© Jens Görlich
© Jens Görlich

Biplane ballet

  • TEXT TIM CAPPELMANN
  • PHOTOS JENS GÖRLICH

Wingwalkers are young, female and pretty limber. Our reporter is none of these – but he is intrepid

“Why?” we ask ourselves all our lives. Strapped on a biplane, I found the question inescapable. And also this one: Does the UK have anything like Germany’s technical inspectorate (TÜV) for aircraft? If so, how good is it? And this one: How is this going to feel? Stick your head out the window of a car traveling along a highway at 180 km/h and you get an idea. My 85 kilos of body mass spread over 1.86 meters creates so much resistance that we mess up the acrobatic number we had planned, but I don’t find this out until we land. The trouble starts at takeoff.

Emily Guilding, professional wingwalker, 30, weighing just 52 kilos and 1.57 meters “tall,” hops lightly onto the wing ahead of me. As I haul myself up after her, I hear my jeans rip. Luckily, I’m wearing an overall on top. Only step where the markings are, she reminds me, making me wonder whether I risk treading a hole in the wing – and also about England’s technical inspectors.

I want to do things that people feel can’t be done

Ormer Locklear, the first wingwalker

She pats me down to make sure there’s nothing in my pockets that could fall into the plane and cause it to crash. I assure her of the complete emptiness of my pockets. She screw-fastens my chest strap and secures me to the pole at my back. I can barely breathe, but it has to be this tight as it will work loose during the flight. I pull in my stomach and ask her to cinch it one last time. She explains what I need to do if we crash, or if there’s a fire or I feel ill. My thoughts turn to the declaration of consent I signed earlier without reading it properly. Emily puts a pair of skydiver goggles on me. It has air holes to stop them from steaming up. We take off, and the air from the holes knocks my contact lenses right out of my eyes. England is a blur.

Wingwalker Emily Guilding ... © Jens Görlich

Wingwalker Emily Guilding ...

© Jens Görlich
... and Pilot Dave Barrell during the briefing © Jens Görlich

... and Pilot Dave Barrell during the briefing

© Jens Görlich
Two 450 HP engines, one dynamic duo © Jens Görlich

Two 450 HP engines, one dynamic duo

© Jens Görlich
The old Stearman biplane flies at a speed of 180 kilometers per hour © Jens Görlich

The old Stearman biplane flies at a speed of 180 kilometers per hour

© Jens Görlich
Emily Guilding adjusts her ponytail just before takeoff © Jens Görlich

Emily Guilding adjusts her ponytail just before takeoff

© Jens Görlich
Freya Paterson hangs in there underneath the plane © Jens Görlich

Freya Paterson hangs in there underneath the plane

© Jens Görlich
The wingwalker team performs at air shows all over the world – ­including the Biggin Hill Festival of Flight in England © Jens Görlich

The wingwalker team performs at air shows all over the world – ­including the Biggin Hill Festival of Flight in England

© Jens Görlich

 My new perspective on the world below only makes the already latently surreal experience of buzzing high above the English countryside even more otherworldly. We take off from Rendcomb Airfield in Gloucestershire, a two-hour drive west from London, and circle high above an animal crematorium, gently undulating hills and the heavily guarded hangar that Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason uses as a garage for his vintage car collection. Pilot Dave “DAVE” Barrell’s sensitive handling gives us a 180 km/h roller coaster ride 550 meters above the ground. At moments like these, I find a calm approach helpful: Ultimately, it makes no difference whether I spend the next 12 minutes on top of a biplane or in the bathtub as long as I’m safely back on the ground when the 12 minutes are up. Until then, I am chiefly concerned with wiping away the drool the airstream blasts from my mouth and nostrils, and getting used to the entirely new sensation of having my cheeks clinging to my ears.

