If you’ve never heard of wing walking before, you might think it’s made up; that real people couldn’t possibly partake in such an activity. It’s actually a storied sport with roots as far back as the early 1900s. Once you find out—as you just have, we suppose—that you don’t need to be a certified stuntman to strap yourself to the top of a prop plane and fly thousands of feet above the ground at speeds of up to 200 mph, it might catch your interest.
Assuming you’re curious about Wing Walking, we’ve assembled your complete starter’s guide to wing walking. Enjoy the read, and the ensuing flights.
In the aftermath of World War I, there was a surplus of propeller planes and many pilots who’d flown during battle were offered the opportunity to purchase the vehicles for well below their war time sticker prices. Out of this veritable explosion in the ownership of civilian planes (an incredible novelty for the time period), pilots began using their new toys as props to entertain populations of farmers in a practice called Barnstorming.
Barnstormers, so-called because pilots often slept nights in barns owned by the families they entertained, made a habit of performing low-flying aerial stunts for American townspeople and then landing on their expansive properties, offering a once-in-a-lifetime thrill ride, in exchange for cash or a place to stay. These men were winged nomad entertainers, using their machines and their flying expertise as currency (both monetary and social).
Though barnstorming enjoyed significant popularity during the 1920s, its appeal waned as spectators grew accustomed to the stunts performed by pilots. As is often the case in entertainment, something more outrageous was required to re-capture the public’s attention. Wing walking was born.
What began as a practice that saw pilots’ wives and girlfriends simply climbing out on the wing of moving planes to grab some quick eyeballs soon became a widely practiced and extravagant strategy. When standing on the wing of a plane became passe, mid-air handstands, target shooting, and tennis matches had to compensate. Though the dangerous stunts were performed with harnesses (as they are today), the 1930s death of Ethel Dare–a wing walker famous for switching planes mid-flight–prompted the US government to criminalize wing walking at heights under 1,500 feet, an altitude too cold and too dangerous to host any wing walker. The sport was dead. Then, in the 1960s, regulators in both the US and UK reinstated wing walking allowances at heights below 1,500 feet. Now, with supervision and special permits provided by the FAA or CAA, anyone who so desires can take to the skies to experience this unusual art.
Pros to Watch
Before setting out on your first wing walking expedition, you may want to take a look at how the pros do it (rest assured, no wing walking instructor will expect you to do much more than stand strapped to a plane unless you’re a pro gymnast).
There are two types of professional wing walkers. First, there are those who stand relatively stationary, performing small acrobatic maneuvers within a confined space. Video from the UK’s famous AeroSuperbatics team gives a flavor of that technique. Second, there are the Margaret Stivers of the world who jaunt all around a plane’s fuselage and wing area. All official wing walkers are always connected to the plane with a thick wire and carabiner to minimize injury.
Note: A third, unofficial, type of wing walking involves skydiving off a plane’s wing, like this.
Are you an aspiring wing walker, yet? If so, you’re in luck. There are a select number of organizations in both the US and UK (the regions where wing walking is most popular) where anyone can experience the action of open-air flying for a reasonable fair (usually no more than $300 or so) for an hour tour. It probably goes without saying that you won’t be allowed to perform any acrobatics while you’re airborne, but it’s a great way to dip your feet into the sport. If you really like it, ask your pilot for his or her advice on where you might take your passion to the next level. Pro wing walkers comprise an insular and shrinking community, but that’s not to say you shouldn’t attempt to break in if you fall in love.
Photo Credit: Smudge 9000 / Flickr.com
Equipment and Safety Tips
Unlike most extreme sports, wing walking doesn’t require a whole lot of equipment you can pick up at your local sporting goods store. You’ll need a plane, of course, and once you’ve got wings, a skilled pilot, sturdy harness system, and a good warm Lycra suit (to protect against frigid temperatures at high-altitudes) is all you’ll need to soar. Oh, and a pair of goggles would be a good idea too. It can get pretty buggy at 1,000 feet.