Walt Pierce: The Last of the Barnstormers

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Just three years ago, longtime air show performer Walt Pierce made the decision to hang up his helmet and goggles. A barnstormer in the finest tradition of air shows, Walt flew his Super Stearman for over 50 years. His airplane, built in 1940, has the same tail number and Stearman logo on the tail, just as it came out of the factory. His name is boldly painted on both sides of the fuselage, but on one side it’s right-side up and on the other it’s upside down. “That’s the way Tex Rankin did it. It was an old barnstorming tradition that I loved,” Walt said.

Although he has been retired from air shows for nearly three years, Walt says he has no plans to sell his airplane. It’s been an important part of his life for too many years.

Walt’s memory of his first air show is a bit fuzzy, saying he flew his first show in Houston, Texas in 1963, or maybe it was 1964. “Flying is all I ever wanted to do and that’s all I’ve ever done,” he said. Growing up near the former Walker Air Force Base in New Mexico, he saw B-29s and later B-47s flying over his house all the time. When he was old enough, he would ride his bicycle to the local airport and play in stripped down airplanes. “I was around airplanes so much as a kid that I got to where I could identify airplanes flying overhead just by the sound,” he said.

Walt was licensed in 1957 at the age of 17. It was the path to his private license that led him unknowingly into the air show business. “I was on my first dual cross country with my instructor when we landed in Midland, Texas where they were having an air show. I saw Marion Cole do a knife-edge pass down the length of the runway in his 450 Stearman and I was hooked. I eventually became friends with Marion and he helped me a lot.” So much so that Walt bought a Stearman in Mississippi while flying as a duster pilot, then had to go to aerobatic school to learn how to fly it.

Narrator Danny Clisham remembers Walt as being a headliner wherever he went. “If you look at some of the old photographs, you see Walt surrounded by people like Bob Hoover and other top performers. Walt wore a uniform at times, but he would most often dress the part of a barnstormer, wearing a white shirt, a tie, and corduroy pants. Old barnstormers dressed like gentlemen to lend credibility to their profession. Walt carried that tradition into the modern era. He had one of the longest air show careers in contemporary times,” Clisham said.

Walt started his career as a solo act, but — in 1970 — he added a wing walker… his wife Sandi. They first flew together in Beaufort, South Carolina. Walt and Sandi made an attractive pair to show organizers, but not just because of the wing walking. He would fly a solo act as well as a wing walking act. And Sandi was also an accomplished aerobatic pilot. She would do a solo act in a Taylorcraft and a Great Lakes. That gave a show three or four good acts with one contract.

Adding a wing walker to his retinue was another throwback to the barnstorming era. “Wing walkers always get a lot more attention than an airplane making noise and it seemed like a good idea,” Walt said. Throughout his career he trained and flew with as many as 30 different wing walkers. “Wing walking is tough. Training is difficult and a lot of people try it for a season and decide it isn’t for them.” His daughter Chandelle also walked his wing until she got married and had children.

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Mike Berriochoa
Mike Berriochoa is an air show announcer, former member of the ICAS Board of Directors, longtime communications professional and award-winning broadcast journalized based in Pasco, Washington.