The Aerial Jockey

Wing walkers recall the halcyon days of barnstorming

April 1, 2004

Joanna Simpson may not fit some people's mental picture of a wing walker. There's no forced smile or canned airshow patter, much less the requisite leather jacket and scarf. Wearing green hospital scrubs, the diminutive phlebotomist — a medical professional who draws blood — exudes a quiet confidence that seems to indicate that anything is possible.

A new airshow season was about to begin. So over lunch at a hotel near Washington Dulles International Airport, this 40-year-old, self-described tomboy explained how she became a wing walker, a vocation that enjoyed its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s with barnstormers.

"I was bored. My son was going into the Army. It seemed like a good idea at the time," said Simpson shyly, as if there really wasn't much to the story. Seeing the "there must be more to it than that" look on the writer's face, she blurted: "It's all Kirk's fault."

Kirk, it turns out, is Kirk Wicker, pilot and president of the Virginia-based Beauty and the Beast Wing Walking. When they met, Wicker was scouting for another walker to round out his troupe. Over drinks and dinner Wicker, who installs swimming pools by day, told Simpson about his other passion, airshow performing. At 5 feet 2 inches and 105 pounds, Simpson is the perfect size for a wing walker. "Wing walkers are a lot like jockeys. The smaller, lighter, and stronger the better," said Walt Pearce, a noted airshow pilot. Even with a wing walker of Simpson's diminutive size, there's nothing easy about piloting an aircraft while someone scurries from one wing to the other. During the performance, the pilot has his hands full, making numerous corrections of opposite rudder and aileron just to maintain level flight. The farther down the wing the walker moves, the more aileron and rudder must be applied. It's a workout.

"It's like flying an aircraft that is extremely out of trim a lot of the time as far as roll control is concerned," Wicker said.

Apart from her size, Simpson had the aptitude and calm enthusiasm necessary for wing walking, noted Wicker. Mindless daredevils he could do without. But could she handle the G forces of aerobatic flying and the mental strain of walking untethered while being buffeted by 100-mph winds and rocked by turbulence?

An orientation flight was arranged for the following weekend in Wicker's red-and-white 450 Stearman. Built in 1943, this Stearman has been modified from the stock 220-horsepower version, with the larger 450-horsepower Pratt & Whitney radial engine. Bigger fuel tanks, a smoke system, extra landing wires for greater stability, a cowling, and wheelpants round out the extras on the sassy-looking plane.

A number of pilots concur that the Stearman is the ideal wing-walking aircraft because of its ruggedness and in-flight stability. Originally made as a trainer for World War II cadets, the Stearman also has numerous wing wires onto which the walker can hold. More important, parts for the Stearman can still be obtained from Dusters & Sprayers Supply, of Chickasha, Oklahoma.

For Simpson's first flight — her first in any small aircraft, it turns out — Wicker performed a few standard rolls and quick turns from his act, then landed. Simpson kept her breakfast down and appeared unafraid of aerobatics. Another, more intensive flight was arranged. But the result was the same. She remained rock solid and anxious for more. Wicker decided to take a chance on the daytime blood-taker.

For the next six weeks, Wicker and his ex-wife, Jane, an accomplished wing walker, put Simpson through a grueling ground school where she learned the exact routine she would perform in the air. A basic flight tutorial was included, as were safety and emergency procedures. In wing walking, nothing is left to chance.

She learned how to walk, where to step, and what to grasp. She drilled repeatedly, until her required moves became instinctive. She learned, for instance, how to scamper from the front seat to the top wing and harness herself into the upright stanchion before Wicker performed aerobatics. She practiced walking the lower wing from one side to the other, weaving in and out of the wing wires, careful to walk only on the narrow spar so as not to put her foot through the wing's fabric. She learned how to lie down effortlessly in a Super Woman pose on the Javelin strut, a wooden, dowellike, anti-vibration device that runs parallel to the wings.

She became expert at the "hang down," a risky and dramatic stunt for which she wraps her ankles around a strut at the end of the lower wing and drops below, all the while waving to the crowd like a happy child on monkey bars. In flight, Wicker inverts the Stearman for part of this stunt, giving the illusion that Simpson is sitting on the wing.

After unofficial graduation, she took to the air. Wicker kept the speed of the Stearman around 70 knots while Simpson transitioned from one maneuver to the next. While willing to add risky stunts to the act, Wicker insists on safety first. For the hang-down maneuver, Simpson wears a rock-climber's harness equipped with a D-ring hooked to a safety rope at the end of the wing. Despite precautions and constant training, there's always the risk of something going wrong. In the summer of 2002, something did.

It was the day before Simpson was to debut at the Bealeton Flying Circus, the oldest continuously running airshow, located 40 miles outside of Washington, D.C.

