As Franklin’s Flying Circus nears its 50th anniversary, the third-generation performer reflects on his family’s legacy.
The flying Franklins started with Kyle’s grandfather, Oliver Gene “Zip” Franklin, who bought a 1929 Doyle Special at the age of 16. The eldest Franklin mainly used airplanes as farm equipment to fly between two family ranches, and he had his son Jimmy with him in the cockpit while still in diapers before the lad learned to fly — at only 8 years old.
Today, Kyle is leading Franklin’s Flying Circus, the airshow act that Jimmy, Kyle’s father, began almost five decades ago, and is set to celebrate its 50th anniversary during the 2017 airshow season. Franklin’s operation is the longest continually running airshow act in the industry, due in part to the energetic theatrics that accompany the aerobatics. While he was not coerced in any way into joining the family business, it is pretty clear that young Kyle always had his eye on the sky. It was kind of hard not to with Jimmy Franklin as his dad.
“My father wasted no time in exposing me to flying with my first airplane ride when I was two weeks old,” Kyle says. “As I grew up, my parents incorporated airplanes into my life, from my flying Snoopy nursery to a custom-made pedal airplane, a replica of our Waco, Mystery Ship. Although I flew with my father numerous times as a child, I made the effort to start learning to fly at age 8 in the same Piper Super Cub I fly today in my comedy routine.”
Kyle was taught how to fly by his dad in the rural ranch areas near the Franklin home in Ruidoso, New Mexico. These early training flights were anything but conventional, and simply flying the pattern was not how Jimmy Franklin was going to teach his son to be a pilot.
“My father taught me in a nontraditional style, to say the least,” Kyle explains. “He would take me flying in very rural locations to improve my low-level abilities, and he had a habit of chopping the power on me to teach forced-landing techniques and create muscle-memory reactions to those situations.”
Kyle was the world’s youngest professional wing walker at 17 years old when he first climbed atop the family’s Waco UPF-7, Mystery Ship, on Father’s Day weekend in 1997. However, those early wing-walking performances did not properly prepare him for the next phase of his career as an airshow performer.
“Our jet Waco took to the skies in 1999 and was the world’s first,” Kyle explains. “I began wing walking on a 1940s wood-and-fabric jet-powered biplane with a combined thrust of 4,500 pounds that could accelerate from 0 to 200 mph in six seconds. My dad loved flying that airplane so much that he’d sometimes get consumed by its performance and forget I was out on the wing.”
In the nearly 50 years Franklin’s Flying Circus has been entertaining airshow crowds, the Franklins have done just about every conceivable act you can do with an airplane. They have a reputation for constantly innovating their performances to add something new each season, and the 50th anniversary season in 2017 will be no exception. “We hope to debut a night act geared toward children with our Demon-1 Franklin Aircraft, Dracula, which I’ve created with the help of my girlfriend and business manager, Heather Hodge, and her daughter, Camryn.”
While the successes of Franklin’s Flying Circus have been many throughout the years, the family has suffered its share of tragedy as well. Jimmy died doing what he loved when he and Bobby Younkin crashed at an airshow in Canada in 2005 while performing their popular “Masters of Disaster” act. And Kyle’s wife, Amanda, died due to complications from injuries suffered after she and Kyle experienced an engine failure and crashed at an airshow in Texas
When Amanda tragically passed away, Kyle says he would have been lost without the love and support of his mother, Audean, and good friend Brad Donner. “There was never a doubt in my mind if I would ever fly again, and I refused to let the Franklin name retire from the industry with a tragedy. Even though I was still going through the grieving process of losing my wife and best friend, it pushed me even more to finish Dracula in the memory of Amanda and my father.”
Kyle is working today to keep the memory of his wife alive and has set up a trust that donates to organizations that were close to Amanda’s heart, including the Ninety-Nines, and multiple animal shelters and humane societies. “I have funds set aside to do great things in her name to help further women in aviation and save some furry friends. Although Amanda may no longer be with us, I will make sure she lives on in the memories of generations to come,” he says.
The full story of the first 49 years of Franklin’s Flying Circus has been one colorful tale with plenty of twists, turns, tragedies and triumphs. The saga of this airshow family would make an incredible book or film. Kyle is determined to make sure the legend continues because the last chapter has not yet been written. In fact, it may have only just begun.
“I’m going to start the rumors right here that Dracula is facing the possibility of going back under construction to have a jet engine added,” Kyle says. “When my father and I designed the plane, we made sure that hard mounts for a jet engine were incorporated, just in case. We’ve got some big plans for our 50th season in 2017 and beyond, so stay tuned.”