorming"

Imagine a warm summer day in July— you are shucking corn on your dairy farm when without warning, an old wood and fabric airplane just misses your silo and lands on your hay field…. followed by yet another antique flying machine. What do you do? If you are a young lad, you race toward these colorful contraptions and the brave souls piloting them screaming, “Wow! Cool!”

This scene was a common occurrence thousands of times throughout the Midwest in the 1920s and 30s, but it was not common at all when two such gypsy pilots “dropped in” unannounced on the Dirksen family’s farm in nearby Winchester, Indiana in 1999.

That accidental meeting between those bonded to the earth and those bonded to the sky initiated an annual fly-in that now features nearly a dozen vintage aircraft (plus local vintage automobiles to complete the ambience) and close to 200 neighbors, friends, and family… and as the documentary film Barnstorming celebrates, just showing up makes you part of the family.

We have the added value of witnessing something so special happening here in our own area. The film features local landmarks and local individuals, and I find it particularly poignant that this annual celebration of flying at its most basic— wind in the wires, leather flying helmets, goggles, and silk scarves trailing in the slipstream— takes place just a short drive from the big iron at USAF Museum and the regular, unremarkable commercial flights in and out of Dayton International Airport. Flying has long ceased being romantic because there is nothing romantic about being body-searched and crammed into an Airbus like clowns in a circus car. But to hop into an open-cockpit Waco for a free spin around the patch? Simpler times indeed, and a smile guaranteed.

One of the pilots observes, “flying gives you an entirely different perspective, not only on the world but on life.” From 1,000 feet, the Midwest looks much the same as it did to the original barnstormers nearly 100 years ago. There are many parts of our collective American mythology that, once we have studied the facts, we should be glad are gone forever. This documentary, shot in a visually charming unpretentious style with a lovely soundtrack to match, is a timely reminder that there are some parts of Americana past that embody an innocence for which we have every right to wax nostalgic.

The title of the motion picture pays homage to those daring barnstormers of yesteryear—the pilots in this story are even prone to asking “WWWD?” What Would Waldo (Pepper) Do?— but Barnstorming is definitely not just for propeller-heads like this author.

The children in the film are as integral to this story as the pilots because both groups share the wonder of flight. The sheer joy of the Dirksen kids straining their eyes skyward in unconstrained anticipation of the annual return of the airplanes to their farm is itself worth the price of admission. As one very young girl asserts matter-of-factly, “I’ll just go in the sky.” And because the sky is so much larger than our television sets, this film demands to be seen on the big screen.

Barnstorming plays at the Little Art Theatre in Yellow Springs at 4:00pm Saturday, March 12. For those of us without hayfields welcoming the gypsy pilots, this will be as close as we get to experiencing the “Wow! Cool!” of our own private air show.

Thomas Girvin is a local screenwriter and film professor who flies modern day light aircraft in real life and open-cockpit biplanes in his dreams.