"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.