During the later part of the hang-down stunt, while Wicker returned to level flight, Simpson's feet splayed, leaving one leg dangling beneath the wing. Unable to pull herself upright, Simpson kicked her free leg wildly to warn Wicker that she was in trouble. Immediately, he initiated an emergency landing. Moments before touchdown, Wicker bled off additional speed, giving Simpson time to pull herself into a fetal position under the wing to avoid an unwanted encounter with the landing strip. As an additional precaution, he set the Stearman down on the opposite landing gear, giving Simpson time to spin around, so her head was under the wing while her feet dangled behind. Except for some grass burns and a sprained wrist, the fledgling wing walker emerged unscathed, but understandably shook up.

Not wanting to lose his talented protégée, Wicker took a brick-and-olive-branch approach. He recommended Simpson take the afternoon off, but insisted she be primed for the next day's show. And prepared she was.

The weather and crowds were good, she remembered between bites of her lunch. The performance is still fresh in her mind, as if it just happened.

She changes into her costume, which itself is a study in contrasts — part historical figure, part Star Wars character. Her ensemble consists of a neoprenelike suit with a safety belt. On her head she wears a 1930s-era flight cap and goggles. For her feet, Simpson dons a pair of Nike slip-ons with deep treads for good traction.

Show time. She and Wicker head for the airplane, waving enthusiastically to the crowd before strapping in. She's up front; he's in the back. Once airborne, Simpson climbs immediately to the top wing like a tree-bound monkey scouting for high-hanging fruit. She belts herself tightly onto the stanchion, while Wicker attains the necessary altitude to prepare for the upcoming routine. Suddenly he puts the Stearman into a steep dive, with Simpson along for the ride. She keeps her head still, her body compact, her arms close. Less drag on the aircraft is one reason, certainly, but she also doesn't want to tear a muscle during the dive.

"It's like being on the best roller coaster imaginable without the jerking," she recalled.

At 145 knots, Wicker yanks back on the yoke and begins a series of Cuban-eight rolls, hammerhead turns, loops, and a turnaround, followed by more rolls. Then he initiates the "picture pass," a hokey, but crowd-pleasing maneuver for which the pilot drops one wing during a slow flyby, revealing Simpson in her best wing-walker pose. A staccato symphony of camera shutters erupts from the viewing stand.

From there, Simpson transitions back to the cockpit for a quick rest. Then she's off again to check out the real estate on the lower wing, where she performs the "lay-down" maneuver on the javelin strut and the ever-difficult hang-down stunt. In 20 minutes, the show is over and both are relieved and exhausted, yet wired from the rush.

One of the more difficult aspects of being a wing walker in your spare time is keeping up with the sometimes-grueling schedule. Just days after the Bealeton show, the duo headed to St. Louis for the Fourth of July weekend celebration and a gig that the two performers would never forget.

It took nine hours — six hours of flight time — to get there in the open-cockpit Stearman. Once there, Beauty and the Beast Wing Walking performed eight shows for thousands of people in front of the famous Gateway Arch and the muddy Mississippi River. During the first show, the Stearman was ordered to follow a mammoth C-5 military cargo carrier into the show area. Severe wingtip vortices caused the little airplane to jump like a cork in the surf. So Wicker made sure that his act didn't follow the beast again. But he couldn't do anything about Simpson's newfound fear of crowds.

"She's not worried about falling off an airplane, but she can't handle crowds," he laughed. So, wisely, he waited until the end of the job before he told her that they performed for nearly 2 million people over four days.

After the two back-to-back shows, Simpson recalls feeling that she'd been accepted into a club with few members.

Her teacher and pilot assessed her abilities during a recent interview: "No doubt, she's physically fit, but more importantly, she's mentally fit." He paused, then added, in this trade, "it's all about trust. I don't want to go up with someone who could get both of us killed."

Modern airshows that include wing walking are strikingly similar to those of yesteryear with a few notable exceptions. Today a number of airshows are fixed-base operations, usually with the support of the local community. The Bealeton Flying Circus is a case in point. Performers still travel throughout the circuit. But the shows themselves mostly stay put. In the old days, the fliers and managers were gypsies going wherever they could to make a buck. Many had multiple jobs. A wing walker could sub as a mechanic, for example.

Currently, there are around 13 airshows in North America that have wing walking as part of the act, according to Leesburg, Virginia-based International Council of Air Shows (ICAS), which has around 1,000 members. ICAS said it's affiliated with about 375 of the 450 shows operating in North America. The shows run the gamut from the Dayton Air Show to fly-ins at local communities.

Another notable difference between the past and present airshows is the variety of entertainment available to folks today, especially televised sports. In the barnstorming days, the air circus was often the only entertainment for miles.

