May 14, 1920: Billy Mitchell's flying circus

  • Published
  • By Andy Stephens
  • 11th Wing Historian
It was the greatest air show of the Golden Age of Aviation. It brought the science of airplanes and daring pilots into the popular mindset, and established Bolling Field as the heart of America's flying legions.

Less than two years had passed since the Great War ended. Many forthcoming technological achievements were science-fiction speculation, but the airplane was giving wings to a few daring men and women. It was in this setting that Gen. Charles T. Menoher, chief of the Army Air Service, and Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell, chief of the service's training and operations, assembled the First Air Tournament, also known as the flying circus.

The crowd thrilled as dozens of aerobatic pilots engaged in air races and mock air battles. The pilots of the planes were mostly veterans of the American flying contingent that had seen service in Europe during the Great War and kept their skills sharp through General Mitchell's training regimen. General Mitchell also performed numerous stunts: loops, turns and barrel rolls, causing grown men to faint as he performed the aerial maneuvers that permanently etched his name on the public consciousness of the day alongside the word "airplane."

The first day of the show was so successful that thousands of requests came from surrounding civilian communities to extend the show. General Menoher arranged not only for the original stunts and flights to be repeated, but he added new names and events as well.
On the second day, pursuit planes staged a simulated attack on an observation balloon, "shooting down" the balloon's defenders before closing in. Adding to the climax, three Airmen parachuted from the falling balloon, facing more attacks on the way down. Many civilians had never seen a parachute in action, and the screams of a terrified crowd were soon replaced with gasps of shock and amazement.

On the third day, airplanes raced through the sky at speeds never before witnessed by most, breaking flying records left and right. The 25-mile air-race course wound from the Navy Yard's chimneys to the dome of the Capitol to the Washington monument and back around the smoke stacks of the steel plant south of Bolling Field. Among the pilots flying in this race was Lt. Horace M. Hickam, for whom Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii would later be named.

On every day of the event, numerous airplanes stood on static display and repair crews demonstrated their ability to assemble an engine, install it and launch an airplane in minutes.

The tournament ended with a parachute demonstration. Two Airmen leapt from a balloon 1,500 feet in the air. High winds carried the Airmen off course, but they landed safely on the opposite bank of the Potomac, missing a watery landing by mere yards.

Many pilots demonstrated their skill, and aircrews showed off their engineering prowess. But no one shined brighter than General Mitchell. The flying circus thrust Bolling Field into the spotlight and boosted the image of the Army Air Service during a time when the future of the service was in doubt -- all things that General Mitchell toiled for relentlessly.

An appreciative civilian populace rewarded his hard work with cheers and adulation. They would always remember that thrilling weekend at Bolling Field and the awe-inspiring acrobatic demonstrations of the Army Air Service.