A Brief History of Wing Walking
Breitling Wingwalkers performing at Bournemouth Air Festival
Wing walking is one of the most spectacular aspect of aviation stunt flying and in certain times maybe considered much more impressive than “aerobatics” alone in airshows. Just for the simple reason that it would be practically silly to see a human being walking or simply clinging on top of the aircraft while in flight, it has the inherent capability of drawing crowd's attention more than seeing planes flying inverted and tumbling down in close formation with each other.
Ormer Locklear in an image by Wikipedia
Ormer Locklear was a distinguished name in the history of wing walking and it would be incomplete discussing wing walking without taking him into consideration. As a serviceman in the US Army Air Service his wing walking ability was developed with the necessity of making repairs on an aircraft while in flight (something which would have sent a pilot to land the plane before the repair). This act he perfected well and as the Curtiss JN-4D “Jenny” was designed with over-wing struts, this plane of the period made an excellent venue for Locklear to do his stunts. Locklear's meeting with Pickens, a promoter in 1919 spearheaded his wing walking career which not only increased his fame but brought him to Hollywood earning his appearance in his first film stunt at Universal's “The Great Air Robbery” of 1920. His death came so untimely however on August 1920 while doing his second film with Twentieth Century Fox for the “Skywayman”. Insisting on realistic stunts figured him in a crash while filming a night scene when he was performing a dive and the ground crew failed to signal his plane to pull up.
Ethel Dare entered the wing walking arena in the 1920s and was recognized as the first woman to change planes in the air, the act that was identified with Locklear. Her flying trapeze experience with the Barnum and Bailey Circus had been very much helpful earning her various titles as “The Flying Witch”, “Queen of the Air” and “1920 Aerial Sensation” among others.
At present with the advances in aviation and way past half a century in the “Jet Age” the trend has and always promoted human safety above else and such daredevil acts in the early years of aviation has seen lesser patronage to cope up with the times (strictly speaking). Wing walking hasn't really developed in such a “lunatic approach” as seeing a wing walker attempt a stunt clinging on top of the wings of a jet aircraft. The glamour and sensation was however relived in the same fashion as it used to be back in the 1920s on the wings of biplanes powered by radial engines. Several wing walking outfits are still up on the air offering shows and the marketing approach which makes an enduring sensation out of women more than men is probably the reason why you will be seeing more striking curves and flexibility on the air than pure strength and muscles. The daring and finesse is unmistakably feminine but of course you can't take for granted the role of the pilot which still remain at men's stronghold. The UK - based Breitling Wingwalkers is probably the most famous wing walking team in the UK and all over Europe with 27 years in the field of display flying and wing walking in particular. Utilizing the powerful and proven Boeing Stearman biplanes, the team is composed of seasoned pilots and five dashing female wing walkers who find wing walking the ultimate "high paying" (literally speaking) , boring free job.
A Boeing Stearman with a lady wing walker aboard
Note: photos are by the author except as specified