January 1, 2006
At airshows up and down the East Coast, folks walk past Charlie Kulp unaware that he is a well-known, almost legendary airshow performer. There's nothing about him or his 1946 Piper J-3 Cub that screams for attention or notice. At 80 years old, perhaps he's past the need for attention. After more than 830 airshows, maybe he's just outgrown it. Or, maybe he never needed attention in the first place. The only thing flashy about Kulp is what he can do with his airplane.
Kulp is better known as the "Flying Farmer." It's a ruse he's been pulling on the public for 32 years. In his act, the announcer tells the crowd that the show will take a short break and during the interlude an elderly farmer will take his first airplane ride as a reward for years of cutting the airfield grass. Despite having seen him perform over and over, every pilot I know stops to watch as Kulp, under the guise of an untrained pilot, demonstrates some of the best airmanship and low-power aerobatics you will ever see. If a good, steady wind is blowing, he can do things in his Cub that only a helicopter can mimic...and a few things a helicopter pilot probably would never attempt.
Kulp has spent his life in aviation. In 1942, when he was 16 years old, he started on the path to becoming an airframe and powerplant mechanic (A&P) and a pilot. During the World War II years, he was a Navy aircraft mechanic. In the postwar years, he became a flight instructor. Along the way he has bought and restored numerous aircraft including a 1929 Fairchild KR-34 that now belongs to the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. When Washington Dulles International Airport opened, he flew his restored Pitcairn Mailwing to the ceremony. He was airport manager in Fredericksburg and Manassas, both in Virginia, and a founding member of The Flying Circus Aerodrome in Bealeton, Virginia. In 1990, after 20 years as the aerodrome's manager, he resigned to perform full time as the Flying Farmer. In 2000, the FAA gave him the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award for 50 years as an A&P.
Kulp is the kind of guy who built his kids a go-cart out of aircraft tubing and airplane tires. He stacked wooden soda-case boxes on the seat of his Cub and installed rudder-pedal extensions so he could teach his 5-year-old son how to fly. With a soul as gentle as the wings of his Cub, Kulp lives a life as simple as his airplane's and has captured the affection and admiration of thousands.
AOPA President Mark Baker and AOPA Foundation Executive Director Jim Minow are challenging one another to see who can recruit the most Hat in the Ring Society members for the foundation before the end of the year.
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