May 1, 1995
By Alton K. Marsh
Each Sunday from May to October, a group of airline pilots, policemen, computer consultants, radio personalities, businessmen, nurses, and teenagers gather in Bealeton, Virginia, to perform in The Flying Circus. It is primarily a Boeing Stearman show, although a Piper Cub, a Waco, some homebuilts, and a Consolidated Fleet have roles as well. The show doesn't start until 2:30 p.m., but the cognoscenti among the crowd — namely the kids — know to arrive at 11 a.m. to catch a ride in an open cockpit biplane.
On this particular Sunday it is obvious from five miles away that someone has bought the super-deluxe aerobatic ride. A PT-17 Stearman loops, barrel rolls, and spins 3,000 feet above north-central Virginia, 60 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. Drivers on Route 17 looking for the tiny sign marking the entrance to the Flying Circus Aerodrome find they can use the Stearman as a beacon and steer toward it onto Route 644. (Hint: turn at Fauquier Feed Supply.) Larger signs once pointed the way but ran afoul of Fauquier County ordinances. This is pricey horse country, after all; roadside clutter just won't do. Despite many little setbacks like that over the years, the Flying Circus begins its 25th season this month.
Down Route 644 a mile or so, next to a patch of corn, lies a rolling field of well-trimmed grass. At one end is a 1920s-style hangar lettered "Curtiss." Parked along the fence in front of the crowd are a half-dozen Stearmans and a 1929 Consolidated Fleet powered by a 160- horsepower Kinner engine. Fittings atop the Fleet's wing suggest that the Navy once purchased this aircraft for service aboard the airship USS Akron, but no one knows for sure. The logbooks aren't available. Hooks attached to the fittings allowed the pilot to snare a trapeze dangling from the Akron. Captured in mid-flight, the aircraft was then pulled aboard the airship.
Hopping rides is an important part of the show, just as in the old days when barnstormers did stunts to attract a crowd, then charged them for a ride. The extra income helps the show's pilots — nearly all of them owner-performers — defray operating costs. Rides last year were $30 per passenger, $55 for two, and $60 per person for the aerobatic ride. The Circus takes 10 percent, and the pilot (actually, pilots like to joke, the aircraft itself) keeps the rest.
Before the show has even started, periodic outbursts of distant applause draw curious eyes toward the weather-beaten Curtiss hangar. It's the 2 o'clock briefing for the airshow staff, where performers are applauding their latest personal and professional successes. The show is fueled primarily by their enthusiasm for aviation. The first announcement concerns a Virginia 7-Up distributor who has agreed to advertise the Flying Circus on soft drink cans. That makes two: Pepsi cans in the region already carry the ad. ( Applause) The next is about a spectator from the previous year who enjoyed the show so much he was inspired to take flying lessons, and now he is here with his instructor. ( Applause) And, it's somebody's birthday. ( Cheers).
The Circus people are a tightly knit bunch, and that's no exaggeration. Hang on now, as we climb one Circus family tree. As you enter the front gate, you'll see Nize King and her children — Laura, Amy, and Scott — selling tickets; behind the crowd, Susan King, Nize's sister-in-law, is running the sound system; buy something from the gift shop, and Dodie King, Nize's mother-in-law, will sell it to you; watch the wingwalker act, and it may be John D. King, Nize's husband, flying the 450-hp Stearman with his son, John E. King II, standing on the wing; John D.'s father, John E. King, may well be flying the Waco UPF-7 on the day you attend, or it could be Mike King, Susan's son. Got it? For good measure, Ron King, John D.'s brother, may come swooping over in a Citabria to perform the banner-tow demonstration. Some of the Kings even moved to Virginia from Maryland to be closer to the Circus. Not everyone is related, of course. Strays (the human variety) wander in from year to year and are adopted, becoming wingwalkers, ground crew, announcers, and show pilots.
Chris Edwards was a member of a disco band when he first came to the aerodrome in 1976 and volunteered to help out. Flying Circus President Tex Goppert, a 22-year veteran of the Circus, heard him selling hot dogs over the public address system one day. Sounded pretty good, and the dogs were selling, so the private pilot is now the show announcer. (His talents later won him a job at a nearby radio station.) Edwards strides about the field with a wireless microphone, interviewing pilots in their cockpits, parachutists seconds after they land, and kids hanging on the fence. One, eight years old, will win the Piper Cub ride today. "Eight," Edwards will say. "That's about right. You're going to be a pilot someday."
