My Wingwalker

If you think it’s nerve-wracking on the wing, try being the one in the cockpit.

Peggy Krainz and pilot David Potuznik go for a spin over Gmunden, Austria. Krainz is also a general aviation flight instructor and plans to train wingwalkers. (Cornelius Braun)
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"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."

About Debbie Gary

Freelance writer Debbie Gary is a former Bede Jet Team pilot who still gets a thrill out of airshows.

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