The Adrenalist

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The Art Of Wing Walking



Wing Walker from Jeff Allen Productions on Vimeo.

When looking out of the window of a 747 commercial airliner, sometimes a mirage will appear with an unknown soul riding the wing of the plane. A startled passenger will blink and the apparition disappears, but for a few crazy seconds, a passenger can believe someone is out there. This specter on the wing is a reality though; wing walkers continue to dazzle and amaze grounded spectators with the brave ventures out on the wing of an airplane.

 But how did this insane idea actually originate?

 Starting with Ormer Locklear, Ethal Dare, Mabel Cody, Charles Lindbergh and Bessie Coleman then continuing to Johnny Kazian and Eddie “The Grip” Green, wing walking has attracted an assortment of characters to barnstorming tours, movie stunts and air shows. But, in the beginning, one man got on a plane’s wing simply to fix a mechanical problem mid-flight. You heard us right.

Ormer Locklear was a swashbuckling U.S. Army Air Force pilot (later just the Air Force) during WWI. During his time in the service, he trained in Austin, TX and became a flight instructor. While flying, Locklear was a proponent of “wing walking” during mid-air flights to fix mechanical problems. After the war ended, he caught a barnstorming tour featuring pilots and realized he was performing more amazing stunts like his wing walking. So he quit his post-war job as a recruiter in the Air Force, and joined the tour eventually forming his own group and landing in movie production in California. Movie stunts just got a whole lot crazier.

While performing a stunt for the movie The Skywayman in 1920, Locklear was supposed to crash a plane into a set of oil derricks. He warned the crew to dim the lights when he approached the derricks so he could see when to jump, but they failed to heed his advice, and blinded by the light, he went up in the crash. The film showed the entire horrible aftermath of his death, and 7 other wing walkers died in 1920. This didn’t stop its popularity throughout the “flapper” and speakeasy roaring 20’s when the economy was soaring.

Some other notable wing walkers from that time are Ethal Dare, the female counterpart to Locklear; Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman to obtain her pilot’s license; and Mabel Cody, the niece of Buffalo Bill Cody. Even world-famous aviator, Charles Lindburgh, performed wing-walking demonstrations during this era.

After the depression hit to start the 1930’s, wing walking became less popular as fewer people could afford to watch, and many of the barnstorming tours stopped—along with the groups that performed in them. The Air Commerce Act of 1938, made wing walking illegal without a parachute, also hastened the end of wing walking without safety ropes or a parachute to save you when you falled.

In the 1970’s Ron David and his Flying Circus, based in Virginia, started touring again and featuring wing walkers, except this time, they had to be attached to the upper wing center section.

Perhaps the most famous wing walker during this period was Johnny Kazian, a stuntman that created newer and more daring stunts on more powerful planes than they had in the 1920’s and 30’s. Starting in 1965, Kazian performed (largely without safety lines) for Hollywood movies and more mainstream air shows for the next four decades. He even passed on the exciting allure of wing walking to his son Tony Kazian, who today is the lead performer for pilot David Dacy’s Kazian group.

Wing walker Margaret Stivers, once said of Johnny Kazian, “Johnny set the standard by which we still try and reach for today.  He is the greatest.” (via) 

Joining Johnny in the early stages of contemporary wing walking was Eddie “The Grip” Green. Eddie has performed perhaps the most speeding car to plane transfers of anyone in history.

Nitro Circus – Biplane Wing Walking from Nitro Circus on Vimeo.

“At 3.187 transfers, it is safe to say Eddie has boarded an airplane from a speeding car via a rope ladder more times than any other human being.” (via)

After 45 years of aerial stunts and wing walking, Eddie—much like Johnny Kazian—passed the practice on to his son Todd. Both Eddie and Johnny and now their sons, truly set the standard by which today’s wing walkers perform.

Safety has improved since Ormer Locklear’s crash on a 1920 movie set, but today’s wing walkers are still at risk (NSF all ages). During an air show in Michigan, in August of this year, Eric Green, another son of Ernie “The Grip” Green, plummeted to his death from 200 feet in the air while trying to move from a plane to a helicopter. He had done the stunt hundreds of times before. As one spectator said: “Even when the announcer said it wasn’t a part of the show, it still felt surreal. It wasn’t until the ambulance came that it set in.” It’s a sober reminder of the risks these wing walkers undertake every time they step outside a plane’s seat.

The Breitling Group, Girls with Wings and Silver Wings are three contemporary wing-walking troupes that still play in the sky during the new millennium and bare a striking likeness to the barnstorming groups of yesteryear. These groups continue to inspire a new generation of wing walkers. Even one courageous 8-year-old, Tiger Brewer of Gloucester England, became the youngest person to wing walk in 2009.  Wing walking groups and individuals still straddle the line between crazy and enlightened as they confidently stand on the wings of planes thousands of feet in the air.

Whether during the barnstorming tours of the early 1920’s, spawned by Ormer Locklear during the war, or the later improvements in stunts and planes used for wing walking by Johnny Kazian and Eddie Green, these wing walking innovators still awe their high-flying doppelgangers on today’s planes. The danger is still very much a part of the barnstorming past, but a true Adrenalist wouldn’t want it any other way.

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