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Top-Flight Entertainment

By Karen-Lee Ryan
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 3, 2004; Page WE53

HEADS SHAKE and mouths drop open when a 1940s-era biplane with a man standing between the wings flies by a crowd. But eyes really start popping when the plane makes a second pass with the "wing walker" dangling by his ankles.

It's the culmination of the Flying Circus Airshow in Bealeton, Va. Every Sunday it brings to life the golden age of aviation, with barnstorming biplanes, a parachute jumper, pilots performing high-flying aerobatics and the wing walker, who performs his daring act without a parachute.

Yasmin Zarabi of Warrenton, with mother Karen, is ready to go for a ride in the Inverted Roberta. The plane, part of the Flying Circus Airshow in Bealeton, Va., is a Stearman built in 1941. (Photos Len Spoden For The Washington Post)

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If your kids like the historic airplanes they see on the History Channel or at the National Air and Space Museum, they'll love the Flying Circus -- maybe as much as the people who put it on every week.

Many Sundays, Roger Henry suits up in a bright blue jumpsuit, dons his parachute, goggles and helmet, and heads into the sky in an open-cockpit plane only to jump out moments later. After free falling for several seconds, he pulls his chute and sails to the ground while "The Star-Spangled Banner" plays in the background.

"It's a flashback to a bygone era," he said enthusiastically on a recent Sunday. "It's just so cool." He made his first jump with the Marine Corps at Fort Benning and says every jump sends him back to that initial experience. "When I landed, I said, 'That was great -- I've got to do that again.' " That was 35 years ago, and he's thrilled to have the chance to jump with the Flying Circus.

Jim McWhorter, a private pilot for 30 years and an air show volunteer for the past six years, flies the 450-horsepower Stearman that Roger jumps out of and shares his enthusiasm. "The circus, the fun, it gets in your blood and stays with you. For six months every year, I get to run away and join the circus. It's just awesome!"

Hearing the rumble of propellers and watching the brightly colored biplanes twirl through the sky, kids have the same reaction. "I want to come back," says 9-year-old Blake Coolidge of Great Falls halfway through the 90-minute air show. "It's cool and really fun. The airplanes are really neat."

Most of the dozen or so vintage planes in the show each week were built in the early 1930s, an awe-inspiring era in aviation's early history. Many World War I pilots wanted to keep flying after their service ended, so they put on death-defying barnstorming and aerobatics to attract people to buy rides on their airplanes, according to John D. King, president of the Flying Circus Airshow. Later the same planes were used to train World War II soldiers. "They're extremely strong -- they were built like tanks," says King, who is also a commercial airline pilot.

And for the past 30 years, the Flying Circus has provided the opportunity for people to see these old airplanes, he says. As the pilots and crew re-create aviation history overhead, an emcee explains the planes of yesteryear and a "baron" with a mock German accent adds a touch of humor to the show.

"It's great that we don't lose this history," says Joda Coolidge, noting that she's happy to get her son Blake "away from electronics and back to good old-fashioned fun." The show typically includes the initial parachute jump, the knuckle-biting wing walk, a handful of biplanes flying in various formations and several acrobatic routines that send planes vertically into the sky, twirling through loop-the-loops and hanging almost upside-down. There's also a demonstration of airmail's early days when planes picked up mailbags on the fly, as well as several gags, usually involving the baron. After the show ends, the planes and pilots line up on a grassy airfield to sign autographs and let kids and parents get a close-up view of the planes. And like pilots did decades ago, many offer rides before and after the show.

King says it's the love of flying that unites the all-volunteer crew to put on the Flying Circus Airshow every week. He notes that many of the pilots admired these planes as kids. "To have the opportunity to fly them is just incredible."

FLYING CIRCUS AIRSHOW -- Route 644, just east of Route 17, in Bealeton, Va., about 14 miles south of Warrenton. 540-439-8661. www.flyingcircusairshow.com. Shows run May through October. Gates open at 11, and the 90-minute air show begins every Sunday at 2:30. $10, $3 for children 3 to 12, free for kids under 3. You can pack your own picnic to enjoy before or during the show. Fifi's Cafe sells hot dogs, barbecue, chips, popcorn and ice cream, and a gift shop sells T-shirts, balsa wood fliers and other souvenirs. Many of the Flying Circus pilots offer 15-minute airplane rides; prices depend on type of plane and whether aerobatics are done and start at $30 for children and $50 for adults.

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