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Walt Pierce helps Pat Trenner try on his Stearman wing at 1978’s Oshkosh, Wisconsin Fly-in. (George Larson)

Wingophobia

Just a few minutes outside the cockpit was enough for me.

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Back in 1978, when, as an aspiring aviation journalist I would do anything to get a byline, I asked wingwalking-act pilot Walt Pierce if he would take me for a walk on his 600-horsepower Stearman, Old Smokey, at the annual Oshkosh fly-in. Over breakfast, Pierce, a genial, soft-spoken guy, told me what to expect, then welcomed me aboard the next day. For the short flight to a nearby airfield, where the airspace was ours for the taking, I climbed into the forward cockpit and stowed away at Pierce’s feet (Old Smokey lacked passenger accommodations).

After we landed, I eagerly climbed to the top wing and strapped into the back brace with its various belts and into the foot braces, which resembled the tops of old-fashioned roller skates, the kind you secured with a key. Pierce opened the throttle and the Stearman leaped off the runway. The climb-out was exhilarating, with verdant green fields and clear lakes shrinking below us. Pierce made some gentle turns and a few banks, to my delight. Now, THIS was flying! It nearly matched the rapturous sensations engendered by dreams of flying without benefit of an airframe or engine.

Pierce lowered the nose and dived to build enough airspeed to enter a loop. As we got to the top of the maneuver, my feet slipped ever so slightly in the braces, which were designed to encase larger feet.

Uh-oh.

It was impossible for me to fall off. I was securely fastened to the wing and to the brace. But common sense lost out to a sort of vertigo of the brain. I wanted out. NOW.

Pierce, hypersensitive to the care and comfort of a wingwalker, sensed that all was not an Ode to Joy up there on his wing, and descended gently to a landing. I crawled back into the front cockpit with my tail between my legs and we flew back to Wittman Field.

Later that day I watched the young lady who had been named “Miss Oskhosh 1978” alight from her victory lap on a biplane wing. Her face was streaked with tears and she was not smiling.

At least I didn’t cry.

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