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Imagination set free

For young people living in Billings and other Montana cities and towns in the 1920s, it was a time to harbor big dreams. Many of those dreams centered on flying as aviation moved from its infancy to becoming an established mode of transportation. Arne Schmitt, hero of “Sky Dreamer,” certainly saw his future etched in the Treasure State's big sky.

Yet, as the Roaring Twenties drew to a close, veteran pilots were proclaiming that the days of swashbuckling flyers were almost gone. Nostalgia started to set in.

Here's an example of that sentiment, an article published in the November 15, 1929, issue of the Billings Gazette with the headline, “In Aviation's Gypsy Days.” Beneath was a sub-head that summarizes what author and veteran pilot Elliott Underhill planned to say. “Death-Defying Stunts and Hair-Raising Exhibition Flight Were All in the Day's Work to Barnstorming Flyers of a Decade Ago — Nomads of the Sky Who Provided Aerial Thrills in Parts of America where Aviation was still a mystery.”

Underhill began his lengthy remembrance by describing the day he landed next to a country road in a remote part of West Virginia.

“I was ‘barnstorming’ — that is to say, I was a tramp aviator, peddling exhibition flight through rural districts where flying remained little more than a myth.” Soon, Underhill saw a “backwoods farmer” and his wife coming the road, headed for a nearby town. The horses shied at the sight of Underhill's plane, as did the wife who jumped from the wagon, hid behind a tree and wouldn't move.

“Want any help with your team?” Underhill asked the farmer.

“I can manage the horses,” the farmer replied, “See if you get the old woman past.”

That incident occurred in November 1921. Less than 10 years later, Americans had read about, even seen newsreels of, warfare in the air. Charles Lindbergh and others had flown across oceans. Airlines that carried passengers and air mail across the country had been established.

“Yet there dwelt, even then, in secluded regions of these United States, thousands of persons who never had beheld an airplane, who did not believe any machine could be made to fly, or who, like the aforementioned farmer's wife seemed to think if such a contraption existed it must be the work of the devil.”

Thus, freelance flyers such as Underhill could see and carried out a mission. People had heard stories of flying machines but to accept aviation as fact, early pilots needed to bring their planes to the country's isolated outposts. For people in the sticks, seeing would be believing.

“Then from coast to coast fluttered the ‘gypsy’ barnstormer, reaching all horizons, touching every locale, showing the entire population of America that man's conquest of the air was an accomplished fact.”

Underhill said he and his fellow pioneer pilots were vagabonds in every sense of the word. They “tramped” the skies, living “by guess and by gosh.” They took whatever pay they got, wherever and however it showed up. Ofttimes, meals were their least concern.

Underhill told the story of two barnstormers, Gus and Bill, who tried to eke out a living around Daytona Beach. All Gus and Bill had was the “ancient scarecrow” of a Curtiss Jenny plane, half a tank of gas, ravenous appetites and an idea.

Gus, known as “The Flying Post” because of his active imagination, supplied the idea of using wealthy women who wintered at Daytona to the pilots' advantage. These women splashed in the ocean every afternoon but sometimes the undertow dragged them towards possible drowning. They needed rescue by lifeboats. That’s where Gus and Bill would enter the picture.

(To be continued)

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Jamie Larson