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.
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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.