Q: Can you tell me what you do for a living?
A: I’m what they call a wing walker, or, to use a more modern term, an aerial stuntwoman. I perform in an air show called the Flying Circus.
I am one of approximately seven active female wing walkers in the world today.
Q: How did you get started?
A: In 2004, I was going for my private pilot’s license and I was caught up in the idea of flying. My boyfriend at the time took me to see the air show. He said, “You’re going to love this; it’s the fun side of aviation.”
The first time I saw the routine, I thought, “How can this be legal?” You have to wear a seatbelt in the car and a helmet on a motorcycle, you know? My next thought was “It’s legal? Cool!”
I inquired to see if they were looking for a female wing walker and they were. Then I asked what was required and the president of the air show looked at my 5-inch heels and said, “You won’t be able to wing walk in those, that’s for sure.”
Q: How did you learn what to do?
A: I had a year’s worth of training. The training is very physical—I had to do lots of sit-ups and pushups. And I had to do pull-ups and develop a lot of upper-body strength.
Q: And what exactly do you do?
A: I walk on the wings of a 450-horsepower Stearman biplane. The wings are made out of fabric, so I have to watch where I step. I keep my eyes on the rows of metal underneath the fabric. I have to step directly on top of them so I don’t go through.
The routine is 8 to 10 minutes. I’m in the front seat and the pilot is in the back.
For the first part, the pilot gives the signal and, with extreme caution, I work my way out of the cockpit, onto the wing, and down to the end strut. Once I’m there, I stick out my arm and leg and wave to the crowd.
The biplane has two wings: one on the top and one on the bottom. They’re connected by what are known as the fly wires, which rest between the wings. The bar in the center of the fly wires is called the javelin. I maneuver over the javelin to get to the end of the strut. The wind blows so hard that it’s hard to get my leg up and over it in order to get to the end of the wing.
Q: But you’re tied in so you can’t fall, right?
A: No. We don’t have a tether line and we don’t have a parachute. Most maneuvers are at 300 to 500 feet. There’s not enough time to deploy a parachute, and also it would be too heavy. Some people will use a line, but we’re trained not to.
Q: Is it scary?
A: It can be. Getting in and out of the cockpit is the trickiest part. The pilot will slow to 80 to 90 miles an hour when I’m getting in and out.
After waving to the crowd from the end strut, I gracefully squat down and actually sit on the wing. Then I turn myself, putting my back toward the wind. When the pilot gives me the signal, I carefully lower myself underneath the wing with my ankles wrapped around the bar at the end of the strut.
There’s a rope I attach to my waist. I use this to connect myself to the bar before I lower myself down. This is a very dangerous maneuver because I am literally hanging by my ankles 300 feet above the ground!
For the next part of the routine, the pilot climbs for altitude and I get back out of the cockpit and pull myself up to the top wing of the plane. Once I’m up there, there’s a bar that goes straight up, called the stanchion, and it has a waist belt attached to it. I strap in and then we go upside down.
When you do a loop, there’s centrifugal force … There are 3 Gs going into the loop, then minus-3 Gs when you’re completely upside down. Coming out of the loop is like a really strong roller coaster.
Q: Do you remember your first time wing-walking?
A: It was really scary. I didn’t know what to expect. You do the routine on the plane when it’s stationary and then when it’s taxiing, but when you finally go up and there’s no net … I’ll tell you what: When I first stood up in the seat, it was like being in a wind tunnel. You feel like you can’t maneuver. For the guys, it’s easier, because they’re just stronger.
My first time up, the engine spewed oil at me. In training, they taught you to wipe everything down, so I knew the plane leaked oil normally. I just didn’t think it would do it when I was getting back in the cockpit! When I did, the engine spewed oil right across my face.
I was scared and getting really weak. I felt around for the handhold and pulled myself back in the cockpit. But the pilot made me get back out again.
Q: Do you wear any special gear?
A: I have goggles on and I wear something for my hair. I wear a spandex jumpsuit, because I’ve found it to be the most maneuverable.
I’ve always been afraid of a wardrobe malfunction. I heard a circus story of a previous wing walker who did the routine wearing jeans. He did a maneuver called the human flag, where you hold onto the station and allow your body to blow in the wind like a flag, and his belt came off and his pants ended up around his ankles! After hearing that story, I started wearing something underneath my suit just in case. The wind is that strong!
Q: What did you want to be when you were a kid?
A: Well, I never dreamed it would be this, that’s for sure.
I loved to climb trees growing up. I remember I’d take a backpack up the tree with books and crayons. Sometimes I’d even fall asleep up there.
Q: Do you make enough money to have this be your primary income?
A: A lot of wing walkers that travel can make 10 to 15 thousand dollars a show.
We’re stationary—we do a show every Sunday from May through October. I’m in rotation of one to two shows a month, so it’s a good job for me. I’m also a musician; I sing in a band. I love to write music and play my guitar.
Q: If you have children, would you let them do your job?
A: I guess I would if they had the proper training and I knew the pilot. My kids think I’m crazy. And my mom absolutely despises it; she won’t come watch me.
Q: It sounds like you’re more comfortable now than when you started.
A: I’m definitely aware and focused. In my training, I’d be bruised, but now I’m not as tense, so I’m not bumping up against things as much. But, starting up each session, I do think, “And I do this why?”