The Flying Circus isn't making its owners millionaires, but they're meeting the payroll. Wingwalker Andy Hays, a laid-off USAir pilot who became a policeman, will make $75 today by dangling from the wing of a Stearman with only a canvas strap for protection. "It's a car payment," he says of his monthly paycheck. (As this was written he found a flying job with British Aerospace and turned in his badge.) He alternated performances last year with wingwalker Jane Wicker, a charter pilot/aerobatic pilot/computer consultant. But she'll be absent during the 1995 season to work on her mom rating. Computer consultant seems a popular profession among performers; parachute jumper Jim N. Wine, who opens the show, is a computer analyst for NASA.
Charlie Dixon, the Circus clown, will make $15 today — a small amount, considering he will be blown up by a two-inch mortar while sitting in an outhouse. Barnstormer Patrick Barton will earn his wages by attacking balloons with the propeller of his Stearman, and by performing in formation flights. His resume also includes, under Skills, "Occasional outhouse bomber." Barton, an Air Force officer, is chief flight instructor for the Andrews Air Force Base Aero Club near Washington, D.C.
Marty Goppert, wife of Tex Goppert and a registered nurse at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C., will shoot balloons on the ground with a pistol as she flies overhead in a Stearman named "The Broad." Not even Annie Oakley could do that from a horse, let alone an airplane. If the truth be known — ahh, but that is a secret of the show. Can't tell you. Nothing personal. Marty says she ran off to the Circus "...for the love of it," and wouldn't know what to do on Sunday afternoons without it.
Krieger Henderson, 72, who retired as a civil and aeronautical engineer doing transportation research for the National Academy of Sciences, will drop flour bombs — two-pound bags of Giant Food's finest — from his Stearman on the hapless Dixon. Everyone gets a shot at Dixon, who gives presentations at area schools on the history of aviation. It isn't the big bucks (barely enough to keep the Stearman in gas) that make Henderson donate six months of Sundays to the show. Rather, it's "giving people their first airplane ride" and "watching little kids grin from ear to ear." Henderson flew the China-Burma-India "Hump" during World War II.
For Rick Conn, one-half of The Flying Conn Brothers, the Circus offers a chance to do "what drew all of us to flying in the first place." Rick is a 737 captain for USAir, while brother Dave is an MD-80 captain for American Airlines. "You get to thrill your friends with the aerobatic ride, horse around dropping flour bombs, and dive into balloons. It is real, old-time flying," Rick said. The Conns have performed in the Circus a dozen years each, flying stock 220-hp Stearmans. Their dad, a retired United Airlines 747 captain, once flew in the Circus in his 450-hp Stearman. Rick and Dave are working up a joint aerobatic act for the 1995 season. "I've taught many of my ground crew people to fly," Dave said. "It is my opportunity to pass aviation on to others, the way my father did when he took us for rides in an Aeronca Champ when I was six." Circus spectator Laura Warman, then 19, asked the Conns for her first airplane ride a few years ago, was thrilled by it, and is now a flight instructor.
Maggie Lesley, a 16-year-old Circus volunteer and a student pilot in the Andrews Air Force Base Aero Club, will become the victim of a "human banner tow" experiment today by nutty professor Hal Bogert. Lesley — who plays Fifi LaBombshell and Maggie the Flapper in the show — thinks it's neat to taxi out for flying lessons at Andrews behind F-16s and, one lucky day, the F-117A stealth fighter. She took a step towards her dream of becoming a military pilot when she soloed a week after her 16th birthday. Fellow cast members expect her to appear in the cockpit of an airliner one day. Like Lesley, 21-year-old private pilot Inga Parker started working at the Flying Circus when she was 15, and has even filled in as a wing walker. Parker dreams of a career in the Coast Guard, while 18-year-old Mary Larson, a member of the ground crew, plans to attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
Ground crew member Brent Starling, 17-year-old son of Circus pilot and radio traffic reporter Walt Starling, will race about in the summer heat, propping a Stearman, talking with reporters, and escorting photographers. There aren't many teenagers who can put public relations on their summer job resume. Last year he soloed the Flying Circus' Piper Cub, and is anxious to check out in the Stearman.
