© 2011 Sabrina Swenson. All Rights Reserved.
The idea to go wingwalking actually came into my head this past Christmas while I was in the US visiting my family. My mother and I had 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 wingwalker"! I thought, hmmm, wingwalking, I bet that would be fun! Upon returning to Germany I started doing research to see if it was possible to give it a try. I checked all over the Internet and only came up with one place in the world that would let you try it; a small operation out of Upminster, England on the outskirts of London. Great, I thought, in all the world the only place is just an hour and a half flight from Frankfurt! I had to wait a few months as the season runs only from April to October. If you've been to the UK during the other months of the year you know the weather is fairly miserable at that time. The operation only runs on Saturdays and so I booked a date for the end of April.
After doing research I discovered the pilot had performed at over 1500 air displays over the past 25 years and is among the most experienced wingwalking pilots in the world. I was happy to read this. I figured with 25 years of experience this obviously wasn't some young kid (a comfort when you're placing your life is someone else's hands)!
Having lived in London for four years back in the 90's, I was happy to be going back. Upon arrival I took the tube about two hours East from Heathrow airport right across the center of London to the last stop on the District Line; Upminster. I then took a short taxi ride to the airport. It was a cool small airport with one grass strip and some fantastic small aircraft. I met Mike the pilot and a wingwalker from his display team. I got there early enough to watch the guy before me go. The display is only about 15 minutes long which I initially thought was a bit short but realized quickly once it was my turn why you go for such a short period of time... it's exhausting! Once the guy before me returned to earth and was all smiles I figured it was safe to go. Before going up you need to sign a waver indicating you are aware that the aircraft (which is an old US Army Boeing Stearman biplane) is over 60 years old. I signed my life away and went out to the aircraft where the professional wingwalker showed me where to step and climb to the top of the aircraft. Once in place there is a fixed pole/sort of seat that they harness you to. There are also some non-slip strips where your feet rest. I realized after takeoff what a good idea the non-slip strips were for your feet! We headed to the end of the runway and Mike revved the engine. He yelled up to see if I was ready to go and when I gave the thumbs up, off we went! As we charged the runway the wind blasted my face so much I wondered if my goggles were still on. My eyes were watering and my nose started to run but I was all smiles! And just like that, we were airborne.
I originally was disappointed to find out I wouldn't be able to move around on the wings in flight like they did in the old days but rather would just be harnessed in one position but thought it was better than nothing. After just one minute in flight I realized how ridiculous my desire to want to move around on the wing in flight actually was! How could you possibly do it without being blown off!
Mike stayed flying at a very low level and then proceeded to dive bomb the airport. He would then fly up and around and would continue dive bombing the airport and small aircraft on the ground. I'm not sure how close we were to the ground but we certainly weren't very high. The biggest problem I had was getting my nose to stop running. The simple act of wiping it with my hand was made all but impossible by the blasting wind (think category 5 hurricane). It was a major effort to even lift a hand as the wind was pushing against me so much. The sensation was similar to that of free fall if you've ever skydived. Cold, loud and sensory overload but fantastic all at the same time! After an exhilarating 15 minutes we returned to earth. This was a fantastic experience and was one of my most favorite things to do. If you find yourself in the UK and want a great experience look up Mike and his biplane. You'll never forget it! If you're interested to read more about their operation you can check out the company's website at www.wingwalkinguk.co.uk !