If you think it's nerve-wracking on the wing, try being the one in the cockpit.
- By Debbie Gary
- Air & Space magazine, May 2008
(Page 3 of 5)
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.