Pilot Journal
Monday, September 1, 2008

Bugs & Hugs


The “Glamorous” Life Of A Wingwalker


I’ve always been fascinated by people who voluntarily climb out of the seat of a perfectly safe airplane and onto its wing. My first experience seeing a wingwalking performance was at an air show in Florida, where a biplane in a power dive caught my attention.
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Transitioning from the cockpit to the top of the wing is like rock climbing; as she takes a step, Ashley moves the carabiner for safety.
During shows, Greg’s speed ranges from 65 to 160 mph when Ashley is on the javelin; he maintains a max speed of 145 mph when she’s on the top wing, as he dives for loops and hammerheads. He doesn’t ever exceed 4 G’s, but “I hadn’t done very much in the way of aerobatics so my G-tolerances weren’t there,” Ashley recalls of their first show. “During the first loop, I grayed out and just kind of rode along with everything a blur.”

Greg, who flies a fantastic solo act in the 450 hp Stearman, says the biggest effect of having Ashley on the wing is vertical penetration. When flying solo, he counts on around 1,000 feet but cuts that in half when Ashley is on the wing. Greg keeps the show above 200 feet, mainly “to keep her out of the bugs.” Laughing, Ashley adds, “A big postflight check before I go sign autographs is to give Greg a big smile so he can look for any dead bugs remaining on my face and, yes, on my teeth. Glamorous, isn’t it?”

With visions of Susan Sarandon falling off of the wing in The Great Waldo Pepper, most people wonder why anyone ever started wingwalking in the first place. Historians credit a WWI pilot cadet by the name of Omar Locklear as the very first wingwalker. A mechanic out of Fort Worth, Texas, Locklear started going out on the wing of his Curtiss Jenny while his instructor flew so he could work on problems with the plane. He became such a phenomenon that his superior officers asked him to perform demonstrations for other cadets, showcasing the stability of the Jenny. Wingwalking was born! After the Great War, Locklear and others, like Charles Lindbergh, barnstormed all over the country in a series of “one-upmanship” looking for new ways to thrill audiences. Disregarding any safety equipment, many died performing daredevil acts, from playing tennis on the top wing to hanging by the teeth from a trapeze supported on the undercarriage.

Today, wingwalking is an entirely different animal. I was surprised to learn that the most dangerous part of it isn’t falling off of the wing, as you might imagine, but getting hit by a bird! “The harness is designed to keep me on the wing even if I slip,” says Ashley, “although there would be some pretty nasty bruises if that were to happen.” So far, the biggest mishap has been losing her goggles during a routine. Still, one has to wonder if this is all worth it. “I love aviation and I love entertaining,” says Ashley. “I love the hugs and high fives from little kids, and the fact that maybe I can inspire someone to follow their dreams, like I have.” For more, visit www.gregsheltonairshows.com.



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