A circus in the sky

August 15, 2002


The Flying Circus takes spectators back to an earlier era when 'air machines' were a novelty and pilots, just back from WW1, were anxious
to show off their prowess. The air shows run every Sunday in warm weather.

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See wing walking and other derring-do as thrill seekers take to the skies.
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The Flying Circus will be open both Saturday and Sunday for its Hot Air Balloon Festival. The balloons sometimes land in the fields of area farmers, who are often presented with a bottle of champagne.
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Balloons and planes hover over the farm where the circus was started more than 30 years ago, just a half-hour drive from Fredericksburg.
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The Free Lance-Star

DRIVE DOWN the gravel road and past the tilted ticket booth, and the time machine turns on.

Ragtime tunes jingle in the background. Little boys wait in line to buy balsa wood planes to build at home.

Spectators settle on wooden benches, saved from the heat by ice cream and chunks of watermelon.

The biplanes with their bright colors are ready to go. And the hayrides are hunkering down for the day.

Bealeton's Flying Circus is about to begin.

The shows take place in southern Fauquier County each Sunday during warm weather.

This weekend, the Flying Circus hosts the 29th annual Hot Air Balloon Festival. Organizers plan to launch up to 20 balloons each day, sending them skyward--up to 1,000 feet high--like giant, heat-powered kaleidoscopes.

"It's tremendously weather related," John D. King, president of the Flying Circus corporation, said about the balloons, which must be launched when temperatures and wind conditions are just right.

The festival will also feature children's entertainment, hayrides, food vendors, tethered balloon rides and the open-cockpit airplane rides always available at the Flying Circus.

And, as always, it will send the crowd back to aviation's dawning age and the death-defying feats performed by airplane enthusiasts of the 1930s and '40s.

"Americans had never seen airplanes before," said King, whose father, son and nephew are part of the show.

"They had heard tell of aviation," he told a recent Sunday crowd. "But they had never seen [an airplane] up close."

Pilots fresh from World War I were eager to show off their newfound knowledge of flying machines. And the postwar crowds were insatiable.

Wing walkers, skydivers, pilots and other modern day risk-takers still dare to do some of the same stunts at The Flying Circus.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the announcer's voice was lost as propellers started to spin and the bright planes roared toward the clouds, one by one. Skydivers looked like dots until their multicolored parachutes popped open on the downward drift toward the crowd.

The work of the wing walker seemed filled with peril.

"You definitely want to stay on," said Chad Davis of Clarke County, who takes to the wings of Kirk Wicker's 1943 Boeing Stearman. The plane was originally used to train air cadets during World War II .

Davis tempts fate by dangling upside down by his feet below the biplane's bottom wing. Then he wows the crowd by strapping himself to the tip-top and holding tight while Wicker makes the plane climb straight up in the air, then fall into a belly flopping back flip.

"It's kind of like riding a roller coaster, but you don't have the bumps of the track," said Davis, a professional driver and bartender, who was inspired to try wing walking by the high flying adventure film "The Great Waldo Pepper."

Wicker has taken his wing walking show around the world, from Nova Scotia to Guatemala. It's a tricky business, he said, but he hasn't lost one yet.

"You have to think of what's the worst that's going to happen, and you have to fly for that situation," he said. "We practice and practice and practice."

The Flying Circus air show was started in a farmer's field in 1970. It was the brainchild of aviators who wanted to bring the thrill of "barnstorming"--so popular in the postwar period--back to the present.

Eventually, they sold the circus to a group of members who owned biplanes. Thirty-two years after it began, the air show continues to re-create "the golden years of flight."

In addition to wing walking, parachuting and aerobatics, the circus keeps crowds entertained with plenty of comedic routines. Flour bombing, balloon busting, mail (and female) pickup--even a collapsible outhouse--keep the audience guessing.

Dressed in a Prussian helmet and dark lab coat, pilot Kevin Pierce plays the witty baron. He delivers a series of one-liners and drives a home-built monoplane transformed into a World War I German fighter.

Beside today's sleek jets and high-tech helicopters, the biplane's short body, bold colors and double set of wings are curious enough.

But the sound of the snarling engines and the majesty of the flying machines is what keeps Keith Roach, 35, coming back.

"I never get tired of this show," said Roach, who makes the trek from his home in Stanardsville at least twice a month.

"Isn't that a beautiful sight up there?" he said, bending his neck backward and shielding his eyes from the sun as seven planes flew in formation overhead.

Children of all ages scramble for the pieces of bubble gum and shiny confetti tossed into the crowd during the show.

And when the last plane has landed, and the gates to the airfield open, everyone gets a chance to collect autographs from the pilots and daredevils.

Ella Wilcox of Falls Church brought her sons, 10 and 4, to the flying circus for the first time a few weekends ago.

"It was an ideal family outing," she said. "Kids today spend too much time in front of the screen. This is real."

Copyright 2001 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.