planes
Tuesday, 17 April 2012

ON A WING & A PRAYER …or two

For these daring dames, a day in ‘the office’ means striking balletic poses… on the wings of a plane, (yes, really). Meriel Fox joins Britain’s glamorous women wingwalkers – and hears they are looking for a new recruit

Written by Meriel Fox
I had in mind a large modern airport, but instead my satnav (never to be trusted) leads me to a foggy site deep in the Cotswolds where I can barely see further than the end of my arm. Thankfully, an aged Royal Flying Corps sign looms out of the fog and I follow the lane down to a building labelled 'The Engine Shed', outside of which is a topiary aeroplane.

Entering the building, I walk into the past. The room is filled with incredible memorabilia of the brave men in flying machines who launched the nation into the age of flight. But I'm not here to talk about male aviators – rather a remarkable and extremely daring group of lady pioneers.

044UYG 110428 0081I am greeted by a diminutive beauty running down the stairs. This is Sarah Tanner (team name: Sahara) to whom I have come to chat about her extraordinary job – as a wingwalker. In fact, she is a member of the world's only aerobatic formation wingwalking team, AeroSuperBatics. Which means that when Sarah goes to work, she doesn't sit down at a desk in front of a computer; she climbs into a jumpsuit and stands on the flimsy wings of a plane travelling at 150 miles per hour.

The team has specialised in formation display flying for over 27 years and have performed at over 2,500 events. They are seen live by more than six million spectators each year in the UK alone.

Sarah is not only the chief wingwalker of the team, but has taken on an operations role in the office working with the owner and founder (Vic Norman) and director of flying (Martyn Carrington). So whatever made her think that strapping herself to a plane and striking balletic poses could be anything but a bad idea?

'It was my boss's suggestion actually.'

'He didn't like you then?'

'Well, I had seen wingwalkers at airshows and had always loved and admired them and I loved ballet and other physical challenges such as trampolining and horse riding. This just seemed to combine several of my interests. 'I'd gained a degree in Events Management and worked at lots of exciting venues such as the Glastonbury Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe and it was while working at a hot-air balloon fiesta that I saw them again and my boss at the time pushed me into making an enquiry. The time was right and the team was looking to fill a vacant slot.'

I don't ask what happened to the previous girl. Several interviews and trials on the wing followed before she was offered the job – and she hasn't looked back.

'I love every aspect of it. Graceful ladies on the wings of a plane. But it is a challenge standing up against the wind.'

Sarah says that she is quite a shy person and not naturally gregarious, but somehow a transformation comes over her when she talks about anything to do with wingwalking. She particularly liked the fact that for once it was the ladies getting to do the dangerous bit.

But how on earth do you learn to do it?

'Well, our first lessons required a lot of climbing up and down on to a desk, to check we were agile enough to complete the manoeuvres while airborne. You have to go straight from the desk to the real thing – there is no simulator inbetween stage. It was recommended that I strengthen my arms and upper body so that I could hoist my body weight up from the cockpit on to the wing.'

As a professional wingwalker, I discover, you don't simply get strapped into a harness and fly along sedately. Oh no. In fact, you start off comfortably strapped into your cockpit seat and then, when flying at great speed, you're expected to unstrap yourself and hoist yourself up onto the upper wing to perform to the gathered crowds below.

'Oh, but its fine!' Sarah reassures me. 'The pilots slow down to 80 or 90 miles an hour when we are climbing and we are attached by a wire and two carabiners at all times. I didn't worry about the height I was at initially, I was just desperately trying to achieve getting up and the sense of satisfaction on making it was so great.

'There is a huge level of trust and a great bond between the other team members and all the pilots. We have to learn hand signals and exactly where you are allowed to stand, as a wrong foot placement could put you through the wing. If the pilot perceives any potential danger while we are above, they wiggle the wings and we climb down immediately.'

Breitling-Wingwalkers---Matt-Pearson1The team has performed in many countries and if it is going to Europe, will travel in the beautiful Boeing Stearman biplanes to the venue, aerodrome-hopping. However, if it is somewhere further afield, such as China, more complex logistics are required. The planes must be disassembled and the wings and body packed separately in crates and loaded into ships for a several-week voyage. Sarah says that she worries about the planes and can't imagine the anxiety the engineer (Tony, who spends most of the year caring lovingly for the planes) and the pilots go through checking the planes have arrived intact.

The logistics of all this is mainly Martyn's responsibility. He also selects the other pilots. The pilots need to be precise, disciplined fliers. Loose cannons need not apply.

Ex-Red Arrows pilots tend to be popular in the team as they obviously have wonderful formation-flying skills. However, this has to be combined with hours on biplanes or other vintage aircraft. Currently, two of the teams' pilots are ex-Reds, one of whom, Al Hoy, is a captain with Virgin Atlantic. He has been selected as one of the first three pilots to fly space tourism flights with Virgin Galactica and has already begun training on space simulators.

As Sarah and I chat, we are joined by another brunette beauty with flowing locks down to her shapely derrière. This is Danielle (team name: Bird) who wanted to be a wingwalker from the tender age of six.

Danni loves a challenge and is also rather competitive. She became the Tae Kwon Do Black belt second dan British Champion at the age of 14 and also holds her own Private Pilots Licence. She has ambitions to join the RAF and the other pilots are rather nervous that she is after their jobs. The real problem will be when she wants to fly the plane and wingwalk simultaneously.

I ask the girls if anything about the work scares them and their response is mutual.

'Just the rain. If it is raining when we display it hurts terribly. It is like needles being jabbed into your face and body repeatedly at 150 miles per hour.'

The red noses and make-up malfunctions – other hazards of the job – also detract from the glamour of the role. In this case, they rush off on landing to do rapid repairs to the damage before embarking on the PR element of their role.

Apparently, anyone brave enough can have a go at wingwalking. If you fancy a try or want to arrange a unique experience for a 'loved one' and you are under 13st and less than 6ft high, you can become a team member and complete a one-off, basic-training session and then perform a private display for your friends and family. Over-65s require a medical, but according to Sarah, they have had 90-year-old wingwalkers before now.

Even more exciting is the fact that come the New Year, AeroSuperBatics will be recruiting for a new wingwalking team member. It's not easy, but if you're brave enough, why not give it a whirl? Just check your life insurance first.

For more information on AeroSuperBatics, visit www.aerosuperbatics.com



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