In the mid-1910s, the world’s first airline was started by Antony Habersack Jannus, who described flying as
“…not the successful defying of death but the indulgence in the poetry of mechanical motion, a dustless, relatively bumpless, fascinating sensation of speed; an abstraction from things material into an infinite space; an abandon that is more exciting but less irritating than any other form of mechanical propulsion…Florida is a live, wide-awake place for aviators…I would rather cruise around in an airboat than do anything else.”
Other pilots shared that sentiment, and in the wake of World War I, as aircraft began to proliferate, created flying teams referred to as “Flying Circuses.” These groups allowed pilots to exhibit their piloting skills, demonstrate advances in aeronautical technology, and perform daring stunts to captive audiences. Known as barnstorming, these events were extremely popular across the United States during the 1920s. Many were held on Florida’s beaches, including from Jacksonville to Daytona. Daredevils would perform stunts such as loop-de-loops, parachuting, and walking on the wings of the aircraft. In an attempt to outperform each other, stuntmen began doing handstands on the wing, holding on to the edges with their teeth, and wing-walking from one plane to another. This stunt was so dangerous that at least eight wing-walkers died performing the stunt in a short period of time.
Many of these aerial risk-takers were men, but there was one notable woman, Mabel Cody. Though Cody was not a pilot, she started her own flying circus, organizing a troupe of pilots, drivers, and stuntpeople including herself, which performed at fairs and special events. According to an article from TheGentlemanRacer.com, “The Mabel Cody Flying Circus did a number of stunts including night flying, wing walking, auto to plane transfers both with and without the use of ladders, single and double parachute drops, wing-walking while the plane looped and changing planes without the use of a ladder.”
Cody received much flak from women over one particular stunt she planned on performing in 1921. She wanted to be the first woman in the world to transfer from a moving car onto the wing of a flying plane. Her stuntmen had already performed the trick, and she was determined to follow suit. Cody was about twenty years old at the time, and women would call her hoping to dissuade her from the stunt. Unfortunately, when it was time for her to make her attempt, a storm rolled in, literally dampening her ability to perform the stunt that day.
Mabel Cody got another chance to try the stunt three years later. On March 23, 1924, Cody waited for a plane while in the back of a car driving about 65 miles per hour. She grabbed the rung of the ladder hanging off of the wing, but the ladder broke. She fell about fifty feet and woke up in the hospital in Jacksonville. This accident did not stop her.
Later that year, Cody merged her show with a competitor’s, Doug Davis. Allegedly, they sealed the deal with a handshake after landing a plane on the flatcar of a moving freight train. In 1927, she pushed the envelope of her stunts even further than climbing on a plane from a car to climbing on a plane from a speedboat.
In 1929, the stock market crash and ensuing Great Depression caused many flying circuses to close down. In addition, federal legislation effectively shut down the practice in 1936, banning wing-walking stunts below 1500 feet, which was the visibility range of aerial stunts. Today, aerial stunts are allowed, but with strict safety restrictions.
Written by Nicole Diehm
Brown, Warren J. Florida’s Aviation History: The First One Hundred Years. West Largo, FL: Aero-Medical Consultants, Inc., 1994.
Foley, Bill. “Mabel Cody” Earlyaviators.com accessed June 6, 2023. https://www.earlyaviators.com/ecody.htm
Lane, Marcia. “Wing walker awed locals” St. Augustine Record published May 31, 2010, accessed June 6, 2023. https://www.staugustine.com/story/news/local/2010/05/31/wing-walker-awed-locals/16230975007/
Satterfield, Michael. “Mabel Cody’s Flying Circus”. TheGentlemanRacer.com published October 29, 2018, accessed June 6, 2023. https://www.thegentlemanracer.com/2018/07/mabel-codys-flying-circus.html
Barnstorming. Wikipedia last edited May 27, 2023, accessed June 7, 2023. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barnstorming
Flying circus (disambiguation). Wikipedia last edited April 4, 2023, accessed June 7, 2023.
Wing walking. Wikipedia last edited March 22, 2023, accessed June 7, 2023.
 Brown, Warren J. Florida’s Aviation History: The First One Hundred Years. (West Largo, FL: Aero-Medical Consultants, Inc., 1994) 2-3.