From the Charlie Kulp flew a comedy routine for 34 years as the Flying Farmer of Virginia. In the act, Kulp pretended to be a first-time airplane passenger in a runaway Piper Cub that he tried to bring under control, as the airshow announcer frantically called out instructions. In his 64-year aviation career, Kulp has managed several airports; performed in airshows across the country, in Canada, and Great Britain; and taught hundreds to fly. He was inducted into the Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame in 1997. Kulp spoke with Air & Space Editor Linda Shiner in November.
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A&S: What about the Piper J-3 makes it good for the act you flew for so many years?
Kulp: The visual trick. You have to solo the Cub from the back and the layman figures that everybody that sits up front is the pilot. But the other thing is the airfoil of the J-3 is a very, very good airfoil, and you can punish it quite a bit. It gives you little warnings, little slaps on the wrist, like "Don't do that again." [laughs] It'll tremble and shake and let you know where you're at.
A&S: And does it handle well for the kind of flying you do in the act?
Kulp: The main thing is…These little airplanes aren't built for heavy aerobatics. I used to kick mine around a lot, and some young people would come up to me after the show and say, "I didn't know a Cub would do that." And, knowing they probably had a Cub at home, I used to tell them, "They won't." Because I am at such a low speed, see. Speed is what hurts an airplane. And I'm at such a low speed when I slam it around, there's no pressure on the airplane.
A&S: How fast are you flying when you're performing?
Kulp: I'm generally running between 40 and 50 miles an hour, except when I go into the spin, I build up to about 100 miles an hour.
A&S: Wow. And what's the Cub's stall speed?
Kulp: It's right around 38, 39 miles an hour. And if you slam full rudder in there, all it's going to do is mush around. You're not hurting the airplane… [long pause] unless it stalls. Then you could kill the airplane. [laughs]
A&S: Ever come close?
Kulp: Eyeh…well, I've had some exciting times.
A&S: Ever crash it?
Kulp: No, no. This airplane has never been laid up. The last 15 or 16 years, I averaged 35 performances a year, so there was no time to get it disabled.
A&S: You mentioned that you'd seen acts similar to yours. Where would you see airshow acts in the fifties?
Kulp: Years ago, the Kiwanis clubs and Lion's clubs used to have airshows, and they would raise money that way. When the airshow business got too expensive, they started raising their money through carnivals, and they got out of the airshow business. Today, it takes mega-bucks to get airshows going. But I'd seen shows and flown in shows the Kiwanis clubs and Lion's clubs held. All the small airports used to have airshows. And the performers used to fly to make money. Like the old guy said, "It's either that or work."
A&S: How did you come to fly airshows in Great Britain?
Kulp: I went over there in '89, '90, and '91. There was a duke who had an estate in Badminton, England. The duke had a big estate and had his own private airfield. One of his caretakers was an ex-RAF pilot and a parachute jumper, and the duke let his caretaker start a parachute club there on the field. And that evolved into a show. He had a big fox hunt once a year, and that would bring in thousands of people in the spring. They started having this airshow in June or July and that brought in thousands of people.
A&S: How did you make the connection with the duke?
Kulp: One of the airshow pilots came over to the Flying Circus to look at an airplane one of our guys was selling. And he saw my act. He asked me if I would be interested in coming to England. About a year later—he had contacted the ex-RAF pilot at the duke's place—I went over to do a show. I got to know some of the airshow pilots and we hit it off pretty good.