To those well-acquainted with aerobatics, the name Franklin is a familiar one that conjures images of high-flying stunts and daring maneuvers. Lea County-Zip Franklin Memorial Airport near Lovington is also familiar to New Mexico general aviation pilots. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Zip’s family legacy, the Franklin’s Flying Circus. With the airshow season already underway, we want to recognize one of New Mexico’s most well-known aviator families and their contributions to airshow aerobatics and showmanship.
Oliver Gene “Zip” Franklin was born in 1919, in Artesia, New Mexico, a son of Leon and Ethel Franklin. At just 16 years old, Zip purchased a 1929 “Doyle Special” (the O-3 Oriole) and thus began his love affair with flying. Zip graduated from Lovington High School in 1938, then attended Eastern New Mexico College. He served his country as a member of the U.S. Army during World War II, before marrying his sweetheart, Valerie Jones. After the war, he became known as the original flying rancher, flying the 30 miles between his farm and ranch near Lovington. Zip and Valerie had three children: a daughter, Terry Jean, and two sons, Jimmy and Steve. Zip instilled his love of flying in his children, bringing young Jimmy into the cockpit with him at just two weeks old. By age 8, Jimmy was already flying a Piper Super Cub and it seemed his career path was set. Younger son Steve also honed his flying skills and became a pilot for Southwest Airlines.
FRANKLIN’S FLYING CIRCUS
At 12 years old, Jimmy took his first solo in the Piper Super Cub – when his parents weren’t home. Later that same year, he saw his first air show and began teaching himself aerobatics from books on the subject. Flying aerobatics over the next several years laid the foundation for his career. In 1967, at age 19, he bought a 1940 Waco UPF-7 and began performing in air shows.
The 2017 airshow season is set to celebrate 50 years of aerobatics by the Franklin’s Flying Circus, which is the longest running aerobatic airshow in the industry. While Jimmy is recognized as the founder of the Franklin’s Flying Circus, it’s Jimmy’s son, Kyle, who is the major force in the Franklin’s Flying Circus today. Like his father and grandfather before him, Kyle learned how to fly near his home in rural Ruidoso, New Mexico. His passion for flight soon went beyond conventional flying patterns as his dad explored innovative techniques and aerobatic maneuvers to teach his young son the art of flying. At 17, Kyle became the “world’s youngest professional wing-walker.” He first wing-walked on a 1940s-era biplane that could accelerate in six seconds from 0 to 200 mph. On Father’s Day weekend, 1997, he climbed on top of the family’s Waco UPF-7 (dubbed Mystery Ship) for the first time. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Sadly, the Franklin family has not been immune to tragedy. Zip Franklin was killed in an airplane accident in 1992, after departing Ruidoso for Las Vegas. He was laid to rest in Lovington. The family was forced to cope with loss again in 2005 and 2011. While performing at an air show in Canada in 2005, Jimmy Franklin was killed, along with Bobby Younkin, while performing their “Masters of Disasters” act. Within a month of the death of their fathers, Kyle proposed to Bobby Younkin’s daughter, Amanda. They were married in October, the day after a memorial service honoring their fathers. Less than six years later, in 2011, Amanda also lost her life from injuries sustained in a crash while performing with Kyle at an airshow in Texas. Though still grieving, Kyle refused to retire the Franklin’s Flying Circus. He set up a trust that donates to the causes that were dearest to Amanda’s heart: humane societies, animal shelters, and the Ninety-Nines, an organization inspiring women pilots since 1929. He also continues to do what he loves most: performing in air shows across the country.
HALL OF FAME AND AWARD-WINNING FLYERS
Jimmy Franklin was the first person to receive the Art Scholl Showmanship Award in 1986 for his ZAR act. He received the award a second time in 1999 for his showmanship in his Jet-Waco, making him the first and only person to receive the award twice. Other awards included the coveted Bill Barber Award for Showmanship in 1989; the Clifford W. Henderson Achievement Award in 1999; and the General Aviation News and Flyer Reader’s Choice Award for favorite overall performer and favorite specialty act in 1990 and 1996. After his death, he was inducted into ICAS (International Council of Air Shows) Foundation Air Show Hall of Fame in 2007 and into the EAA’s (Experimental Aircraft Association) International Aerobatic Club Sport Aviation Hall of Fame in 2010.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Kyle Franklin is the most recent recipient of the highest honor awarded in aerobatic sportsmanship. He has been selected to receive the 2017 Bill Barber Award for Showmanship, the award won by his father 28 years before. It is presented each year by the World Airshow News in honor of the late Bill Barber, who reached the epitome of superb aerobatic showmanship in his day. The presentation will be at the Theatre in the Woods, July 25, at the EAA Oshkosh 2017.
Coffman Associates is proud to have recently prepared the Master Plan for Zip Franklin Memorial Airport, and we look forward to its continued growth as a general aviation airport in southeastern New Mexico.
To learn more about Zip Franklin and his high-flying family, visit: