TVRPhotography – If it moves, Shoot It!
I remember an old adage, be careful what you wish for. But at the same time, I was also told to live every day as if it were my last. I’m not sure if stepping out on the wing of an airplane while in flight would qualify as a sane decision, though it did justify both suggestions!
As a kid, I don’t recall wanting to be a wing walker. As a young adult, it never crossed my mind. Even working in the air show industry I never gave it any thought. A friend who was most likely kidding made the suggestion to me and I took it as just that, a joke. After a few months passed, the notion was revisited over hamburgers at an airport restaurant with famed aviator Wayne Handley. A phone call was placed to Eddie Andrieni who had trained wing walkers in the past and he agreed it would be a good idea. We played phone tag for nearly a year with the intent of beginning training. Unfortunately it just wasn’t meant to be and I was ready to retire the thought.
My full time profession is that of an aviation photographer. I have the pleasure of flying in a variety of aircraft most aviation die-hards could only dream of experiencing. From blimps to helicopters, warbirds to modern military jets, I’ve already lived an amazing life. In order to perform the duties of a photographer from some of these aircraft, various panels, windows, doors and hatches often needed to be removed. Because of this, I’ve been given the dubious job description of one who hangs out of airplanes for a living. I guess that would be exciting enough. Why push it and pursue wing walking? I must have been out of my mind.
Each year members of the air show industry gather in Las Vegas around the first week in December to discuss what worked and what would need to be improved upon. Additionally, performers and air show coordinators work out who is going to perform at the more than 500 air shows across North America in the upcoming season. My life would change dramatically shortly after this gathering. Thanks to the wonders of networking and internet relations, I found myself as one of those being considered to join Stearman pilot Walt Pierce and wing walker Jenny Forsythe for the ‘Double Trouble’ act as part of American Barnstormers.
There wouldn’t be much time to train due to the fact I live in California, Mr. Pierce resides in Florida and the first air show of the season was only a month away. A seasoned veteran, Jenny took on the task of training me, having come from Ohio to the warmer Floridian weather. Fortunately they had more confidence than I did and convinced me it isn’t as difficult as it may look. And I’m sure being the target of a knife-hurling circus freak isn’t anything to worry about either?
I watched the sun rise as we drove to Avon Park Airport. My nerves were already tense with fear. Not the kind of deathly fear one would associate with an adrenaline junky desire to venture out on the wing of a plane, but more a fear of failure. So much preparation had already been invested; there really was no looking back. As the hangar doors slid open and the morning light bathed the red Stearman named ‘Ol Smokey’, the lump in my throat just got bigger.
The first thing I learned were the various components of the aircraft. Cabane struts, those girthy bars that seem to attach the upper wing to the fuselage, would soon become my savior and ultimate goal being the last thing I grab as I make my way back into the safe confines of the cockpit. The guide wires would become known for actually keeping me on the wing and making their mark all over my body in the form of black and blue lines. They crisscross the distance between the upper and lower wings keeping everything together. At the point at which the majority of the guide wires cross, a three-foot long wooden javelin strut runs parallel to the fuselage, so named because of its appearance being similar to that of the much longer stick thrown great distances at sporting events. Finally, towards the tips of the wings are the ‘N’ struts shaped similarly in size to the cabanes but arranged to resemble the letter ‘N’. I’ve always thought the ‘N’ meant ‘No Man’s Land!’
That morning Jenny took me through the steps and how to properly walk on the wing of an aircraft. Had humans been designed to actually perform some of the twisting and contorting needed to make their way around the guide wires, we would have looked more like spaghetti. Each and every step had to be perfect. If one step were off, positioning for each subsequent move would become more and more difficult. I found my body encountering moves only advanced Yoga instructors would feel comfortable with. She had me hanging, standing, twisting, stretching, crawling, reaching and aching.
Although we had every intention of flying and getting that first wing walk out of the way that afternoon, circumstances deemed otherwise. I was in complete agreement with the unintentional procrastination. In fact, I was ready to put it off for another week! Meanwhile, Jenny and I continued to train on the ground with a surprise appearance by Nicole, the other half of the original ‘Double Trouble’ team. Both of them insisted repeatedly, “It’s really not that hard.” I began to feel sick.
Wednesday, February 11th, it was inevitable, I would be flying at some point today, and I felt even more nauseous. Jenny and I continued with ground training. I was so intimately familiar with the right wing that by this point I could tell a spider had been there from the little footprints crossing the thin no-skid strip. Walt continued to work on a nagging brake issue while I tried to calm my nausea by lying in the bed of the truck. Unfortunately it wasn’t long before the brake problem was fixed, however it was also time for lunch. The delays were killing me! My heart rate cannot sustain 180 for more than 48 hours straight! Let’s get this over with already.