Kirk Wicker, husband of wingwalker Jane and owner of a swimming pool business, provides the only modern aircraft act in the Circus. Wicker gave Jane a Mudry CAP 21 as her wedding present two years ago, one of only 14 CAP 21s Wicker believes are flying in the world. He also taught her aerobatics, and has even taught 23-year-old Doug Farley of the Circus ground crew to fly the single-cockpit aircraft in aerobatic competition (see " Hot Stick," February Pilot). Kirk uses the CAP 21 to show the crowd what a modern airplane can do and waves goodbye at the conclusion of his act through an opened canopy while inverted. He obviously has the talent to support his dream of one day making the United States Aerobatic Team. He learned aerobatics by first reading about the maneuvers in the World Book Encyclopedia and then practicing them using radio controlled model airplanes — a model of a CAP 21, to be exact. By the time he got to a real airplane, he was able to teach himself aerobatics. He and Jane met when she answered a Flying Circus newspaper ad for a wingwalker.
Charlie Kulp, 69, will be celebrating his silver anniversary this year; Kulp, who soloed in 1943, has performed every year the Circus has operated. His humorous Flying Farmer routine began at the Circus 22 years ago. Currently a flight instructor, Kulp jokes that his act consists of "...all the things my students taught me." By watching his students' antics, Kulp found out just what he could get away with, he said. His act includes a wobbly approach in his Piper Cub that appears on the edge of disaster, and a spin from 600 feet, ending up 250 feet above the ground. At the conclusion of the act, Kulp lands on one wheel as the announcer implores him to lower the other wheel. When Kulp is safe on two wheels, the announcer begs him to lower the tail wheel, but to no avail: Kulp rolls to a stop in front of the crowd with the tail still up, as frantic ground crew members rush to help.
While adults enjoy The Flying Circus, it is a special treat for kids, a two-hotdog, two-sticky-thumbs-up afternoon. There is nothing truly scary in the show, no crashing into buildings as barnstormers did in the 1930s, just entertainment. These original aircraft (there are no replicas in the show) were, after all, the Blue Angels of their day. At the end of the show, kids are invited to go right up to the aircraft, touch the huge (for them) wheels, and meet the pilots. Then they lobby their parents for that super deluxe aerobatic ride.
Stan Parris, a former member of Congress and now administrator of the government-owned St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, and Ken Hyde, an American Airlines pilot and restorer of historic aircraft, founded The Flying Circus in 1970. At the time, it was similar to the late Cole Palen's Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome (see "The Air War Over New York," September 1994 Pilot). Parris got the idea when several friends who based their Stearmans at a small grass strip near Warrenton, Virginia, noticed that the aircraft attracted groups of kids to the airport fence. Parris searched for suitable property (today's present location), signed a lease, and put up the money for historic World War I aircraft, including an authentic Nieuport 17; replicas built for a movie of the Mercedes- powered, single-engine German Rumpler bomber; a Royal Aircraft Factory BE. (British Experimental) 2c British biplane with skids ahead of the front wheels to prevent nosing over on muddy fields; a Fokker Triplane; and a Sopwith Camel. He became the show's president. The show drew well, but Parris was elected to Congress in 1972 and no longer had time for the Circus. Some of the early participants in the Circus, including Norm Moore, helped get Parris elected by towing political banners around the Capital Beltway in Washington, D.C.
After the 1972 season, the founding corporation sold the World War I inventory to a pilot in Pennsylvania. The aircraft have since scattered around the country, according to John Frizzell, a founding director. The present-day barnstorming show began in 1973 under the current ownership, Flying Circus Air Show Inc., with Frizzell as its first president. "It is an interesting experiment as a living memorial to the barnstorming era," Frizzell said.
Parris's early dream that the Circus would pass on the heritage of aviation has been realized. "Several of our young people have gone on to careers in aviation: military air crew, airline pilots, flight instructors — they have just blossomed," a proud Moore noted recently.
This month the heritage continues. Performers will reunite on the first Sunday in May at 2 p.m. in the Curtiss hangar, to celebrate a few new successes. Then the pilots will mount the old convertible show car once again, ride to their aircraft, and plant the dream of flight in the imagination of a new crop of kids along the fence.
For more information, contact The Flying Circus from May to October at 703/439-8661 for recorded announcements. Personnel are available to answer the phones only on Sundays during the season. Do not land at the Flying Circus Aerodrome. Pilots may fly to Warrenton/Fauquier Airport (identifier W66) and call the Circus for transportation. Admission is $9 for adults and $3 for kids 12 and under. The Flying Circus is 14 miles south of Warrenton, Virginia, and 22 miles north of Fredericksburg, Virginia, off Route 17 on Route 644.
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