WALKING ON AIR
THE THRILL OF WINGWALKING
Planes are great for speeding up travel and for avoiding the need for pesky roads and railway lines. But there are a few unwritten rules, one of which is the simple idea that you should be inside the plane when it’s flying.
Yes, people sit on the top of trains in parts of Asia and many an errant teenager has roof-surfed their mate’s panel van or car, but with planes it’s different. Mentally, why would you want to be on the outside, and physically, how would you hang on with the wind raging onto you, particularly with such a sheer drop below?
But as with all things, there are always people that are willing to risk it all to both prove a point and get their adrenaline rushing around like an excited atom. But what is perhaps more astounding than the fact that people are prepared to stand on the wing of a plane mid-flight, is that it isn’t part of the new adrenaline age. It can actually trace its roots all the way back to the beginning of the last century.
Wing walking originally appeared as an offshoot of barnstorming, which took the US by storm during the Roaring 'Twenties. Troupes of flyers would tour the country performing spectacular stunts for huge audiences.
World War 1 then saw the creation of a large number of people trained to fly bi-planes, all of whom needed post–war
"Wing walking originally appeared as an offshot of barnstorming, which took the US by storm during the '20."
employment, and (aided by the government selling off surplus planes for next to nothing) they headed into the skies to earn a living from their skills.
As the envelope was pushed further and further, daredevil assistants would head out onto the wings to wow the crowds with stunts as crazy as transferring from one plane to another, dancing and handstands. They would even play tennis, although quite how the ball remained in play is anyone’s guess.
Regulation by an ever more safetyconscious government eventually saw both barnstorming and wing walking ruled out of existence, although it then made a comeback in later years with professional teams working the show circuit.
Watchmaker Breitling (with its strong links to pioneering aviation) has a team that is a popular draw at air shows around the globe, including here in the Middle East. It’s proved excellent for brand building and as a dynamic activation of the company’s history.
The Breitling Wing Walkers use Stearman bi-planes, which were built in great numbers in the US during the 1930s and 1940s. If you need a visual reference, it's the same plane that chased Cary Grant whilst crop dusting in the famous Hitchcock film, North by Northwest.
With modern wing walking the (usually) ladies climb out onto the wing once the plane has taken off and strap themselves to a frame at the centre part of the top wing. Walking around and going to the end of the wing has long since been banned in this safety-conscious age.
Then, as the planes fly in formation, the girls perform ballerina style moves, thanks to the rotating frame, and often find themselves upside down as part of the air show.
It may not be as dangerous as it was almost 100 years ago, or attract nearly as big crowds, but wing walking is still an incredible sight and it draws an audience whenever it appears. It’s also a great title for a business card at a party.
It may have its history firmly in the past, but watching someone climb out onto the wing of plane (without the use of CGI) still enthrals us as much as those early daredevils who performed for little money, zero safety and often right over the heads of the paying crowd.
The mid-air tennis games may have come to an end, but it will always remain something people want to see.
As to why people want to actually do it, well, that’s anyone’s guess.