Goodbye, Silas Hicks

Charlie Kulp bids farewell to his alter ego, the “Flying Farmer.”

Charlie Kulp, 82, flew this Piper Cub (and wore those overalls) in more than 800 performances since 1973. (Paul Glenshaw)

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A&S: Did it feel different, flying another pilot's Cub from the way your own airplane feels?
: Oh, yeah. I've done over 800 performances, and every performance except four, I've done in my airplane. I used two different airplanes in England, and I used a different airplane in a little town in Pennsylvania. The weather was bad, and I couldn't get up there, and they had a Cub up there for me. But when you fly an airplane on the edge, or anything that's a little bit different, it can get to you. One airplane had a stiff throttle on it, stiffer than mine, and things like that when you've been with the same airplane so long, it makes it almost seem like a different airplane.

A&S: How did you get interested in airplanes? What got you started?
I was born in 1925. By the time I was old enough to know what was going on in the world, Lindbergh was still a big item. He flew the Atlantic in '27, but he stayed in the headlines for quite a few years after that. It wasn't just Lindbergh. You had the exploits of Howard Hughes and Roscoe Turner, Jimmy Doolittle—all of these individual people, you know. And to me it was just great to be an individual. A lot of kids thought about being an engineer—there's just one engineer on that train. Back in those days, we used to look at the captain of a ship or the engineer of a train or the pilot of an airplane. These were individual efforts.

When I finished high school in 1942, I went to work at the Blacksburg, Virginia airport. There was a government program for young people right out of high school. We lived in little barracks right on the Virginia Polytechnic Institute airport, and they gave us room and board. We maintained the airplanes that the college kids flew. In return, we were learning aircraft mechanics. And at that time, that was my only way of getting somewhere to touch an airplane.

The year before, my oldest brother had gone there and I just followed in his footsteps. By the time I got there, he had left; he had gone to work at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

A&S: Did you learn to fly at the college?
While I was working on the airplanes, we couldn't take flying lessons at the college, so I hitchhiked over to Woodrum Field in Roanoke and took flying lessons over there. We were paid $10.21 a month and room and board, and so we used to go out and pick apples and cut corn with a hand knife for 25 cents an hour, and that's the way I earned my money for my flying lessons. A half-hour lesson then was $5, so it took a lot of hours of apple picking.

Q&A: Had you ever seen anything like your act before?
Oh, yes. There's always a clown at an airshow, even before World War II. So I developed the act in 1973 in a Piper Cub.

Q&A: And was that your airplane?
No. I used to be an FAA airplane inspector. I was an aircraft mechanic but I could also do the annual inspection of an airplane. I used to annual this Cub for the fellow who owned it from 1961 on, so when he told me that he wanted to sell it, my oldest son bought it. I had been trying to get him involved in aviation. I taught both of my boys to fly there at the Flying Circus, but they never did do anything with it, so I gradually bought the airplane away from my oldest son. So it's been in the family since 1972.

Q&A: And is that the same aircraft you fly today?
Right. Like I say, I'd been inspecting and licensing the airplane, so I knew the airplane. Years ago, I got a letter from a retired colonel from the Air Force in Texas. He said he went on the Internet to see who owned his airplane that he used to have. And he found out that it was me. I also used to be a private pilot examiner; I could issue a pilot's license. He said that in 1954, I had given him a flight check in that airplane. I was at Hyde field then, in Clinton, Maryland. So I had given him his pilot's license, and he sent me a copy of a page in his logbook with the airplane's N-number with my name signed to it. It's a funny thing. I'd been around this airplane since the '50s and didn't know it. It was really nice of him to send it.

A&S: At the time you were a pilot examiner, could you also give a check flight to your own students?
Yes. Except I taught my first wife how to fly, and I would not give her flight check. She was a little upset about it, but I told her every time she made a landin' and she bounced a little bit, she didn't want people to be saying that I had just given her a license. So I sent her to the FAA, and she got her flight check by the federal government.

A&S: How'd she do?
Did good. But you know what I mean. If she ever did flub a landing, and all of us do from time to time, they would just say "Well she was just given her license by her husband" and I didn't want that monkey to be on her back.

A&S: Did you enjoy flight instruction?
Oh, yes. I loved it very much. But I thought they were throwing too much stuff in there at the same time. When a person was trying to learn how to fly, I thought the best thing was to teach them how to fly, until they got good, and then crank in all the radio, and instruments, and all this stuff in there later.

A&S: I like that idea. Kulp:
Well, sure. That's what knocked a lot of young people out of learning to fly. I mean I was teaching kids to fly. But you go to an airport today and the first thing they do is slam ten books up on the counter when you walk in. The kid's already in school. He's had enough of school. And I say the first thing you do is get 'em in the damn airplane.

A&S: Did you like teaching in the Cub? What airplanes did you use for instruction?
I taught in many airplanes. I taught in the Aeronca Champion; in the PA-12, the SuperCruiser—that was a good trainer. All of my training was in a tail dragger-type airplane.

A&S: Is that the way to go? If you want to fly a tail dragger, should you learn to fly in a tail dragger?
I don't say that. I had a lot of airline pilots who wanted to bring their kids to me, you know, because that's the way they had learned. But by then, we'd gotten into all of this fancy way of teaching, so I told 'em the best thing to do would be to go on and send 'em through the school they've gotta go through, then send 'em to me and I'll check 'em out on a tail dragger.

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