Sometimes the Rev. John Frizzell realizes how addictive it is, this passion of his.
There was the time he was copiloting an old British biplane. The sun was warm that day in May, and conditions seemed right for flying. Then a gust of wind slapped his plane to the ground and rolled it over. The wings crumpled and the propeller shattered in a hundred pieces. Frizzell cut his lip.
Still he goes on as he has each Sunday for the last 11 summers. His services ended at Annandale's St. Episcopal Church, Frizzell, 61, heads for Bealeton, west of Fredericksburg.
An hour later, his clerical collar replaced by a silk scarf, and leather flying helmet, he becomes a hot-dogging, barnstorming, master of derring do, a featured performer in one of the country's two remaining vintage airshows: the Bealeton Flying Circus.
"Wouldn't give it up for anything," he says.
There are about 30 others like Frizzell among them an architect, a forensic consultant, an office manager, a few airline pilots. Between May and October, they are drawn to Bealeton, to the silos and pastures of Fauquier County's horse country, to meet in a home-built hangar with a Purina checkerboard roof.
And a 2:30 p.m. Sunday, it's showtime. Throwing a thumbs-up signal to the wind, they bark "contact" and soar into the cloudless blue. Left hand on the throttle, right on the stick, these ordinary men of the earth become legends of the air, Red Barons and Great Waldo Peppers: "bold pilots wrote flaming history in the skies," an old program says.
Frizzell is standing this day inside the hangar, a World War II-vintage green felt campaign hat covering his sunburned bald head. He is genial, bushy-browed, a man God might trust as his copilot. First an Army Air Corps radioman in the south Atlantic, then a dress manufacturer in Charlottesville, his call from the skies came long before the one from heaven.
In 1931, at age 11, he met a barnstormer at a country fair outside Charlottesville. The plane: a Ford Trimotor. The ride: "Unbelievable. You could look between the floor boards and see the ground. I watched the grass moving and then the wheels came up from the grass. I thought it was incredible and I still feel the same way."
Twenty years later it was God's turn. Today Frizzell is dedicated to both.
To be in the Flying Circus is to make a commitment, a pledge to a $10,000 or $20,000 machine that burns 13 or more gallons an hour and breaks down a lot. But it's more than an expensive hobby. It is love, addiction.
"Flying is living, living is flying," says Brad Bowie, an automobile service manager from Fredericksburg, shrugging his shoulders as if it's all so obvious.
Out on the field, John King is strapped into the cockpit of his 1941 Waco UPF 7 biplane. A few years ago, King gave up his full-time job as an airline pilot to be closer to the Circus. He bought a 170-acre farm near Bealeton and laid an airstrip in his front yard, just beyond a hangar that holds eight antique planes in various stages of restoration.When the grass gets to tall, he lets his 30 head of Angus and Hereford cattle trim it back.
"The airlines are so regulated," King says. "The Circus gives you freedom to enjoy what you're doing. At 200 feet, you can feel your speed, see the ground go rushing by under you. At 35,000 feet you feel like you're standing still."
The Waco's 220 horsepower engine is revving, its cockpit vibrating. It turns, pivoting on one wheel like a tractor, then bounds across the grass past an aged Hackberry tree, gaining speed until it is airborne. Bugs splatter King's goggles. Below is HO-scale Fauquier. Red dirt and corn fields, the plane's shadow speeding by.
Once around the airstrip and the Waco climbs upward, gravity pinning passenger and pilot in their leather-covered seats. The plane slows, stalls, flips lazily earthward, dives. The compass needle whirls. Sky becomes ground, ground becomes sky . . . 400 feet . . . 350 . . . 300 . . . 250 . . . The engine roars again and the Waco dips out low over a wheat field.
"The demands, the danger brings out the best in our people," says Crystal City office manager Jerry Reider, 54, another flyer. There is bravado in his voice. "The sort of flying we do out here has all the elements of danger . . . the kinds of things professional pilots are taught to avoid. But when you're showing off, knowing that hundreds, sometimes thousands of people are watching, you just have to be as precise as possible."
But the flyers at the Flying Circus are breaking maybe 120 mph, not the sound barrier. And if they do approach the edge, it's only for a quick glimpse.
"Everbody wants to get to work on Monday," says Bowie.
His reason for doing the Circus, says Bowie, -- echoing many of the others in a kind of sentiment found around antique car expositions and tatoo conventions -- is not only for fun, but as a kind of public service:
"So many people are those old Errol Flynn type movies," he says. "You know, with the war hero and his silk scarf and all. We enjoy giving the people who come out every week a taste of the movies, making their fantasies come true. It's like a time warp for them."
They say they don't invite the public for the money. "We do it for the glory," Bowie says. "On weekends, we all have a common bond. We don't want to see this field get away from us, ever. It's all for the love of flying.Sounds kind of dramatic, but that's the name of that tune." Bowie has missed only five Sundays in 11 years.
It is getting late and the paying crowd has gone. A core of about 15 Circus men and their families is sitting around a picnic table in a grove where several of them have parked their campers for the weekend.
In the afterglow, the Flying Circus is more a club now, a church outing, and the men have gathered their "flying widows and orphans" around them once more.Like golf, like Monday night football, the Flying Circus is a hobby that has taken its marital toll. "I have seen a few divorces start, happen and finish out here," says Dodie King, wife of Big John. With those, mostly, the woman splits and never shows at the Circus again. Some, like John Culp, come anyway. It gets in their blood, too.
So, every Sunday, Arlene Bogert dons a Snoopy costume for the shows. During the week, she attends ground flight school Northern Virginia Community College and has recently invested in a Corbin Jr. Ace of her own. And, she says proudly, "I'm the only woman here who can prop [start] a plane."
The sun is low now. Over on the airfield, under the Hackberry tree, Kirk Dewyea, 14, is scurrying about, picking up the last of the equipment.
Since early that morning he has hustled around the field in his khaki-cotton flight helmet and goggles and his boy's size 16 official Flying Circus shirt. He started working at the Cross three years ago, after spending more than $200 on the $20-to-$40 plane rides offered before the show.
"When I fly, well, you get a certain feeling," he says. "It makes you happy, I guess. To me, it's as important as living."