Wing-walking Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A feature attraction in early air shows, in which a performer stepped out of an airplane’s cockpit and onto its wing while the airplane was in flight.

After World War I, veteran pilots became the first barnstormers, itinerant fliers who traveled throughout the rural United States selling rides and demonstrating their flying abilities in surplus Curtiss JN-4D biplanes, also known as Jennys. Because planes were inexpensive and federal regulations were nonexistent, anyone with the urge to fly and the freedom to travel could do so.

As the novelty of air travel and airplane rides began to wear off, however, barnstormers had to find new ways to attract audiences for their annual visits. Stunt-flying became the next step, with pilots performing elaborate in-air maneuvers, seeming to cheat death at every turn.

Many early pilots disdained parachutes, but seeing a person jump from an airplane also proved to be quite a draw, and stunt jumpers were added to the performance. Before the invention of the ripcord, parachutes were often stored in boxes attached to the wing of the airplane. To prepare for the jump, the performer had to step out of the cockpit and onto the wing, taking care to stand in the proper place so as not to tear the fabric. The parachute was deployed either by releasing it from the box and letting it pull the jumper off the plane or by letting the jumper’s weight release it jumping.

For some, wing-walking evolved from the suspense-building delay leading up to the jump. It did not take long for daredevils to realize that the sight of a person standing on the wing of an aircraft in flight was remarkable in itself. Many early stunt fliers were the barnstormers themselves; even famed aviator Charles A. Lindbergh performed as a wing-walker while traveling with barnstormer Erold Bahl. Others started out as circus performers, making the transition from the trapeze and the high wire to the wing of a biplane. Although these early performers worked without harnesses or special equipment, the structure of Jennys flown by the barnstormers allowed for many gripping points.

One of the most famous daredevils was Ormer Locklear, known as the “man who walked on wings,” who had “more guts than brains.” Locklear began his wing-walking career in the military, when he climbed down onto the landing-gear spread bar of his Jenny trainer in order to read a message flashed to him from the ground below. After that experience, he took seemingly every opportunity to step out of the cockpit and was soon doing handstands on the upper wing, riding the tail, and dangling upside-down from the landing gear. Rather than discipline him, his superiors instead used his stunts to generate publicity for the armed forces.

After leaving the military, Locklear continued his daredevil stunts as a featured performer in air shows around the country. He is reputed to be the first man to climb from one plane to another while both were in midair. At the height of his popularity, Locklear received up to one thousand dollars a day for what amounted to a half-hour’s work. Unfortunately, his civilian career lasted only sixteen months, after which he was killed during a wing-walking stunt for a motion picture.

Unlike most careers in the early twentieth century, wing-walking was not a male-only occupation. The first woman to change planes was Ethel Dare, originally a trapeze artist with the Barnum and Bailey Circus. She was known as “the Flying Witch,” the “Queen of the Air,” and the “1920 Aerial Sensation.” In one of her most popular stunts, Dare would appear to fall from the wing, only to be caught by a line attached to her harness. She would then climb up the rope and resume her position on the wing. Her specialty was the “iron-jaw spin,” in which she would clasp a mouthpiece between her teeth, step off the wing, and spin behind the plane in the wake of the propeller.

Eventually, wing-walking became insufficient to amuse audiences. Dances, table tennis games, card games, and even shootouts were staged on specially-built platforms on the upper wings of biplanes. Daredevils would perform maintenance, tire changes, and refueling operations in midair. In one of its most notable stunts, the Hollywood-based stunt-flying group Thirteen Black Cats would fake an accident during a plane change in which the stuntperson would free-fall for about 400 feet before opening a parachute.

As the years passed, the stunts grew increasingly more dangerous. It was no longer enough for daredevils to transfer from plane to plane, and daredevils used locomotives, automobiles, boats, and even horses for their changes. When parachutes, which had once been part of the demonstrations, were perceived to lessen the apparent danger, air circuses began advertising that their performers worked without them.

The federal Air Commerce Act of 1926 put an end to many of the more dangerous stunts, especially those performed in front of a large audience. The art of wing-walking gradually faded away along with the barnstormers and the air circuses and remains to be seen only as a part of nostalgia acts in smaller air shows around the United States.

Bibliography
  • Caidin, Martin. Barnstorming: The Great Years of Stunt Flying. New York: Van Rees Press, 1965. An anecdote-driven account of barnstormers, stunt pilots, and the early days of aviation.
  • Collar, Charles S. Barnstorming to Air Safety. Miami, Fla.: Lysmata, 1998. A history of the early days of American aviation, with an emphasis on the evolution of safety regulations.
  • Cooper, Ann. On the Wing: Jesse Wood and the Flying Air Circus. Freedom, N.J.: Black Hawk, 1993. A biographical account of life as a wing-walker in a traveling air show.
  • Tessendorf, K. C. Barnstormers and Daredevils. New York: Atheneum, 1988. A history of barnstorming and stunt-flying throughout the 1920’s, filled with photographs and anecdotes about the early aviators and their adventures.

Aerobatics

Air shows

Barnstorming

Biplanes

Jennys

Charles A. Lindbergh

Safety issues

Women and flight

Air hostess Moira Boyd of British Eastern Airways rides the wing of a Tiger Moth in a rehearsal for the Guild of Air Pilot’s Air Display at Denham, England in 1968.

(Hulton Archive)
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