Strong Women of Aviation: Carol Pilon Celebrates 15 Seasons as a Wingwalker

8:30 PM

Wingwalker Carol Pilon
Photo by Jim Rogers
By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor

In another installment of my continuing series on Strong Women of Aviation, Airplanista recently interviewed one of North America's most well-known wingwalkers, Carol Pilon, from Masham, Quebec, Canada. As the snow begins to melt up north and across most of the USA, Pilon is preparing to start her 15th season doing something that many might think is crazy.

But when you read the following, you will see that this is a trained professional doing something she loves, and everything she does up there while hanging in what looks like a completely precarious situation full of danger is calculated, practiced and predictable.

AIRPLANISTA: How did you get into wingwalking, and what was it about the profession that drew you in?

CAROL PILON: I am not entirely sure what drew me in but from the very first time that I saw Wingwalking, I knew that it would be the rest of my life. It all happened when an advert for my local airshow came across my television screen. I saw the first three seconds of Wingwalking that I had ever witnessed in my life and as simple as that...I knew that this was my new home.

2015 marks 15 years as a professional wingwalker. What is it about you and your act that has allowed such longevity in this career?

CAROL PILON: Being more paranoid than a long tailed cat in a rocking chair factory has likely contributed more to my longevity than I would like to admit. Surrounding myself with the right people at the right time. Allowing contributions by others to the team whether this implies talent on a piloting, artistic or engineering level. Being open to newness has helped keep the team fresh and myself motivated. Asking for help...often...and then being smart enough to accept it. All this and understanding that returning to student status means nothing more than ensuring a good future no matter where you find yourself on the path.

Carol Pilon at work. Photo by Eric Dumigan
AIRPLANISTA: What is the learning curve for a wingwalker? Is there a "training" period, and did you have a mentor to teach you how to survive?

CAROL PILON: I had it pretty easy when it came to training. Most new wingwalkers at the time were self taught. I, however, acquired excellent tutelage from one of the best teams that my generation will have likely ever seen. This does not mean that I did not earn it. Seven years of rejection separated the times between deciding that I would become a wingwalker and getting my first ride. I put in seven years of ground work that led to two weeks of intensive training. This was all that was required before my first show. It would take another year of experience before jet wing walking and truth be told, I have never stopped learning. So I guess that you could say that the learning curve lasts anywhere from a few weeks to a lifetime depending on your ultimate goals.

AIRPLANISTA: "Wingwalker" is not your every day profession. What kind of reaction do you get when you tell non-pilots what you do for a living?

CAROL PILON: I have found that people either think it is awesome or insane. They either totally get it or can not comprehend it at all. I have rarely met indifference and FYI....this includes pilots. They are certainly not immune.

AIRPLANISTA: Tell us about the wingwalking you did on a jet-propelled aircraft? What kind of airplane, who was the pilot, and how many times did you do that?

CAROL PILON: I wing walked on a 3,000 HP, jet-propelled, modified, Waco bi-plane for about a year and half with Jimmy Franklin at the helm. He was nothing short of a revolutionary performer. The jet Waco was simply astounding to work on. Those flights will be remembered as the most challenging and rewarding ones of my life.

AIRPLANISTA: What kind of physical shape do you have to be in to be a wingwalker? Do you have a workout regimen you'd like to share?

CAROL PILON: I would say that you do need to be in pretty good shape but there is a bit of a secret to wingwalking: the more you do it, the easier it gets. My regimen consists of getting in the air as much as possible.

AIRPLANISTA: How much of your day is spent marketing your act?

CAROL PILON: Urgh. Cold calling sucks! The short answer is too much. The more complex answer is not anywhere close to enough.

AIRPLANISTA: This is a question you probably get all the time, but is it dangerous?

CAROL PILON: Yes, but not for the reasons that you would think. The more serious risks involved are flying a 70-year-old aircraft so close to the ground. The actually wingwalking portion of the flight is not anywhere close to the top of the inherent risks involved with airshow/aerobatic flight.

AIRPLANISTA: What would you tell girls and women to interest them in aviation, either to pursue a pilot's license for recreational flying or as a career?

CAROL PILON: I have failed entirely to understand what it takes to get a woman or girl interested in aviation. The women and girls that want to be involved are involved. After over a hundred years of flight, we still only represent a measly six percent of the aviation world. I do not know what the magic bullet is. Does the answer lay with making sciences more accessible or desirable to girls at a young age or does fault lay with society's perception of aviation. I truly do not know how to motivate women or girls more than by doing what I do and talking to as many of them as I can and telling them how freaking awesome it is!

AIRPLANISTA: What is the biggest misconception about wingwalkers?

That we are crazy. Everything that I do on a wing and during a flight is beyond scrutinized and calculated. I am not a risk taker. I am a risk assessor. Well....I might be a little crazy. Okay...I am crazy but not the way other crazy people are I sound crazy too. Great!

AIRPLANISTA: Freestyle question, go crazy and tell me anything about being a wingwalker that you think the public does not know...a piece of your backstory that you have always wanted to tell.

CAROL PILON: The best thing about being a wingwalker is a well-kept secret. Allow me to explain. When I first starting being a wingwalker, I decided that I would bring change, create new stunts, alter the business paradigm and revolutionize the way wingwalking was perceived. I was going to be the best thing that ever happened to Wingwalking and my mark upon it would reverberate through the ages. Fortunately, I stayed the course and realized that, yes, there were some new stunts, there were new business platforms, there were broken records and there were even a few firsts but there was no mark to be left. I came to Wingwalking expecting to make it better only to find out that the roles were reversed. Wingwalking has made me better, not the other way around. It has given me goals and allowed me to achieve them. It has brought incredibly talented people into my life whose knowledge and skills have increased mine. It has offered me salvation, education and freedom. Wingwalking has made me more than I could have made of myself. That is a pretty neat trick if you think about it!

Visit Pilon's website here and find her schedule here so you can keep an eye out for her act at an air show this year.

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