Ask Rufus: The Victory Flying Circus of 1919

April 14, 2018 10:01:48 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


A couple of months ago I wrote about Payne Field, a historic World War I air field four miles north of West Point, and the centennial of military aviation in the Golden Triangle. The Army Air Service (grandfather of the Air Force) operated the field as a pilot training base with the first squadron of JN-4 "Jennys" airplanes arriving in March 1918. The field was commanded by Lt. Col. Jack Heard, a former cavalry officer with Mississippi roots. 


Col. Heard left Payne Field after pilot training ended, and in the spring of 1919 helped organize "The Victory Bond Flying Circus" for the Army Air Service. That flying circus consisted of three groups of aircraft that toured the U.S., putting on exciting air shows to promote the sale of Liberty Bonds to help pay off the nation debt incurred during World War I. That flying circus has been called the forerunner of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. 


The origins of the Victory Loan Flying Circus can be found in the April 12, 1919, Army Air Service Newsletter: "Many schemes are to be used in the raising of the huge fifth Liberty Loan, but one of the most unique plans of all is the sending of three flying circuses over the country. ... On April 10 (1919), a special train consisting of nine baggage cars, three sleepers and a diner left Ellington Field (Houston, Texas) with its complement of men and material, proceeding to New Orleans, where the first exhibition will be given." The airplanes which included American, British, French and captured German planes were disassembled and also carried on the train. The train to New Orleans carried the Midwestern Flying Circus and similar trains carried the Eastern and Western circuses. 


Bad weather canceled the New Orleans exhibition and the tour opened instead on April 11, 1919, in Jackson. With a headline of "FAMOUS AVIATORS THRILL THOUSANDS BY FLYING CIRCUS" and a dateline of April 11, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported: "Thousands from all sections of Mississippi thronged Jackson today to see the first performance of the 'Flying Circus' composed of famous army aviators who are touring the Mississippi (River) valley ... in the interest of the Victory Loan. The crowds filled the city streets, while from roofs of business blocks and from the state capitol buildings hundreds gazed until the last ship had disappeared." 


It was a little after 7 a.m. when the train arrived in Jackson and the fliers were treated to breakfast by the Rotary Club. After breakfast the train moved to "a siding a few miles from town, where the planes were unloaded and assembled." 


The aircraft performed mock aerial battles, buzzed buildings and dropped paper "bombs" which said: "How many Victory notes would you be willing to buy if these were German bombs falling on your home?"  


The air show had started with a mock battle of a German "Fokker fighting plane" and "four American Curtiss machines in battle formation." One plane was piloted by Lt. Alvin St. John with Lt. Luther Manship of Jackson flying with him. "After the mimic combat, the pilots all descended to a lower altitude and awed watchers with their daring antics. The last machine to return to the landing field was the photographic ship which circled the city at only a few hundred feet while taking pictures of Jackson from the air." 


That night a dance was given for the fliers at the country club before they boarded the train for Memphis. 


It was not mentioned in the Jackson article, but Victory Loan volunteer workers and people who bought a substantial number of bonds were usually treated to a ride in one of the planes. One pilot later said women were braver than men about going up for a flight and many men who were offered a ride declined.  


Between the three circuses, performances were given in 88 cities and 45 states. There were 1,275 flights made and 368 civilians were rewarded for volunteer services, or bond purchases, with airplane rides. It was reported nationwide more than 1 million people had watched their air shows.  


Though they were around for less than a year, the Army air Service's Victory Loan Flying Circus was the world's first officially sanctioned military aerial demonstration team, predating the Navy Blue Angels by 27 years. Next weekend, the Air Force's 99-year tradition of awing the public with spectacular air shows continues with Wings Over Columbus, an open house and Air and Space Show at Columbus Air Force Base. It will be an amazing show that will be free and open to the public. 


Because of a recent tragic fatal mishap, the Air Force Thunderbirds will not be able to perform. In their absence will be the Air Force F-22 Raptor demonstration team and the C-17 demonstration team. While the Thunderbirds demonstrate the skill of the world's best pilots, the Raptor demonstration shows the awe-inspiring capabilities of America's front line combat fighter aircraft. I have seen their demonstration and at times had to rub my eyes, not sure if the Raptor had just done what I thought I saw it do. It will be a grand weekend not to miss. For more information go to

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]