Back from lunch it was straight to business. I had flown in Stearman’s before, so hopping into the front seat was nothing new to me. It was the series of events to follow I couldn’t get off my mind.
As instructed, my ears were honed in to the tune of the motor. As we reached altitude, Walt would begin to pull back on the throttle. Once the manifold pressure reaches a low enough number that would be my cue. This process kept circling in my head until the magical time came.
As I had practiced nearly a hundred times, I reached for the right upper-wing hand-hold knowing the wind speed would make it’s best attempt at thwarting my goal to grab. I fought it with the realization that the rest of my body would have to endure this. With a firm grab of the wing I pulled myself from the cockpit making quick work of getting outside the prop-wash. Right leg over and down, left arm around the cabane, right arm reaching for the nearest guide wire, left leg in front of the next guide wire, left arm grasping for the forward most dual guide wire, right leg swinging in front of the guide wire followed by a brisk tiptoe ending with a swing of the right leg over the javelin strut. I was just about there.
I got in the rest position, which is about as streamlined as one could be on the javelin strut and gave Walt the thumbs-up. I was halfway through my first flight.
As Walt flew around enabling me to get accustomed to the subtle breeze, I felt a shiver of accomplishment flow through my body, well a shiver of something anyway. Am I really standing on the wing of an airplane? What the hell am I doing out here? As I tried to convince myself that I’m simply taking on the role of an indecisive skydiver, I relaxed and took time to look around at the unobstructed view in front of me and below me. I felt like a bird, my arms spread along the length of the guide wires brought me back to my childhood dreams of yearning to fly. Oh how naïve I was.
Walt descended and lined up ‘Ol Smokey’ with show center. I dropped my left foot onto the leading edge of the wing and brought my right foot up and forward over the wires ending up in a standing position straddling the javelin. It was then I learned that I must be the shortest male wingwalker in the biz, for if I were any shorter, the javelin would have induced a much higher tone in my voice. Ecstatic, I let go of the Javelin with my left arm and raised it high waving at the three people below who were witness to my first wingwalk. The velocity of the wind caused me to lean back against the crossing guide wires creating the first of many bruises to come. Walt added throttle and began to climb while I did my best to make myself aerodynamic by getting back into the resting position.
From that point, my job was to relax as Walt gained altitude. Once more I took in my surroundings. It was truly amazing, the closest I had ever come to actually flying. One might say I shed a tear over the feeling, but no, it was the wind blasting open my tear ducts. Despite wanting to take in this new feeling, my eyes remained glued on Walt awaiting the hand gesture signaling for me to return to the cockpit. The first hint was hearing the throttle come back. Shortly after, Walt gave me the sign, a finger pointing into the front seat. Once more my legs cautiously dropped to the leading edge of the wing and I repeated the steps taken to get out to the javelin, but in reverse. The final grasp of the upper wing’s handle and a swing of my left leg into the cockpit was one of the most comforting moments of my life! I was back in the safe confines of the 60+ year-old Stearman biplane.
As we returned to terra firma, my body and mind were so completely drained, I had almost fallen asleep. So much for the effects of adrenaline! However once out of the aircraft, it was official, I was a wing walker!
The experience was an exercise in nausea management. For the next two days, Walt, Jenny and I continued to work on the complete air show routine. Within five flights, I had experienced my first wing walk, walking out to the ‘N’ strut, enduring +4 G’s in a loop with 150mph winds, landing and taking off while on the wing of a plane and becoming the first known male wingwalker to hang upside down from the javelin. Most importantly, we were able to cover our entire air show routine just in time for our first show of the 2009 season in Punta Gorda, Florida.
While I don’t intend on this ever becoming a full time profession for me, it was an experience I’ll never forget. It gave me the opportunity to see the world from a performer’s point of view and apply that towards my photography. Though when opportunity calls, I shall dutifully dawn my Spandex and sparkly gender-questioning outfit and take to the wing once more. After all, it was a recent flight to Las Vegas where the flight attendant announced, “Once the fasten seat belt sign has been turned off, you are free to move about the aircraft.” After a little giggle I thought to myself, I think I’m the only one on the plane who could take her literally.
I can’t begin to thank Walt and Jenny for their incredible efforts, trust and expertise in getting me trained quickly, efficiently and safely. Additionally, a big hug to Walt’s wife, Betty, for providing wonderful meals and hospitality during our Florida stay. Adam Haley also ventured out to Avon Park to record the event as well as provide new marketing imagery for the team and from one photographer to another; we owe him a great debt of gratitude. Dave Carlson from Canon assisted the team with remotely mounting a camera to the ‘N’ strut for an incredible point of view during our first air show…thank you Dave for all your help!