You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Mon, Aug 31, 2009 : 1:02 p.m.

Ann Arbor Airport to Neighbors: "We were here first & we've been safe too!"

By Dale R. Leslie

Most young people would be amazed at the variety of local, live entertainment that was available before today's television programs and the popularity of the personal computer.

"The air shows at the Ann Arbor Airport - especially in the 1930s - would draw upwards to 5,000 people," veteran pilot Don Kleinschmidt commented, peering out a window at the airport. "I hear it was a family event, perfect for a picnic, and people could come-and-go as they please. It was more than just a flying machine exhibition."

Today, a more contemporary portfolio is kept by Robert J. Barden, Sr., a member of the Ann Air Force that earned a national reputation for excellent air shows. Click on the Bob Barden.doc to learn morel.

Bob Barden binder.doc

The airport was platted and developed on city-owned land, on South State Road, just south of Ellsworth Road, where it sits proudly today.

Eli Gallup, the visionary of Ann Arbor's vast parkland which in part now bears his name, was instrumental in deciding the airport location, layout and in overseeing the mammoth earth-moving project that was required leading to the airport opening in the 1920s, according to Eli's son, Al Gallup.

"A lot of people back then felt the airport should be on the north side of town," Al Gallup notes., "Which would have conveniently provided landing strips on the four corners of the city."

"Why, an early pilot could fly 25 miles across town. That was a big deal for them!," he said.

Al Gallup noted the historical significance of the airport, "This was a 'cutting-edge' development in 1923. Especially, when you consider the advent of flight by the Wright Brothers occurred just 20 years prior."

An Ann Arbor News story and photos recap the events of an exciting air show at the Ann Arbor Airport on Aug. 31, 1937.

AA Airport Show.jpg

The highlights of the day-long extravaganza were a first-time parachute jump by a young woman, 19-year-old Dexa Coryell of Ann Arbor (see photo), whose send-off resembled the hoopla of a newly christened ship. Jimmie Goodwin, a proverbial batman in his homemade costume-jump suit (see photo), appeared a little apprehensive about his attempted feat as he posed for a photograph.

Goodwin's scheduled flight to fame was the last event on the program. But, according to the Ann Arbor News report, the jump was delayed until 6:30 p.m., after most of the air show patrons - and the reporters - had departed.

Ben VanZent was undoubtedly one of the most colorful local parachutists. He reportedly logged 1000s of jumps in his lifetime but a thrilling episode at the Tecumseh Airport was entirely unscheduled and could have been tragic.

VanZent's wife had noticed a small hole in his parachute which she lovingly repaired. But in the process she sewed the chute's rip cord- which is suppose to dangle free- to her husband's chute! After leaping out the airplane door, he became frantic because after several strong yanks, he could not pull his rip cord!

Precious seconds passed- which seemed like minutes to VanZent.- The andrenelin raced throughout his body. Finally, he was able to pull the chord and the chute opened albeit a hard landing followed.

Airplane Show Cars Collide.jpg

If all the parachuting began to ware on the crowd, the next event was the stunning, head-on collision of two fast automobiles. Both cars sped from the opposite end of the runway and many in the crowd covered their eyes to avoid seeing the collision. The smashing automobiles made an impressive sound.

The Ann Arbor News report said, "There was only one injury during the day's events. Fred Smith, one of the drivers of the two speedy automobiles headed for an attention-getting collision, broke a rib as a result of the crash." He apparently survived to drive head on for another day.

During the 1990s, local businessman Bob Barden Sr. and his fellow members of the stunt-flying Ann Arbor Air Force, generated a lot of excitement and "oohs" and "ahhs" as the featured entertainment of the memorable dawn-to-dusk air shows during the July 4th holiday.

The work-intensive organization, the Ann Arbor JCC’s co-sponsored an attractive holiday doubleheader; the air show was followed later in the evening by the traditional, July 4th, big fireworks display.

Barden and his cohorts, the Ann Arbor Air Force, had top billing in air shows across the country. The flying events at the shows were structured and well-planned. The performances followed this traditional sequence:

• Opening Flag Jump - The audience’s attention is directed skyward where several parachutists have started an encircled descent. These experienced jumpers can accurately hit a landing spot within a few feet of the spectators. The last parachutist in the jump sequence displays a large American Flag that flaps proudly in the breeze. Attracting even more attention skyward is a squad of biplanes that encircle the parachutists;

• Super Cub Deadstick Aerobatic - This stunt must be seen to be believed! The daring pilot of a Super Cub airplane flying high in the air over the airport releases his directional stick in the cockpit and immediately the plane begins a rapid descent. At the last valuable second, the pilot pulls back on the stick and watches (hopefully!) his/her airplane break the dive and climb upward;

• Rope Ladder Car-to-Plane Switch- The most dangerous ground-to-air show stunt pairs Barden in his open cockpit bi-plane and Eddie “The Grip” Green, usually clad in skin-tight pants, reaches for a rope ladder, dangling from the Barden plane, from the backseat of a speeding convertible. Green was the master of the art of dangerous wing-walking but there were a lot of major parts to successfully completing this act: When Eddie is comfortable, he grabs the rope ladder and scurries aboard Barden’s swooping plane while riding in the backseat of a speeding automobile; For this event, the veteran Bill Barber is the pilot; Danny Clisham is driving the speeding car and Eddie “The Grip” is doing his renowned car-to-airplane hopping.

• Wing-walking (the old fashioned way) - “Eddie wore special gloves for an extremely tight,” the senior Barden noted. “ There are no second chances for a wing-walker. Eddie was daring but extremely careful.”.

Recently, the July 4th show was dedicated to the late Bill Barber, a former member of the Ann Arbor Air Force. He fell in love with airplanes at first sight and was a well known and popular air show pilot.

<em>Writer Dale Leslie has been schooled in the fine art of aerobatic flying by Ann Arbor's flying icon, Bob Barden, Sr. Bob has a CD featuring most of the Ann Arbor Air Force being interviewed and some show clips in a show that is very interesting. If you wish to make a copy, call Bob at 800.710.4821 or 734.665.6173. You can reach Dale Leslie at 734.660.1023 or via

Happy Flying!

Photos and some text: