How air shows first started

Some early air shows saw pilots taking up to 900 spectators for a joyride in one day. Compared to now, how have air shows changed over the past century? 

Let’s face it, if you’re a reader of Key.Aero, FlyPast or any other of our magazines, then you’ve probably been to an air show at some time in your life. More than probably – we can pretty much guarantee it. Right now, we’re all missing the joys of craning our necks, with eyes to the sky as we watch pilots travel at breakneck speeds simply for our enjoyment. But what of the earliest air shows? And what is to become of our favourite pass time now that a pandemic has swept the globe and is forcing air show hosts to completely reconsider their dynamic? 

Air shows became a major form of entertainment during the early years of flight and of course, they remain popular today. In the early twentieth century, is wasn’t commonplace to look into the sky and see something with wings that wasn’t a bird. The phenomenon of air shows, therefore, piqued the interest of many right from the off. Earliest exhibition pilots would host the first air shows around the early 1900s, when pilots, aviation enthusiasts and the general public would come together. The pilots’ aim was to promote their industry, while doing what they loved and entertaining those who came to watch. Eventually, the small crowds became large ones and by the end of World War I, when people understood just how much aviation was needed. The phenomenon of air shows really took off, becoming an international sensation. 

Early air shows were not then as you think of them now. Often, pilots would partake in stunt and speed contests, as well as bet amongst each other as to who could fly the farthest or highest. The first major international air meet took place in Reims, France, in August 1909. The event attracted close to 500,000 spectators, setting the precedent for all future air shows. Officials faced the challenge of converting the region's grape fields into a space that could accommodate the expected crowd - not to mention the pilots and their aeroplanes. To meet the challenge, they built special grandstands, a restaurant, a barbershop, and even press facilities. The main event of the show was the Gordon Bennett cup race, a speed race between pilots of all different nationalities. In the end, it was Glenn Curtiss (yes, you’re thinking of the right one) who pipped the rest of the contestants to a victory with a lead of six seconds.  

Following the Great War, air shows began to take a new shape as the phenomenon of ‘barnstorming’ started to take off. Instead of heading to an airfield, pilots, wing walkers and all other aviation entertainers would promenade up and down the country. In short, they would bring the entertainment to the people, instead of waiting for the people to come to them. Two main components made up the popular phenomenon of barnstorming: the wide variety of death defying stunts that aviators performed, and the affordable joy rides that the aviators offered. These joy rides became so popular during the 1920s that, in just a single day, one pilot took some 980 passengers for rides. Because many people still had not seen an aeroplane up close by the early 1920s, barnstorming satisfied many people's curiosity about the new technology. If only we could get up in a Spitfire or Tiger Moth as simply nowadays! 

Post World War II, the dynamic of air shows began to shift again. No more was the sight of an aeroplane a novelty. Commercial air travel was taking off and people were used to seeing aeroplanes of all shapes and sizes in the sky. If anything, they were too used to it. The interest in air shows began to dwindle, and as did the spectator numbers. Those who turned up were regarded ‘plane buffs’. But it wasn’t to remain this way. Slowly but surely, interest began to rise again as aeroplanes became faster (much faster), more diverse, and more impressive. Not only this, but generations upon generations were all eager to see the aviation engineering that started it all. Soon, the Fokker Eindecker, the Tiger Moth and even eventually the Spitfire became relics that could often only be seen flying at an air show. The novelty was back – and it hasn’t gone anywhere since. 

With the world looking the way that it does now, it’s hard to see where the future of air shows will take us aviation enthusiasts. Some have gone digital, others have become drive-in shows that you can sit and watch from the comfort of your own car. Admittedly this does negate the ever-present weather issue (in England anyway). But there will always be something about thousands of people with their gaze turned up to the sky and the collective ‘ooh’s and ‘ahh’s that I’m certain we all can’t wait to return to.