My first take to the skies on the outside of an aircraft was eight years ago. In 2010, the idea to go wing walking came into my head as I was visiting my mother in the US. We stopped at a small airport cafe for breakfast. While looking over the menu, certain dishes had nicknames like "the pilot", "the flight attendant" and there it was..... "the wing walker!" I thought, hmmmm, that would be fun! And so, after much research, I proceeded to the outskirts of London, where a wingwalking operation runs. At the time, it was the only place in the world to do any type of wing walking, unless you were a professional wing walker. They strap you on top of an old Boeing Stearman biplane in the standing position and off you go riding on top the entire flight. Dive bombing the small airport at low levels ensued. It was a fantastic experience that I enjoyed immensely. Fast forward eight years and I recently heard about a place in Washington state that taught wing walking like in the olden days where you can actually walk out on the wing while inflight. I had to do it and what better occasion than to celebrate my 50th birthday!
I flew to Seattle and rented a car for the two-hour drive to the small town of Sequim. When I arrived at Mason Wing Walking Academy bright and early the following morning, I found two Boeing Stearman planes parked in the hangar. The wing walker greeted me and as I was the only person who had signed up that day, we immediately began training. The entire morning we spent reviewing and practicing the wing walking moves I would be making. Over and over I practiced the moves learning what to and what not to do while inflight.
After practicing all morning and early afternoon, the pilot arrived, flying in on his own plane. I learned his other job was as a UPS 747 cargo pilot out of Anchorage, Alaska. That put my mind at ease about his flying abilities. Once he had the biplane ready to go, I climbing into the front seat. The pilot flies from the back. We took off quickly from the short grass strip and it wasn't long before we were enjoying the views. The Olympic Peninsula and the gorgeous strait of Juan de Fuca which separates Canada and the US is stunning. The water was a beautiful shade of blue. Upon reaching the appropriate altitude and slowing down to just above stall speed, the pilot wagged the wings so I knew it was time to get out. I looked back and saw him giving me the thumbs up. I left my seat, being careful to buckle my seatbelt as I left. If not, it could have possibly flailed around and end up wedged under the pilots pedals, which were just behind me. I grabbed the two hand holds above me, fighting the wind the entire time. I laboriously made my way up between the cables above me to the pole on top of the plane. I leaned against it and buckled into the four point harness. After giving the thumbs up, the pilot proceeded to do aerobatics including loops, barrel rolls and hammerheads. I hung on to the pole the first loop, but after the first one was completed successfully, I threw caution to the wing and held out both arms. After enjoying the weightlessness of aerobatics, he eventually returned to straight flight so I could enjoy the view. He eventually wagged the wings again, letting me know it was time to come back in. I slowly retreated to my seat, making sure I always had three points of contact with the plane at all times, I buckled in once more. You wouldn't think wing walking is exhausting, but it is. I was given time to recuperate and once ready, headed out again, this time to the lower wing. This exit was much more challenging as once outside and on the left wing, the prop blast was fierce. I was familiar with how strong a prop blast is as I used to skydive and getting out of the plane and onto the ledge while waiting for other jumpers to exit was always a challenge. I eventually made it to the javelin, which was located between the cables in the middle of the wing and wedged myself in. This position didn't have a harness, however, I was so wedged between all the cables, I wasn't going anywhere. Once I gave the thumbs up, we were doing aerobatics once more. My favorite was the hammerhead which consists of flying straight up for some time, a rotation and then straight down. In the picture taken from the GoPro on the wing you can see the huge smile on my face during this move. After much flying around, the pilot once again wagged the wings indicating that it was time for me to come back to my seat.
I could have spent all day in the sky, except for the fact that laying on top of the javelin wasn't exactly comfortable. Alas, my time was finished. I slowly climbed back into the plane making sure to step where I was instructed. The wing of a Boeing Stearman is partially canvas. One step in the wrong place and your foot would make a hole in the structure. A costly mistake! I made it back to my seat without incident and strapped myself in one last time.
The pilot brought us back to the grass strip and the hanger as I smiled from ear to ear. The professional wing walker congratulated me upon our arrival. People often ask if I was tethered to the plane. Yes I was. I had a long cable attached to me and the strut of the plane at all times, however, it was a false sense of security. If I had lost my footing for some reason and was thrown off, how would I ever get back? I would be flapping behind the plane like a rag doll. In the strong prop blast, I couldn't possibly have the strength to grab the long cable and pull myself back in. Landing outside the plane obviously wasn't an option either. That would have been quite a "belly landing" for me! Having thought about this in advance, I just made sure I didn't slip and fall!
My time wing walking in Sequim will live on in my memory until my last day. You simply don't forget one of the best days of your life!