The earliest known instance of standing on the wing of a powered aircraft was an experimental flight involving a biplane built by Colonel Samuel Franklin Cody in 1911: at Laffan’s Plain near Farnborough, Cody apparently took his two stepsons for a flight, with them standing on the lower wing. The sport seems to have taken off from there in the 1920’s US, when a surplus of aeroplanes after the First World War encouraged soldiers who had been flying in battle to buy them cheaply and go ‘barnstorming’, the first major form of civil aviation in the history of flight. Stunt pilots would fly low over villages and towns to get people’s attention, land in a farmer’s field, and put up a sign offering a ride in the plane, charging punters for a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ thrill – and often spending the night in the farmer’s barn, hence the name.
It took off because at this time airplanes were still quite rare and few people had actually been in one.
Some time later, with spectators growing bored of flyovers, wing walking, essentially an extreme form of barnstorming, started as a means of drawing people in again. Pilots would convince a friend, or a girlfriend, to climb out on to the wing of a moving plane as they flew low.
Wing walkers became known as aerialists or stunt pilots and it was a very glamorous sport
As wing walking grew as a spectator sport, competition between acts demanded ever more dangerous stunts. Variations on wing walking became more and more extreme: mid-air handstands, target shooting, even games of tennis supposedly took place while on the wings of a plane – all performed without a harness or cables, although much of this was achieved through trickery, as aerialists would have their feet discreetly strapped to the wing.
Wing stunts included handstands, hanging by one’s teeth, and transferring from one plane to another
Accidents and fatalities were common, and in the 1930’s the highly publicised death of Ethel Dare, who was the first female aerialist to switch planes mid-flight, led to a ruling by the US government that made it illegal to wing walk at altitudes below 1,500ft, effectively ending the sport for spectators. After that, the onset of the Great Depression pretty much killed off this spectator’s sport and flying circuses.
The wing walker’s first rule, however, ‘don’t let go of what you’ve got until you get hold of something better’, certainly lives on in our dog-eat-dog life.
Back in the day, some of the most famous female aerialists were Virginia Angel, Mayme Carson, Lillian Boyer (whose signature move was to jump from the wings of the plane into a moving car), Gladys Roy (an actress whose favourite trick was to play a game of tennis on the wings), Jessie Woods (who once fell off the wing of a plane at 3000 feet and survived), Bonnie Rowe (whose favourite trick was to hang off the airplane upside down), Mabel Cody, niece of Buffalo Bill Cody.
Woman wing walker Jessie Woods once fell off the wing of a plane at 3000 feet and survived
If you fancy giving wing walking a go you can: visit The Wing Walk Company for class details.