Bill FitzSimons says up
front he's no hero. Look
at him, you'll agree. Pudgy
and bearded at 45, a computer programmer for a rural Virginia school system, he has lower back pain and a soft lilt in his voice that pegs him down around Charleston. He darts his eyes behind your ears and around your shoulders when you speak to him, like he's looking for the guy he figures you really wanted to talk to when you made a mistake and started talking to him.
After a few minutes, he excuses himself. He has to get dressed for the show.
And as he walks to the hangar, the home-built one with a Purina checkerboard roof, you turn away and forget Bill FitzSimons. Across the pasture, on moist green grass below a hackberry tree, a woman in a Snoopy costume leads a kazoo band in the playing of our national anthem. She faces a crowd of several hundred on a beautiful Sunday: little boys, hands clamped over hearts ... bigger boys, keys to fathers' Chevy wagons heavy in their pockets, cheerleader girlfriends tight under their arms ... well-scrubbed wives holding hot dogs daintily in two fingers, and their paunchy husbands, men with bristly hair shoved up to a point in the back by the adjustable strap on their golf hats.
A scratchy recording of "Moonlight Bay" starts up, and antique biplanes bob through the air as if following the bouncing ball. The sun has warmed the beer in your stomach and your eyelids are starting to droop when there's a roar, a loud throaty roar that dives through your eardrums from above. It's Bill FitzSimons again, dressed all in red this time and standing on the wing of a screaming Stearman biplane, his arms spread like some fool eagle as the plane shoots an inside loop at 500 feet and 130 miles an hour.
Face pinned back across cheekbones, bugs splattering teeth, gravity is gone for FitzSimons. Earth is sky and sky is earth, and at the top of the loop he can crane his head up toward the ground and see HO-scale Fauquier County: red dirt and cornfields, silos and fences, the tiny dish-shaped landscape below.
There is nothing like it, Bill FitzSimons not so much says but rather kind of intimates in that short- phrased way of his. Nothing like being pumped up and body light at 500 feet and falling. Nothing like feeling ... well, like feeling the way he does when he rides the Loch Ness Monster at Busch Gardens, his favorite roller coaster. And this he can do for free.
Sundays from May to October, Bill FitzSimons is a hot dog, a wingwalker, a featured performer in the Bealeton Flying Circus, one of the two remaining antique air shows in the country. At the Flying Circus Aerodrome, FitzSimons and the others--among them a priest, an architect, a forensic consultant and an office manager--leave behind 9-to-5 lives led in the comfortable obscurity of a desk crowned with family portraits and a padded chair worn to contour with age.
Here in Fauquier County horse country, the men of Bealeton don silk scarves and jodhpurs. They throw a thumbs-up signal to the wind, bark "Contact!" and soar into cloudless blue. Left hand on throttle, right hand on stick, these ordinary men of the earth become legends of the air, or at least something more than they were.
They fly their wood-and-wire airships, popping balloons with a 12- foot wooden propeller, dropping flour bombs at a guy dressed in a German field marshal's suit who rides around the pasture on a minibike. When you get right down to it, it's really kind of tame.
But Bill FitzSimons, well, he's something else again. While the other guys are tied into their cockpits and protected on three sides, if only by the flimsy canvas that is stretched over the wooden skeletons of their two-seater planes, FitzSimons is unhooking his seat belt at 200 feet and climbing out of the front cockpit. Gripping a pair of wires that crisscross the wings, he inches out to the edge along a 3/4-inch metal spar, fighting the wind and watching his step, lest he put his foot through the wing.
On the first pass over the crowd he stands on the end of the wing and waves. On the second, he hooks up a safety line, wraps his feet around an N-shaped pair of struts and hangs upside down. With FitzSimons out there on the wing, his pilot, Ron Shelly, says the 39-year-old plane is dangerously unbalanced. Shelly has to fight the rudder to keep balance. He says it's like flying a two-engine plane on one engine.
