Barnstormers inspire a new generation of aviators

In all the years Southwest Airlines pilot Jim Baker has visited with elementary school students in Hallettsville, Texas, he has never encountered a child who aspires to be a pilot. This always surprises him.

“When I was a boy, it seemed like every kid wanted to be a fighter pilot or an astronaut,” he said.

Stories of barnstormers and wartime flying aces had captured his imagination as a child and provided inspiration for his career. Today, however, Baker fears that young people have too many distractions pulling them away from aviation. He and a few friends decided to look back to those original barnstormers to lure kids into the field.

Baker had already been restoring old aircraft in his spare time, so he decided that they would be the perfect vehicles for teaching young people basic mechanics and engineering and to foster a love of flying.

He formed a non-profit organization called the Texas Barnstorming Museum, partnered with high schools in the region, and got to work recruiting students into a flight training program. The museum is based at Hallettsville Municipal Airport (34R).

 Hallettsville Municipal Airfield (34R) during one of its fly-ins (Photo Courtesy Jared Calvert in his Travel Air 4000)

“We set up meetings with the kids and their parents, and vetted them based on a few criteria, mainly desire, and not necessarily grades. The kids pay nothing, only work for their training,” Baker said.

Each student in the program gets a mini ground school and three lessons in a Piper Cub before moving onto a Grumman Traveler for their private pilot certification. Along the way, Barnstormer students also have opportunities to fly a Stearman and a 1929 Fleet Model 2, and there are a few WACO and TravelAir projects “to keep the kids busy,” according to Baker.

“How many 16-year-olds have flown a Stearman or are tailwheel endorsed?” he asked, clearly proud of his students. 

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