If you think it’s nerve-wracking on the wing, try being the one in the cockpit.
When I was a young airshow pilot, I couldn't understand what people found interesting about wingwalking. Most of what I saw was wing-riding, not wingwalking: A girl straps herself to the top wing; the pilot flies gentle aerobatics; she waves, he lands—exciting as Little Bo Peep.
In 1975, I met Rick Rojatt, the Human Fly, who was always in his Spiderman-style costume, even at the T.G.I. Friday's bar after the show in Lancaster, Texas. When he started moaning about his ride on top of a DC-8 airliner—how dangerous it was, how he thought he would not survive—I sipped my beer and thought, What a crybaby! How soon can I politely wander off to talk to the Red Devils or one of the cute and macho military pilots?
It wasn't until 26 years later, when I briefly had a wingwalker of my own, that I finally understood what he was whining about: By flying rough, the pilot really can break the wingwalker's neck; he can cause her to black out; if he does not know what he is doing, he could rip her arms out of their sockets.
For many years, the world's top wingwalking act was the late Jim Franklin's. He had been flying a wing act in his Waco since 1970 and occasionally had other pilots fly a wing act in his second Waco. Franklin had modified both airplanes extensively over the years, and in 1998 he added a jet engine to one to create a one-of-a-kind Jet Waco. The following year, his son Kyle wingwalked on it. The Jet Waco wing act became so popular that Franklin could not fill all the show requests. He wanted to offer something new, and in 2001 he called me.
Kyle, who grew up in and on his father's airplanes, had been wingwalking since 1997, when he turned 17. Over the next couple of years he would transition from stuntman to stunt pilot, flying shows himself in the piston Waco. In the interim, Franklin had wingwalker Carol Pilon flying with him. "What would you think about flying an all-women wingwalking act with Carol?" he asked me.
"I'm not sure," I said, since I had never flown either of his Wacos or a wingwalker before. "But I'll come find out."
Pilon saw wingwalking on TV in 1993 and became smitten with it. She had learned to fly, but had no airshow connections and no idea about how to become a wingwalker. There is no wingwalking school, no club to join, no sure-fire path to getting up there. Everyone's wingwalking background is different.
Stuntman Johnny Kazian started out as a trapeze artist and in 1970 became Joe Hughes' wingwalker. Lee Oman, a pilot and parachutist, caught a ride on a neighbor's Stearman wing and became Jim Franklin's wingwalker after crewing for him at airshows. Pilot Teresa Stokes went for a joyride in 1989 on aerobatic champion Gene Soucy's Show Cat and has been his wingwalker ever since.
At the other extreme, when friends suggested Margi Stivers get up on Hartley Folstad's Stearman wing, she first said "Absolutely not." But with her background as a pilot, dancer, and gymnast, she was a natural, and in 1991 she joined the Silver Wings Wingwalking team.
Stivers is the one who gave Pilon a chance to see if she liked wingwalking. In February 2000, Stivers coached her for a day and Folstad took her flying.
"What was it like?" I asked Pilon when we met.
"The first thing that happens is you stick your arm out to reach for the handhold on top of the airplane and your arm almost gets ripped out of its socket," she said. "Then you stand up and scrunch down into the wind blast, kind of like moving through rushing water. You never forget that first blast of air."
She made it onto the top wing, rode a while, then climbed back down. The following summer she hooked up with Jim Franklin, and the summer after that she and Kyle trained me.
Jim flew with me in his Super Cub—the piston Waco has only one cockpit with flying controls. He was not sure a woman would be strong enough to manhandle the Waco and counteract the drag of a wingwalker. It's a big lumbering elephant of an airplane, and it does take muscle to push and pull it through aerobatic maneuvers, but I loved the feeling of using all the strength I had to get an airplane to respond. I flew it solo for a while, then I was ready for my first flight with a wingwalker.
Wingwalking is a circus act. The high wire, the flying trapeze, the act with no net: You produce all these by flying. But first you must master the airplane. I could do that. Then you put a performer on the wing. That person, lightweight and streamlined in a leotard while standing next to you, is in the air transformed to a sack of concrete on a see-saw.
You must deal with this surprise on your first flight. I could do that too. What I was not sure about was the idea of someone's life loose on my wing. I'd seen The Great Waldo Pepper; I'd seen the wingwalker fall off. Never mind that it was just a movie stunt.
After days of flying and nights of listening to tales of wingwalks gone bad, I slowly taxied out with Pilon standing on the left wing, by the front cockpit. When I got to the end of the runway, I went through my pre-takeoff checklist, and Pilon hooked on her safety cable, climbed onto the javelin—a two-foot-long horizontal wooden bar attached to the flying wires to dampen vibration—and stretched out like Superman. We nodded at each other and I started down the runway. At liftoff, the left wing dipped under her weight and I used the ailerons to bring the airplane back to level. My mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton balls.
After climbing to 3,000 feet, we nodded again, and she climbed off the javelin and headed for the fuselage. As she stood up, the airplane yawed toward her. I straightened it with rudder and pulled the throttle back so Pilon could walk behind the propeller blast without being blown off the wing—at full power the blast is probably 200 mph. She walked swiftly but carefully over the lower wing, putting her weight on the ribs and avoiding the fabric between them.