FitzSimons scrambles back to the cockpit and Shelly aims the plane higher. Standing atop his metal seat, FitzSimons grabs two handholds and hoists himself, 100 miles an hour of wind smacking his back, up to the top wing. He stands on the fuel tank and hooks himself to a metal stanchion he made himself. The pilot dives the plane and then pulls up into an inside loop, diving 250 feet toward the ground before pulling out. Next, a glide, a dive and another almost vertical climb, this time into a barrel roll, a kind of loop with a 360-degree twist. The plane dips out and over the crowd once more, an airborne bow.
The audience goes wild. Bill FitzSimons makes nothing of it. "I just enjoy it," he says.
Come on, Bill. Say you love the danger. Say you have a death wish, or your wife doesn't understand you, or you have crab grass in your Scott's Windsor.
"Well," he says, pausing long as he always does when you talk to him --as though if he says nothing long enough maybe you'll go away and leave him alone, or at least finish the sentence for him. "Well, it does hurt your back because you have to hold yourself into the wind. I'm usually stiff for a few days afterwards."
Stiff for a few days afterwards. You get stiff for a few days afterwards, Bill, when you play golf with your boss on a Saturday afternoon. But Bill FitzSimons won't say much, even though you know there's more. You know that if you stood around long enough and kept on asking, maybe he'd finally break down and call his epiphany by name. But when you spend some time with the men of Bealeton, you learn not to ask. They won't tell you why. Why is the ice that flows through their veins. Why is the mystique of their fanny-patting fraternity. Theirs is to swagger just a little, not to verbalize.
Their wives verbalize:
"They're hams, they're nuts," says Arlene Bogert, wife of the field marshal and wearer of the Snoopy costume.
"It's a never-never land for pilots. They can do all the things they dream of," says Joan Culp, ex-wife of one of the fliers.
"You know how men are," says Dodi King, wife of John E. the flier and mother of John D. the balloonist.
Lois FitzSimons, Bill's wife, wasn't at the air field on a recent Sunday. But you don't need to talk to Lois to know that Bill FitzSimons is serious. You know a guy's serious when he's had a strip of Velcro sewn into the fly of his pants to keep his zipper from opening when he's climbing around on the wing of an old plane that's flying 50 stories above ground.
Recently, FitzSimons let the backup wingwalker do the show. Kevin Peppleman went up wearing a Notre Dame sweat suit. His pants blew down to his ankles and stayed there for the duration of the act.
"Yes," says pilot Ron Shelly. "Bill is pure pro."
Bill FitzSimons works for the Fauquier County School Board, programming grades and payrolls into computers. He took up parachuting at Warrenton Airport about 13 years ago, not too long after he sold his Citabria (airbatic spelled backward) stunt plane for a down payment on his house in Flint Hill, Va.
Two years later, he started with the circus, jumping out of a plane at 3,500 feet and gliding to earth under his square red chute, a red smoke flare strapped to his leg leaving trails as he stretche glided down to earth. In those days, the Flying Circus featured World War I planes and simulated dogfights. But as the fragile airships proved more and more troublesome, the fliers bought more sturdy World War II biplanes and took to barnstorming, that particular brand of stunt flying and derring-do that swept the flat prairies of the heartland in the days before the FAA.
FitzSimons doesn't remember exactly how he came to be the company wingwalker. "I kind of think it was my idea," he says. "I felt like we should have one in a barnstorming show. A friend of mine had done some wingwalking, and he had a picture taken of himself walking on a wing that he made into a Christmas card. I thought it would be nice to try."
FitzSimons said he was a little nervous at first but now, he says, "It's no big deal. I'm used to doing it. It's like driving a car down the highway. The first time you do it you say, 'Holy s---, get me out of here,' but after a while, it's just routine."
So routine, Bill FitzSimons says, "that I get a little tired of it by the middle of the summer."