What does a pilot with a wee case of acrophobia do about curbing his fear of heights? He agrees to do a wing walk atop a Boeing Stearman. Derek Royal reports.
Apparently, the pathological dread of high places known as acrophobia is surprisingly common among pilots. Why? I’m not 100 per cent sure, but in my case, heights give me the creeps. Which is strange because I’ve never felt any fear while skydiving, riding a rollercoaster or flying aerobatics. I’ve never gone weak kneed while shooting air-to-air photography from the open doorframe of a Cessna. Not once have I felt a twinge of any kind. Yet, peering over the railing towards the ground floor from the third level of a major shopping centre can make me feel nauseous. So too standing at the top of the Bulli Pass admiring the view of the NSW south coast. Or, looking down from the revolving restaurant at Sydney’s Centrepoint Tower. Strange, but true. So, what gives? Why do I turn to a quivering lump of humanity when on solid objects looking down but I don’t when flying an aeroplane?
I’d love to say I have some theories, but I don’t. And believe me, this kind of mental weakness irritates the living hell out of me. Unfortunately, I’ve failed miserably while seeking answers.
I guess some things in life are not meant to be understood and for me, acrophobia remains one of life’s great mysteries. But I don’t have time to worry about that right now. I need to grit my teeth and somehow prepare myself for this thing known as a wing walk. I have to climb onto the upper wing of a classic Stearman biplane, get strapped to a harness and remain there as the aircraft takes off and roars around the circuit at Bankstown Airport at an altitude of 1,000 feet and a speed of around 160 kilometres per hour.
So, given my inherent fear of heights, why am I doing this? And how did this opportunity come about? I was offered the chance by the kind folks at Breitling, who have sponsored the world’s one and only professional wingwalking team since 2009. Despite my acrophobic tendencies, I chose to ignore all sense of logic and agreed to give it a go, crossing my fingers and hoping that throwing myself to the wolves might somehow curb my acrophobia. We shall see.
When I proudly made the announcement to my family and friends, most were stunned and looked at me sideways, concluding what they’d been thinking all along: I’d completely lost my marbles and belonged in an institution for the insane. “Who in their right mind would volunteer to perch themselves on top of the wing of a perfectly good aeroplane?” they asked. Who indeed. But here’s the rub. Apart from the glamourous girls who do this for a living, very few people in the world have wing-walked.
Before I indulged in my leap of faith, pilot and team leader Vic Norman, who established his squad of wingwalkers in the late 1980s, stressed to me that “more people have climbed Mount Everest than those who have wing-walked; so you’re about to become the latest member of an exclusive club.”
Wow … me, a member of an exclusive club? How awesome is that?
Vic has always been passionate about vintage aeroplanes. His dad had a successful engineering business in the UK, flew his own aircraft and passed on his love of engineering and aviation to his son. During the 1970s and early 80s Vic flew a lot of air shows in his high performance Zlin 50 monoplane. He met a pilot at a show in California who flew Stearmans and decided that a proper wingwalking act with Stearman aircraft would be something special.
“Wingwalking was popularised in the pioneering golden era of aviation in the 1920s, when flying for fun was first showcased and pilots performed amazing aerial feats, filling the sky with loops and rolls,” Vic explains. “Certain pilots and aerial performers would climb aboard the wing to perform unbelievable acrobatics from outside the cockpit.
“Modern day wingwalking preserves the spirit of the golden era but with improved safety and aircraft performance factored in.” Indeed, Vic’s company was the first to be granted permission to allow performers to climb out of the cockpit since it was restricted in the UK in 1933. In the UK, where the team is based, the unique style of aerial theatre is seen by up to six million spectators a year and by a growing audience across Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and now, Australia.
“What I particularly like is that wingwalking and what we do is not a serious activity,” Vic explains. “It’s very much a circus act so we concentrate our show to be very near the crowd, as close as we’re allowed to be. I’m a display examiner in the UK and I’m allowed to fly aerobatically down to thirty feet. We’re allowed to fly very close to the crowd. Our whole show starts with our formation and we never fly above one thousand feet. I think that because it’s like an open air circus, the whole family can relate to it: the dads who probably want to be the pilots and the mums and daughters who are thinking they’d like to be wingwalkers. It’s pretty special.”
It certainly is and in a few moments I’m about to find out just how special this caper actually is.
It’s early afternoon and I’m at Bankstown Airport in southwestern Sydney. I’ve met the Breitling team – pilots and wingwalkers alike – and I’m about to throw myself to the mercy of the elements and the expertise of pilot David Barrell.
Wingwalker Danielle Hughes kindly demonstrates how to climb onto the Stearman’s upper wing from the ground. She makes it look effortless and elegant. My efforts are far from elegant and while it takes me a wee while to clamber to the top, once I’m there she straps me into a safety harness. The “real” wingwalkers normally climb onto the wing from the front cockpit as the plane is chugging along at 1,000 feet above the ground. They then turn on an incredible display of aerial gymnastics; often while the plane performs a series of aerobatic manoeuvres. Thankfully, that’s not a requirement for yours truly.
A 24-year-old black belt in Tae Kwon Do and a former UK national champion, Danielle is into her seventh year with the team. She first saw the wing walkers when she attended an air show as a six year old.
