A century ago, men and women used to walk on the wings of airplanes in mid-air. After a series of accidents, these “acrobats on wings” are now more restricted, but the dangerous practice still has followers and many fans.
Hundreds of meters above the ground, a biplane glides silently under a sea of clouds. Black and white images are familiar to everyone, seen hundreds of times in historical documentaries. Suddenly, a hand emerges from the cockpit, then the second, followed by the whole body. A figure proudly rises from its seat, perched on the wing of the plane, feet in the air.
Little developed before 1914, aviation took off with increasingly sophisticated engines during World War I. After the war, thousands of US military aircraft produced for the war effort were sold to individuals for a pittance. This was enough to inspire many of its owners, amateurs and enthusiasts, to create shows: the “flying circus” took off. Commercial.
At the beginning of the phenomenon, which originated in the United States and England, the tricks performed by pilots were not necessarily spectacular. It was mostly the airplanes that drew the crowds, and one loop was enough to get a standing ovation. “Barnstorming,” the term used to describe these aerial marches, took a new turn with Charles Lindbergh.
Born in the early 20th century, this aviation-obsessed American was the first to leave the cockpit mid-air above the wing to wow the crowd. “Walking on Wings” was born as a spectacle.
The event spread with caution. Ormer Locklear, a former World War I pilot, decided to take it a step further. During his military flights, he was forced to repair his engine several times in conditions more dangerous than those performed during the marches.
He later started his own Sky Acrobat company. Without lifelines, without a parachute, he moved from one wing of a plane to another. “Of course, airplanes were slower than they are today. But you still had to be fast enough not to lose your balance,” explains Stephanie Pancier-Larique, 33, a former air acrobat.
Armor Locklear was invited by Hollywood as an acrobat in 1919’s The Great Air Robbery. A year later he died in a plane crash while filming The Skywayman. The actor was supposed to simulate a plane crash in the middle of the night, but he actually fell unconscious due to ill-adjusted spotlights. The accident happened during the editing process of the film.
Women who love to walk on the wings of airplanes have been very popular since the inception of this event. One of the most famous was Gladys Ingle, an American whose exploits remain unique to this day. Before the first federal restrictions in 1929, more than 352 performances in eight years, her compatriot Lillian Boyer would not be outdone in trying to control an event that had already claimed too many lives.
Watch the Sky Acrobats perform in 2015 Dubai:
“I wouldn’t have done it at the time. I like sensations, but I’m not a kamikaze either! I remember seeing a photo of aerial acrobats playing tennis on the wing of an airplane,” says Stephanie Pancier-Larique. Worked with British company Breitling in winter 2016. Since the 1920s, the legal regulation of these air shows has evolved: lift bars have become mandatory, with multiple attachment points on the wings.
“We have screws that screw into the canopy, and the pilot checks that they’re properly secured. So, most of the time, we’re inside the airplane, sitting, and hooking up. When the airplane stabilizes at altitude, the pilot lets go. We know it takes two to five minutes to unbuckle and get ready. We Crouching down in the front seat, we take off with the pilot’s instructions to be on time and in sync with the other aircraft. Once out, we actually have a routine where we crouch down and then hold onto the top support on the upper wing of the plane and lift ourselves up. Pull up to the upper wing, strap ourselves in and start the demonstration.” — Stephanie Pancier-Larrick, a former sky acrobat, talks about a performance routine.
The ex-stewardess tried everything on the wings of this Brit plane during an aerobatics experience: “After the aerobatic flight, the instructor came to untie us. When I came down, he was grinning from ear to ear. I said: ‘You’ll think I’m ugly, but Here’s my CV.’ And I was lucky: after a while, they asked me to do the season with them!”, he recalls.
Stephanie traveled to the United Arab Emirates and performed with two planes: two “acrobats on wings” mirroring each other, repeating the same gestures in choreography. “Very few women walk on the wing. The plane has to be modified to accommodate the weight on a wing; it’s designed for lighter people,” she explains.
Real flying feeling
If you could feel Stephanie sitting on the fuselage of her car if you could reach out your hand out the highway window at 130 km/h, multiply that speed by two, and rub the sensation all over your body. .
“We fly about 150 miles per hour, about 250 km per hour, at high speeds, so of course we pick up Gs, -2 Gs to +4.5 Gs. It’s painful,” recalls the former acrobat. “+4.5 Gs feels like 4.5 times Earth’s gravity,” he explains.
In fact, in this purely Anglo-Saxon tradition, the planes are still Stierman models, but the engine has been upgraded to go twice as fast. At this speed, the feeling of impact increases manifold. Even with glasses, the face remains uncovered: “When it’s raining, you have to imagine needles piercing your whole body and face, so it’s better not to overdo it. [acrobacias no ar] When it rains in England,” laughs Stephanie.
But some of these imperfections are not created by the sensation of flying loosely on the wings of an airplane. “There’s a lot of adrenaline, […] The sensations of aerial acrobatics are incredible, at a certain point, you forget that you are in an airplane and feel that you are actually flying. The wind in your face, the force of the wind against your body… these are truly magical images.
For personal reasons, Stephanie stopped performing with her Breitling. But she admits she wouldn’t hesitate for a moment if invited to perform “acrobatics on wings” in France.
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