Virtuozity - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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