Not surprisingly, given the rural nature of Fauquier County in the early 1970s, the 200-acre field was a farm, with a quaint Victorian house for the farmer’s family and a livestock stream running through the middle of the fenced enclosures. Bucolic, quiet and an hour and a half from the big city of Washington, DC.
But to Charlie Kulp, Ken Hyde and a few others, the pasture was the perfect place for what they had in mind, and it wasn’t necessarily the field itself, but the sky above it, that they found alluring. It would be a spacious, secluded space they could fly their vintage planes, recreating the thrilling aura of World War I biplanes and triplanes, with airborne dogfights, wing walkers, French damsels and devilish barons.
And audiences picnicking on the ground below would pay money to watch them fly upside down.
It would be a flying circus.
That was 50 seasons ago, back in May of 1971 (which makes the 2020 season the 50th one they’ve performed). The Flying Circus Aerodrome in Bealeton continues to fly, with expansion plans for a new museum in one of the hangars on the grounds in the works. (But, as with everything else since March, the every-Sunday performances have been hampered by the pandemic shutdown. Shows are scheduled through Oct. 25, but check the schedule at flyingcircusairshow.com to confirm.)
The idea of a “flying circus” was not original, of course. The Bealeton Flying Circus founders were inspired by longtime aviator Cole Palen’s Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in the Catskills of New York. “It was like a one-man operation,” Ken Hyde recalls. “He had volunteers helping him and he did a good job with what he was doing and I always enjoyed going up there to see the shows.”
Hyde, who retired in 1999 after 33 years flying 727s and other jets for American Airlines, took another pilot to see Palen’s WWI show in October 1970 because he wanted to start a similar show in Virginia. The other pilot, who flew a single-engine Boeing-Stearman plane out of the same airfield as Hyde, happened to be a decorated Air Force veteran serving in the Virginia House of Delegates (and later the U.S. Congress): Stan Parris. With Palen’s blessing and apparently some political mojo behind them, the fledgling flying circus could take off. The first board of directors boasted some 17 members, several with their own vintage plane to fly, all financially invested and each with a different job to do to get the project airborne. Parris served as president and Hyde as vice president of the newly formed board.
Hyde’s job was to acquire additional planes for the fleet to supplement the privately owned ones. As it happened, a British film company had built several WWI planes for a movie called Biggles Comes Marching Home, one of a series of movies about a fictitious pilot’s adventures in the Royal Air Force. Alas, Biggles did not march home—there is no evidence the film was made—and Hyde bought the planes from the manufacturer and had them shipped to Warrenton where they were reassembled.
The company bought a Fokker triplane from a local pilot; an area doctor had a rare French-built Nieuport 24 fighter. “We had one plane from New England, one plane from Vermont, one from Ohio, and Texas and Georgia. We were collecting stuff from all over,” Kulp says.
If all of this sounds expensive, it was. But the pilots were passionate about putting on a show people would want to see. “As time went on,” Hyde says, “we realized we got a pretty good bargain, especially over in England.”
Hyde, 80, doesn’t mention it, but he’s well-known in aviation circles. The founder of Virginia Aviation, Hyde was commissioned by Ford Motor Company and the Experimental Aircraft Association and authorized by the National Park Service to build a replica of the Wright Brothers “Flyer,” the fabled plane that made the first-ever powered airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on Dec. 17, 1903. After considerable historic research—as it happens, the Wright Brothers didn’t write much—100 years later, the plane flew in Kitty Hawk’s windy skies once more in advance of the centennial celebration of the Wright Brothers’ flight, thanks to Hyde.
Kulp, who turned 95 in September, is the flight instructor and former airport operator who taught Hyde how to fly and trained him for his A&P Mechanics license. As the others in the company were working airline pilots with limited time on their hands, Kulp became the seven-days-a-week project manager and museum curator, Hyde says.
With the planes and pilots lined up, the crew spent five months preparing what would be the stage for their Flying Circus—the farmer’s field. They had to dam up and divert the stream, take down fencing, build the landing field and construct the hangars for the planes, among thousands of other details.
Preparing the grassy field was a major effort, “but it was the only place that would let us in,” Kulp says with a laugh.
“Actually, it turns out, I think, to be the ideal location,” Hyde concludes.
“Because when you looked,” Kulp says, “you could not see over the trees all around it; there was nothing telling you that you were in a modern time.”
This was important, because the goal was to take visitors back in time to 1916, 1917, 1918, when flight was new, when buzzing airplanes were novelties and when flying aces were heroes or villains, their accomplishments making the front pages of newspapers around the world. (In fact, the term “Flying Circus” comes from the name of the German fighter unit that was commanded by Baron Manfred von Richthofen—the Red Baron.)
Virginia Governor Linwood Holton (R) cut the ribbon at the first performance on May 16, 1971, which was hampered by a muddy parking lot and a mushy landing area. “The field didn’t perk very good,” Kulp says laughing. A local farmer furnished tractors and wagons to ferry spectators from his meadow to the airshow’s pasture, and the show, against all odds, went on as scheduled.
How many visitors were curious enough about the Flying Circus to make the trek to Bealeton?
