Wingwalking: Don't Try This at Home
Unless Your Airplane is Parked!
This is part two of my interview with wingwalker Jenny Forsythe, part one is here.
World of Flying: Has there ever been a time when things went wrong in your act and you scared yourself.
Jenny Forsythe: I really haven’t had any truly scary moments with American Barnstormer. Rather, there has been a time or two when I find myself disappointed that I’m unable to do a particular stunt to my full capabilities. For instance, last year, at our first show of the season, we were dealing with a 30-knot on-crowd crosswind, which meant that Walt had to carry more speed and power to maintain more controlled flight. Our first full pass requires us to stand on one foot between the wings while holding onto the front wires with just one arm and the other arm waving above the top wing. With the extra speed and wind force, I got pushed back against the rear wires and fought to get back out from under the top wing for most of the crowd line length. Using that much more energy, early on in the flight, made the rest of the performance a little bit tougher than usual. In those kinds of cases, you tend to be all that much more aware of your body and you really think twice about your upcoming move and if you have the strength to safely make that move. So far, I haven’t had to bail on any performances or specific maneuvers, but that possibility is always there when things don’t go as usual due to weather or other uncontrollable circumstances. And that’s where the signaling mentioned above would come into play.
WoF: Is wingwalking a full-time gig or do you have a day job? If yes, how does that day job fit into your occupation as wingwalker.
JF: I have a BA in Chemistry and a MS in Geology. When I first started wingwalking, I was working full time at the University of Notre Dame as a research/lab technician. Eventually, the program’s funding ran out, so I concentrated on my airshow efforts for a couple years. With the downturn in the economy, I decided to go back to school and get degree #3 (Diagnostic Medical Sonography), so that’s what I’m working on now. I’m also pursuing part-time work, like substitute teaching, in the meantime. With our airshow duties generally running from Thursday through Monday on show weekends, it still leaves room for another job or volunteer work, which I’m also involved with. We do enough shows to keep recurrent with everything, but not so many as to keep us from being able to pursue other interests.
WoF: How many wingwalkers are there in the business, and what is the breakdown of men to women?
JF: Currently, in North America, there are seven teams that I would call “active” on the airshow circuit, plus a couple groups of “stationary” wingwalkers (one at the Flying Circus in Virginia, and one in southern Ohio). Six of those have only female wingwalkers, one has only a male, and our team and the flying circus have both. Around the world, there are another handful of teams with primarily females on the wing.
WoF: How much effort do you put into developing new routines and tricks to incorporate into your act? And how many rehearsals are involved to keep the act sharp?
JF: Our team is among the few that I’ve seen really evolve over the years, consistently adding in new “stunts” or maneuvers to keep things fresh and make our choreography anything but routine. I think part of that is because I’ve had the great opportunity to work with a variety of teams and I’ve learned different things from each, incorporating the moves that I think work best into our team’s performances. I’ve also spent some time studying old photographs and video to see what works best from the audience’s perspective – what poses/maneuvers are the most interesting and most visible from the ground. We also love when we’re able to get a good variety of photos and videos of our performances so we can do a self-assessment and evaluate what is or isn’t working so well.
My favorite “stunt” is the Daring Javelin Hang, borrowed from the Daring Damsels team of the 1980s (the team that developed, and only other team I’m aware of that ever attempted, this particular stunt). Even that one has evolved over the past two years that we’ve been doing it, moving from holding on with one hand as we had seen in the photos of the Daring Damsels, to completely letting go with both hands.
We always make sure we get a practice in before the start of the season, to “shake the rust off.” And if we go for long periods between shows, or if we plan to add something new into the routine, then we schedule additional practices. We also always take advantage, wherever possible, of the practice days at each show venue.
WoF: With the ever-present need to push the envelope, has there ever been a trick you considered performing that was too "over the top" and had to come out of the act for safety reasons?
JF: We haven’t tried anything yet that was immediately deemed inappropriate for safety reasons. There have been a couple things that have come out for other reasons, or at other times. One of them was the last pass we did in which Tyson stood at the right wingtip and I posed over the cockpit (behind the upper wing rack) – after doing that one during practice and at a few shows, Walt eventually came to the conclusion that, under certain meteorological conditions, it left very little room for error because it greatly hindered his right aileron AND his rudder controls. So, instead of performing that combination, we now keep Tyson at the right wingtip, but I do a different pose that keeps me in front of the top rack with my feet clear from hindering any rudder control.
An example of a maneuver that we practiced but threw out right away includes a Cuban Eight we tried with both wingwalkers on the plane. In this case, the issue wasn’t with safety, as the plane did the aerobatic maneuver just fine, but it required a great deal of climb time due to the extra drag of two bodies, and the extra altitude that was needed for the same reason. Thus, not wanting to bore our audience with needing two minutes to get to altitude, we chose to do a barrel roll instead (which requires much less initial altitude).
WoF: What is the most exhilarating part of being a wingwalker?
JF: The spectacular view from the wing is certainly one perk of being a wingwalker. There is absolutely nothing hindering your view and you get the real feel of the wind in your hair. The complete experience is actually quite difficult to describe and put into simple terms, because it is so vastly different from anything else I’ve experienced. One common misconception, I’d say, is that it’s an adrenaline rush. On the contrary, I find the experience of being on the wing much closer to meditation than a rush.
The other notable experience is that of being able to share a flight with another wingwalker. My pilot, Walt Pierce, is one of only 2 or 3 pilots in the world daring (and experienced) enough to regularly fly with more than one wingwalker. Looking over the nose of the plane and seeing your teammate (and good friend) over there, knowing you’re sharing that amazing experience, is certainly nothing short of special.
WoF: Explain the reaction you get from the audience after the show when they get to meet you in person. Has anyone ever treated you as if you're nuts for being a wingwalker? Are you?
JF: I get reactions of all types. I normally hop off the plane at show center (whether doing a solo wing walk or the dual act) and after a few swigs of water, immediately start signing autographs and interacting with the guests. Some people do think that wingwalkers are nuts, others attribute it to having a particularly large set of certain body parts (even if just metaphorically speaking for us females). Others express envy and ask about how and where they can learn to wingwalk (unfortunately for them, the only opportunities I know of for people to pursue wingwalking as a thrill-ride, is overseas). Most people are simply fascinated and will ask about safety equipment or what we felt during our very first flight on the wing, or how/why we got into it.
Being ‘nuts’ is definitely a relative term. Within the airshow industry, certain groups of performers find others to be ‘nuts’ – for example, several of the skydivers I’ve spoken with consider wingwalkers nuts for walking around on the wings, but we tend to think of them as being nuts since we see no reason to leave a perfectly good airplane. And I’ve found that goes for several of the various types of pilots, whether the extreme part of their flying is due to the type of aircraft, the low-level aerobatics, or the speeds they fly at. The thing to remember is that we’re each trained in a specific way to perform specific types of routines – when you’re familiar with something, it doesn’t seem so crazy – it’s the types of performances you’re not familiar with that seem mind-boggling because you generally have little (or no) experience with the specific talents and safety precautions in use.
Likewise, outside the airshow industry, it’s just a matter of personality and what you have come to know through your experiences. I don’t understand the desire of some people to sit in a cubicle for 60 hours a week pecking away at a computer problem any more than I do the desire of others to freeze their butts off and risk their lives climbing Mt. Everest. But there are people who find each of those activities rewarding and fulfilling, just as I find wingwalking to be.