At least this madness was not invented by design. The story of how it came about goes like this: In 1918, Ormer “Lock” Locklear, a trainee military pilot from Texas, encountered technical problems during a training flight and decided to climb out onto the wing and put things right. While his instructor manned the controls in the air, down on the ground, his fellow trainees cheered and clapped. Lock had tasted blood. He went on to try out increasingly death-defying wing-top stunts with other pilots and became famous for his motto “safety second,” his precarious airborne handstands and leaps onto planes from speeding cars. That such antics undertaken without any safety precautions could not pass off without incident for very long should have been obvious to the daredevil stuntman, but then, his contemporaries did describe him as having “more spunk than sense.” His career came to an untimely end after just 16 months, when he died, age 28, during the filming of The Skywayman.

Like Lock, many young pilots found themselves unemployed after World War II and took advantage of the surfeit of biplanes standing around unused to make a living wingwalking at air shows. In order to attract more spectators, they would pick pretty women from the audience and set them on the wings. Sadly, they were not all as talented as Ethel Dare, a former circus trapeze artiste, who went down in history in late 1919 as “Queen of the Air,” when she became the first woman to step from one airplane to another in flight. Many of the other, wholly unprepared ladies tumbled from the wings. When the deaths multiplied, tight restrictions were imposed on barnstorming, as this kind of “circus flying” was called, and finally it disappeared. It was not until the 1970s that wingwalking was revived in the USA. In 1985, English race driver and pilot Vic Norman hit on the idea of introducing wingwalking to the UK and paid a visit to Mr. Airshow himself, Californian stunt pilot Art Scholl, the only person with the technical paperwork and licenses for the wingwalk apparatus, a trade secret Scholl had never before shared. He took to young Vic, but fell to his death on the Top Gun set soon after they met. In the end, Scholl’s widow gave the documents to Vic, who sent his first wingwalker into the air in 1987. Watchmaker Breitling is now his sponsor. Emily is one of the latest generation of six wingwalkers working with a team of pilots for Vic.

 And their work up here among the clouds is tough – strenuous, cold, and deafeningly loud. There’s nothing I would like better right now than a motorcycle helmet with a visor. To my left, Emily strikes a pose on her biplane – and smiles! How on earth can she smile? Standing on her head, she pivots – still smiling. Unbelievable! She looks lovely in her black gym suit with its striking silver stars, her blond hair streaming in the wind. With an effort, I twist my head round in her direction and attempt a grin. Weeks later, my facial contortions and windswept hair still elicit mockery from my photographer and colleagues. Gracefully, Emily stretches her arms out to her sides, gives a cheerful wave, and performs the half-splits – a veritable ballerina in the sky.

Emily loves her job, she tells me later, except in the rain – the raindrops feel like needles. She has four days off a month, works out a lot, and flies with the team to a different air show every weekend. The girls practice climbing out of the cockpit onto the wing and back in again over and over again. With only a steel rope to secure them, that is the riskiest moment of a show. Norman’s motto is “safety first” so he doesn’t employ pregnant women or mothers. The team’s two- and four-woman formations are the only ones of their kind in the world. His is a flying circus with shows in Dubai, Australia, China, and France. Even Hollywood stars have been known to book the troupe for a party turn in L.A.

Pilot Martyn Carrington, thankfully in Emily’s biplane, flips the airplane over onto its back. I squint at the strap around my chest. It looks safe enough. Emily is hanging upside down, Martyn emits a long billow of smoke from his tail – our signal! We should really be flying directly below Emily now so that our hands can touch. That’s “the mirror” maneuver, the wingwalkers’ handshake. But I am no wingwalker, my 85 kilos are too much even for a 450 HP engine, so we can’t get close enough. And Martyn can’t slow down any more because to turn the plane on its head, he needs to fly 210km/h minimum. We veer away and land.

Our landing on the field that serves as a runway is bumpy. My thighs ache – but we are down on the ground again. Emily laughs. Martyn and Dave laugh. I laugh – mainly because it’s all over. But also because it’s actually been great fun. So: why not?


Tim Cappelmann planned to start his career in journalism at Cóndor, a German-language weekly based in Santiago, Chile. Instead, he spent a year traveling from Santiago to Brownsville Texas, using only public transportation and a sailboat the whole time. After that, he developed an appreciation for airplanes, and now writes and reports for Lufthansa Magazin. His favorite subjects: pilots and astronauts, adventure travel and extreme sports.