“I would say somewhere up to 2,000 people,” Kulp says. The onslaught of incoming cars backed up traffic between Warrenton and Fredericksburg. “I remember a state policeman walked up to me and said, ‘Sir, y’all have a heck of a mess out on Route 17,’ and I said, ‘I know we do. Is there anything you can do to help us?’”
But the sky-high dream of the founders became reality, and the audience found itself under the action. What those first spectators saw is just about what they see today, five decades later: Music is piped in on loudspeakers throughout the complex; an announcer sets up the corny plots that the planes enact in the sky; skydivers waving American flags pop open parachutes; daredevil wing walkers wave to the crowd from the tops of planes; and elaborate exhibitions of aerobatic skills in low-flying planes quicken hearts.
After the first two years, the performance began to expand into “the barnstorming era right after WWI,” Kulp says, giving even more local pilots with vintage planes, but not necessarily war fighters, an opportunity to fly in the circus. It also afforded visitors a chance to go up with the pilots for paid flights, which remains a mainstay on performance days.
Kulp retired from flying at the age of 82, taking with him the character of “Silas the Flying Farmer.” The gag featured the heavily bearded hayseed, decked out in his best overalls, being offered a plane ride as a reward for the work he’s done as groundskeeper. After struggling to get the inept Silas in his seat in the 65-horsepower Piper J-3 Cub, the pilot, who has started the propeller, has to get out of the plane to check something. Of course, the plane takes off—with the first-time flying farmer in the cockpit. Silas eventually lands safely, but not before completing a series of heart-stopping stunts. Kulp also took the Flying Farmer act to England, Canada and across the U.S., and in 1997 he was inducted into the Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame. Ken Hyde was inducted in 2000.
These days, the airshow includes a performance by popular local pilot Scott Francis and his ultra high-performance MXS aircraft, a sleek one-seat plane in which he performs high-speed, smoke-spewing aerobatic routine. When he’s not in Bealeton, Francis can be found headlining airshows around the country. Francis’ wife, Teresa, assays the role of “Fifi le Bombshell,” the cheeky French woman who teases pilots for a flight—which never happens. It’s one of several on-ground sketches that keep the audience engaged while the planes climb into their positions in the sky.
When the day’s flying is done, the planes pull up to the gate and spectators are invited to see the aircraft up close and ask the pilots questions about their routines or aviation in general.
“It’s just so different to touch and feel the planes,” says Beth Sommer, another longtime employee of the Circus. “There are places you can go and buy a biplane ride, but to be at an airshow that is so consistently good and has been for 50 years is rare. And these guys are tremendous pilots.”
More than one future pilot has found initial airborne inspiration in Bealeton, including Sommer. The Warrenton native first started with the Flying Circus in 1986 when her brother brought her out to work in the ticket booth. She took an aerobatic ride in pilot Dave Conn’s Stearman (he’s still with the show) “and I was sold. That was it,” she says.
These days, Sommer is on the board of directors, manages the gift shop, works the snack bar, walks on the wings of flying planes and fills in for the character Fifi when Teresa is performing airshows elsewhere. She is also a private pilot, working on her instrument rating at Manassas Regional Airport.
She took breaks to raise her daughter and to work as a career flight attendant with American Airlines, but “I just always find my way back to the Circus,” she says. “The Circus is my family.”
Another performer in the show, Joe Bender, also started his circus career on the ground, at age 20, and is now a pilot and wing walker. He’s also vice president of the show and, significantly, he is 34 years old.
Bender, a grain farmer from Rixeyville, acknowledges that in order for the Flying Circus Aerodrome to continue for another five decades and beyond, new and younger pilots, performers, ground volunteers and others will be necessary to sustain the company. Happily, he sees fresh talent coming to the show.
“When I started, there were a lot of younger people but I noticed as the years went on, that kind of faded,” he says. “They might have been in high school and looking to get into aviation [by working at the circus] and then they would go into the military or become airline pilots.
“But this year we picked up another three young individuals that are interested in being involved and keeping this going,” Bender says.
The new recruits range in age from 11 to 21. Wait. What? Eleven?
“Both of her parents are airline pilots,” he says. “And her sister is 14 and they’re out there helping with the ground crew, which is pretty much where everybody starts.”
Including Bender. Circus personnel noticed the 20-year-old Bender was showing up each Sunday to hang on the fence and watch. Someone finally invited him to put on a uniform and assist the production on the ground as a volunteer.
“My first job was to take out the trash,” he says. “I helped set up the fields, set things up, take things down—all the hard work everybody else doesn’t want to do.”
After his third year he was made crew chief and, as it happens with those who get close to the circus, he started taking flying lessons. After four years with the show, he started flying in it, as the Black Baron. Since the character has dialogue on the ground that sets up the airborne storyline, Bender had to overcome his initial stage fright. “I worked around it and started to really enjoy it,” he says.
Discovering inner strengths happens to a lot of the circus pilots and performers, he says. Working in the circus “is a good motivation for people to get out and experience a talent they didn’t know they had.”
Like wing walking. Dangling upside down from a wing is not, shall we say, a natural inclination. “That just came from myself,” he says.
As to the fate of the Flying Circus Aerodrome, Bender says, “I think we’ll be OK. We’re looking at some good personnel that are willing to be part of the future.”