Charlie A. Kulp Sr-His Last Flight
by Paul Sullivan
11/17/21 revised for VAHS
Charlie Kulp, a legend among aerial performers and master of stick and rudder flying in his signature yellow Piper J3 Cub, passed away quietly Oct. 17, 2021 in Bassett, Va. He was 96.
It seems an understatement to call Kulp a legend to thousands, if not millions who over the decades saw his Flying Farmer act at the controls of his Cub-the same Cub he flew in more than 800 performances at the Flying Circus Aerodrome & Airshow in Bealeton, alone.
The intricate aerial exhibition, which Kulp developed and improved over the years, also went on the road and across borders, with shows in Canada and three trips to Great Britain, where he performed for the royal family in a borrowed J3 Cub.
Although he didn’t originate the flying farmer act, Kulp refined it to point that thousands associated what is essentially an aerobatic clown show, with Kulp’s name and airplane. The idea involves a hayseed farm lad who stumbles into an airplane and proceeds to throw it into all sorts of wild gyrations. narrowly escaping disaster over and over.
The act appears dangerous and in reality does require risky low level aerobatics, usually culminating in a spin, starting at well below 1,000 feet (a long-time friend says he entered the spin at 600 feet). Kulp needed a waiver from the FAA to do this kind of flying, a highly refined craft on his part, that he managed to make appear chaotic happenstance. The entire performance took place low and slow, which Kulp-modest as always-claimed made it safer.
But for all his amazing ability to do the seemingly impossible with his Cub, thousands of others also knew him from a variety of related activities: manager of small airports, masterful aircraft and engine mechanic and FAA certified inspector, as well as a highly esteemed flight instructor. Indeed, to have been introduced to flying in the seat of a Kulp flown Cub was a point of honor for hundreds.
Ken Hyde, lifelong friend and retired airline pilot, said Kulp delighted in telling about an earnest young man who approached him after one of his shows and asked what he could do to his own Piper Cub to allow him to fly it the way he had just seen Kulp demonstrate.
“Nothing,” replied Kulp.
“He had a sly wit,” chuckled Hyde.
Don Serio, retired airline pilot and curator of the Shannon Air Museum who-like Hyde-was introduced to flying by Kulp, said he can still remember getting early flying lessons from Kulp many times after school in Fredericksburg.
Although Kulp worked at a number of Northern Virginia and some Washington area general aviation airports, the bulk of his mid-career efforts were at the “old” Manassas Airport and at Shannon Airport in Fredericksburg, where he was the airport manager on two different occasions.
Although born in Stafford County, Kulp moved his family to Spotsylvania County during the time when his three children were growing up, his daughter Joanna recalls.
Among his array of awards and honors, he was inducted into the Virginia Aeronautical Historical Society’s Hall of Fame in 1997, and performed at both the EAA Oshkosh AirVenture and Sun ‘n Fun air extravaganzas, among many others. At Oshkosh alone, normal (pre-pandemic) attendance was about 800,000.
Closer to home, he was a founding member of the Flying Circus Airshow, which marked its 50th anniversary this year.
For all that, said Joanna Kulp-sole surviving member of the immediate family, her dad was a kind-hearted man who loved children, and seemed to favor them when approached following his performances.
“The thing that stands out in my memory watching him as an airshow entertainer,” she said, is that he always took time with children. He wanted to stir their imaginations and put the magic of flight in their heads as something they could do.”
“Daddy didn’t easily say, ‘I love you’ Joanna remembers, “but I never for one moment had to wonder if my dad loved me.”
Indeed, and she recalled that her dad remembered the name of almost everyone he had met, if he met them a second time.
News of Kulp’s passing in mid-October spread quickly in the aviation community, with virtually universal sorrow and regret for the warm-hearted man who seemed to know so many.
Kulp lived in Manassas in recent years with his long-time partner Evelyn Marshall, 97, who was also long associated with general aviation and a fellow member of the Virginia Aeronautical Historical Society Hall of Fame. Marshall is the widow of the late Frank Marshall.
According to Joanna Kulp, her dad was initially hospitalized in Manassas after a major stroke last fall. From there, he was transported by ambulance to a rehabilitation center in Bassett, Va., for supervised care. He died peacefully on Sunday the 17th.
A memorial service will be held in the spring of 2022, with date, time and place to be set. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be sent to the Virginia Aeronautical Historical Society (VAHS), Mail Address: Shannon Airport KEZF Campus, PO Box 7795, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.