So, I had to ask, how does one go from no wingwalking experience to show-qualified? “Very carefully,” says Ashley. “Imagine rock climbing in hurricane-force winds—in tights, having to smile and wave at an audience—and not looking terrified!” After witnessing Ashley climb to the top wing of the Stearman during the air-to-air shoot for this article, it’s clear that it is
a lot like rock climbing. Her initial training started on the ground, where she worked on getting her footing down cold, transitioning from the front cockpit to the top-wing rack and the javelin (a piece of wood the size of a broom handle that keeps the guy-wire vibration to a minimum), and back to the cockpit. Around her waist is a safety harness with a carabiner, and just like a rock climber, as she takes a step, she moves the carabiner to different parts of the plane’s wing bracing for security.
At some point, anyone who wingwalks must take that initial first step out of the seat belt. “Because it’s so loud in the cockpit, and I can’t wear a headset, we worked out a series of visual cues to communicate,” explains Ashley. A wing waggle by Greg signals to Ashley that it’s time to climb out or to come back in. If Ashley crouches low on the wing and/or gives a thumbs-down sign, Greg will stop the show, slow down and fly straight and level.
“So, it’s the first time to climb out of the cockpit at our first air show, in Bartlesville, Oklahoma,” recalls Ashley. “I remember worrying about how I would distinguish between turbulence and Greg’s signal to get out on the wing. My answer came soon enough as my head nearly hit the side of the cockpit when Greg vigorously rocked the wings!”
She started to climb up, one foot after another, being careful to follow her practiced route. The wind strength took her by surprise: “I reach for the top-wing rack, and my arm blows behind my head. At this moment, I realize all of my ground rehearsal has gone to the wind (literally); I hadn’t anticipated the body positions I would need to combat the wind.” She went on to describe how she had to swallow her fear and just focus on where to place each hand and foot. “It was so hard to breathe, and just when I wondered how I would be able to stand up, I pulled my last limb onto the top wing, out of the propwash, and I was pleasantly surprised that the turbulence wasn’t that bad!” To help Ashley out with the transition, Greg made sure to have enough altitude to throttle way back so that the propwash was minimized and there was room for a shallow descent to maintain airspeed.
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