She stepped up into the front cockpit, then reached for the top wing. The airplane bucked as she climbed up. She got in front of the wingwalker's supporting rack, strapped herself in, then turned, nodded, and gave me a thumbs up. I was still nervous, but I grinned. I could do this. I dived for my first wingwalker's loop.
Pilon was a skinny girl, but the airplane went downhill like a truck in deep mud. She had told me that when she is on the top wing, the wind buffets her body, and I could feel the buffeting through the fuselage. The faster I flew, the worse it was for her, but I needed 140 mph for a loop.
"As the plane dives, the pressure builds, and you have to do shallow breathing to suck air," she told me later. "You have to tense every muscle to resist the wind, or you won't be able to breathe, the wind will grab your arm and break it, and you'll probably snap your neck off."
I kept diving. If she were sick, dehydrated, or extremely tired and I pulled excessive Gs, she might black out. Her body would go slack, and the wind would grab her arms, legs, and head, and her neck could break. Both she and Kyle had had moments when they started to "gray out," the first step toward blacking out. Luckily, Jim Franklin had the walkers wave their hands behind their backs to signal Stop.
As I maneuvered, I kept checking on her posture. When I pulled up, I did so gently at first, then harder so the airplane would fly all the way around the loop. As I did, I thought of what legendary aerobatic pilot Marion Cole told me about taking a friend for a ride on the top wing of his Stearman during a practice session for the Cole Brothers act in the 1950s. Back then, a wingwalker did not have a vertical post behind his back. He was secured to the wing by four wires that stayed tight as long as he was standing. As soon as the G forces piled on Marion's rider, his knees buckled. The wires went slack and he fell off the back of the wing, hit the windshield, cut his head, and slid upside down into the front cockpit.
I flew around the loop, grateful for all the hard lessons people had learned before me. Pilon looked fine up top, so I kept the maneuvers going: barrel roll, hammerhead, snap roll, Cuban 8, then inverted flight. That was enough for our first time out, so I rocked the wings, Pilon climbed down, and we headed back to land with her strapped in the front cockpit on top of the smoke tank. It was the only time she would stay put: She wanted to be outside, on the wing, all the time.
I began to fly a longer, more complete routine. After takeoff, Pilon stayed on the javelin while I did a series of maneuvers, careful to keep the G forces positive, as negative Gs would fling her off her perch. I saved the hesitation rolls, inverted flight, and snap rolls for when she was up top.
The point is to showcase your wingwalker, like a ballet dancer showcases his ballerina. Put her first. Fly the airplane so spectators can see her move across the wing. Fly at an angle to silhouette her as she moves from javelin to cockpit. Get low and slow when the aerobatics are finished and she is hanging behind the wing rack like a hood ornament.
I did only a few wingwalking performances over two summers, so my show remained fairly simple. But Jim Franklin, who did not know the meaning of restraint, did some extraordinary maneuvers. His wingwalkers had to be tough.
"He put us through the wringer," Kyle says. "He was the first to do a torque roll and a tailslide with a wingwalker and even did a lomcevak and inverted three-ribbon cut with Kazian for 'That's Incredible.' "
In a tailslide, the airplane starts out pointed straight up, then slides backward until it whipstalls forward or back and then falls. In the torque roll, the aircraft does the same thing, but rolling as it descends tail-first. Kyle describes it from on the wing: "Once you get to the top of the torque roll, you don't realize you are moving. The engine is going full blast, but you are not moving anymore. The wind dies down and you could strike a match. Then you don't realize you are falling backwards until you start going back through the smoke, and then, as soon as you fall out of it, you have that sudden jolt of it falling over on its back, or forwards. Then Dad normally pulled around for a snap roll, which was like being a ball on the end of a string."
Pilon says, "With the snap roll you get swung out, then you get stuck in this negative-G kind of area where you are almost floating, then all of a sudden you get snapped back into the rack again and you are going the other way, like a zigzag carnival ride."
During the lomcevak, which is a wild series of twists with an end-over-end tumble, Kazian wore a parachute, though normally a wingwalker never would. Kyle says, "If the parachute ever got snagged and opened accidentally, all the flying wires become giant razor blades, the whole airplane becomes a shredder as it pulls you through, and you are going to destroy the airplane as you go."
In the early 1950s, Marion Cole and his brothers Duane and Lester did a three-airplane, three-wingwalker act in which Marion rolled inverted and cut a ribbon with his wingwalker on board while his brothers stayed upright, flying formation on his wings. Cole says all the wingwalkers used to fight for the chance to do it with him, even though flying with your head that close to the ground sounds outrageously scary.
In 1975, Joe Hughes, who had one of the most spectacular wing acts of the decade, did get too close to the ground. Right before doing his act at Reno, where the high desert air is thin and quirky, a World War II T-6 trainer slammed into the ground during an air race. The show manager launched Hughes to keep the action going. All was well until he rolled over for an inverted ribbon cut. Then a fierce downdraft pushed the Stearman down. The wingwalker, gymnast Gordon McCollom, was killed when his body scraped the ground. The Stearman's rudder ripped off before Hughes could climb again, roll upright, and land the airplane.
Pilon and I flew only two shows. The first was at Joplin, Missouri, in June 2001, right after she and Jim Franklin got married; the second was at the Harley-Davidson rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, in 2002, shortly before they split up. Now she has her own act, Third Strike Wingwalking, with her own Stearman and three pilots she trains herself.
I haven't seen the Human Fly lately, but when I do, I owe him an apology.