“I saw them at an air show when I was very little and I just thought ‘wow, that looks like so much fun’,” she explains. “I just knew from that point that wingwalking was what I wanted to do when I grew up. I don’t know whether I knew it was a job back then but as I got older I looked into it more and I’d go and watch them at air shows. Then when I was eighteen, they were looking for someone new; I applied for the job and was just very lucky to get it.”
So what does it take to be a wingwalker?
“Definitely having a background in some kind of fitness activity such as Tae Kwon Do (or any martial art), dancing or gymnastics is an advantage because although we try to make it look elegant, when you’re up there it is hard work because you’re tensing your muscles and it’s quite tiring. So you definitely have to have a good level of fitness.
“In professional wingwalking you also need to be under five foot five to minimise drag. The pilots can feel every movement we make through the controls so it helps to be small. I weigh about eight and a half stone (around 54kg), so being fit and small is important.
“You also need a head for heights, be ready with a smile and have an ability to interact with the public because we’re representing Breitling, our brand, so it’s not just about flying. We like to interact with the crowds and fans at the shows. I guess that at the end of the day when you might be soaking wet after a rainy show, you’ve still got to put a smile on your face and clean the aeroplane in preparation for the next day. So being outgoing, enthusiastic and energetic are the sorts of things we’d look for if we were to recruit again.”
Once I’m strapped in, Danielle flashes a brilliant smile and wishes me good luck before alighting from the Stearman. David starts the big 450 horsepower Pratt and Whitney engine and slowly manoeuvres the aeroplane to the runup area of Runway 11 Left. Curious onlookers and even pilots snap a few photos of the strange looking man (me) perched on top of the wing of the bright orange biplane.
Despite my fear, I’m actually feeling excited, if not a mite nervous. It’s at this point that I decide I’m going to play a game. I’m going to pretend I’m flying this big old Stearman from my position atop the aircraft. I’m going to imagine I’m at the controls, roaring around the circuit at 160 kilometres per hour, following ground cues and landmarks as I complete what is likely to be the most unique circuit I’ve ever flown. That’s the plan, let’s see how it unfolds.
The control tower clears us for takeoff and as David powers the engine, the aeroplane hurtles down the runway. He maintains centreline and in no time at all, we’re airborne, the air vigorously lashing at my face and body with the increase in speed and altitude. “Wooooooohoooooo! This is awesome!” I scream at the video camera as it records my moment of truth. We climb to 500 feet and David begins a gentle turn to the left. My whole body follows the turn and I look at the ground, following the familiar landmarks around the circuit. I sneak a look into the distance and see the city skyline, a shimmering haze some 20 kilometres away. I scream again. This perspective is so different – there’s no perspex separating me from the elements, no cockpit protecting me, no instruments and I have absolutely no control over the aircraft. But I’ve flown this circuit so many times before that I actually feel good and I’m quite relaxed. The fear has dissipated and I’m enjoying the ride, even if I’m being lashed by the air flow rushing over my body. Poor aeroplane: I must be the heaviest wingwalker in history – talk about an overdose of drag!
We’re on downwind now and I know David will be making a radio call to Bankstown Tower. I decide to go through the BUMFISCH checks: “Okay, brakes are off, undercarriage is down, mixture’s full rich … you know the drill. Fuel pump is on, temperatures and pressures are in the green, switches are to “both”, carburettor heat is on and hatches and harnesses are secure.” We turn left onto the base leg and again there are checks to be completed before finally, David manoeuvres the Stearman onto finals. We’re now at 300 feet and despite the fact that the aircraft has slowed down considerably as we approach the piano keys, I’m being blown about and the air continues to pound the goggles into my face. I watch the centreline as we approach and look towards the end of the runway as David raises the nose for landing. The aircraft continues on its downward trajectory and then, without any fuss, gently caresses the earth … I’ve just completed the most amazing circuit of my life, my wingwalk is over.
“Oh yeah!” I scream, pumping my fist like a mad man. My heart beats at a vigorous tempo and a torrent of adrenaline courses through my veins as I think about what I’ve just done. “We did it, mate,” I whisper to myself. “We bloody well did it.” I feel elated and as Vic Norman promised, “invigorated” by the experience.
David taxiis the Stearman back to the hangar and Vic and Danielle are waiting as he shuts down the engine. “How did it go, Derek?” they ask. The smile on my face tells the story. “Awesome,” I reply. “I feel amazing. It was everything you said it’d be and more.” No wonder Vic, Danielle and Dave reckon they’ve got the best job in the world.
So what gives our English wingwalking trio the most satisfaction from their daring deeds?
“When we do a display and get a fantastic response from the public, it just feels really good when everyone enjoys our show,” Vic says. “Knowing that the public have really loved what we’ve done, it’s that feedback which is the most satisfying.”
David agrees. “We’re all quite modest in what we do and I just think that when you see little kids smiling and wanting to talk to the girls after the show, it’s just the best thing ever.”
So, has the wingwalk curbed my acrophobia? Hmmm, maybe a tad, but I won’t be certain until I’m standing on top of a tall building looking down at the streets below. I’ll keep you posted.