"Barnstorming and wing walking will never have a NASCAR-like popularity, but we will recover from the past few years," said Pearce, who along with his lyrically named wing walker Christobalina Velasquez performs throughout much of the United States.

While the aerobatic and wing-walking maneuvers have remained similar, many of the stunts performed during the barnstorming days were outrageously risky. Take the case of Fearless Mabel Cody, niece of the famous cowboy Buffalo Bill Cody. She's credited with being the first female wing walker to tour. Arguably, she's also the first woman to try a lot of difficult stunts, including the auto-to-airplane transfer. On March 24, 1924, Cody fell 50 feet from an aircraft flying over a Florida beach when the rope ladder broke while she attempted to climb aboard from a speeding car, according to published reports. The accident prompted Cody to disband her flying circus. But, after recovering from a dislocated shoulder and broken bones, she joined the Doug Davis Baby Ruth Flying Circus, named after the candy bar. In 1926, Cody successfully completed a speeding boat-to-airplane transfer.

And there were other noted wing walkers of the day. Gladys Ingle, a famous airplane transfer artist, is also known for practicing archery on top of the wing. Gladys Roy and Ivan Unger, of the Flying Black Hats, are remembered for playing a mock tennis game on the top wing of a biplane.

Most aviation historians agree that Ormer Locklear, the first person to wing walk, in October 1917, is the undisputed king of the sport. And Jessie Woods is considered his female counterpart. Woods did it all, wrote noted aviation historian Ann L. Cooper in her book On the Wing: Jessie Woods and the Flying Aces Air Circus. She was a stunt flier, wing walker, parachutist, mechanic, and all-around daredevil. She was also an instructor to many World War II military pilots at Roddey Field in Rock Hill, South Carolina. The Flying Aces Air Circus, the company Woods and her pilot husband, Jimmie, formed, was the longest running of the early airshows, with more than 400 aerial performances.

Woods retired from wing walking by the beginning of World War II. But she returned in her mid-80s for a guest appearance on the TV show That's Incredible, where she rode atop a biplane one last time.

The vehicle of choice for many aerialists of the Golden Age of Aviation was the Curtiss Company's JN-4 and -4D "Jenny" biplane. Powered by a Curtiss OX-5 engine, the JN-4 had a maximum speed of 75 mph; the original article was powered by a Hispano-Suiza engine. At one time, there were 10,000 Jennys in service. But the U.S. government ordered many of the reliable, simply constructed aircraft destroyed in the late 1930s, ostensibly to discourage others from engaging in this dangerous business.

Historians blame the government for mortally wounding airshows and aerial stunting. In 1936 the government outlawed wing walking below 1,500 feet, which essentially doomed the sport because audiences could barely see the stunts, according to books and clips on barnstormers and aerialists compiled by the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission. Going to airshows became a waste of time. And it would be years before that rule was relaxed. Further nails in the coffin came with the passage of the Air Commerce Act and the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938. To the government, aerialists and wing walkers were reckless impediments to the development of commercial aviation. With the start of World War II, airshows and wing walkers became dormant for many years.

During the 1950s and 1960s, airshows were kept alive, in part by Bill Sweet and his Columbus, Ohio-based National Airshows and his fierce competitors, the four Cole brothers, whose home base was in Kankakee, Illinois. Today's airshow acts owe a great debt to these individuals.

But perhaps the greatest similarity between the airshows of today and yesteryear involves money. Making a decent living as an airshow performer is as difficult today as it was 70 years ago. Jessie Woods' oft-heard lament still applies: "It's chicken one day, feathers the next."

There are other impediments today to making airshows consistently profitable. The post-September 11, 2001 flying bans around metropolitan areas and the war in Iraq have made it very difficult for aerialists to make a living. The deployment of thousands of troops overseas prompted a number of performers to cancel airshows at military bases. Wicker said he lost "tons of money" from having to cancel most of his shows for the U.S. military.

Mary Porter, marketing director of ICAS, said airshows are an "extremely resilient industry." ICAS declined to provide specific and collective revenue figures from its members, but indicated that the business is showing signs of improvement.

With lunch winding down, Simpson was asked what she likes best about being a wing walker. Is it when Wicker dives toward the ground? The hang-down maneuver? Or is it the peace she feels when he is near the top of a loop, when all is quiet and she is embraced by the azure sky? Perhaps the part she likes best is the astonished doe-eye looks of the boys and girls that mob her for autographs after the Stearman lands.

For the boys, she writes: "Come walk with me." For the girls, she inscribes, "Girls Rule." Each missive ends with her signature, "Joanna Simpson, Wing Walker."

Robert W. Moorman of Alexandria, Virginia, is an aviation journalist and student pilot.