The Daredevil Wing Walking Pioneers

Jul 26, 2023 0 comments

It took less than two decades from the Wright Brothers’ initial modest flight for stunt flying to become a phenomenon. It started after the end of World War 1, when pilots came home but with adrenaline still coursing through their bodies from living life on the edge. Eager to continue their thrill-seeking adventures, they found ways to acquire planes and finance their passion for flying. Traveling from town to town, these adventurous aviators offered rides to curious spectators, earning them the nickname "barnstormers" because they would often land at a local farm and negotiate with the owners to use their fields as makeshift runways for staging air shows. During the “roaring 20s”, many daredevil pilots made a living by captivating crowds with breathtaking feats across the United States and Canada. However, the ultimate risk-takers of their time were the wing walkers, who fearlessly performed feats while perched on the wings of aircraft.

Ivan Unger and Gladys Roy play tennis on top of a biplane in 1925.

The first wing walker to perform such stunts was 26 year old Ormer Locklear. While flying for the U.S. Army Air Service, Locklear would often wriggle out of the cockpit to make repairs to the airplane mid-air. Instead of getting reprimanded, Locklear’s actions won him accolades from his commanding officer who encouraged him to perform more stunts because they boosted his colleagues' moral, and their confidence in the soundness of their Jenny biplanes. Other pilots started watching Locklear's performances and several of them started developing their own stunts, and the art of wing walking was born.

After Locklear left the Army Air Service, he became a professional barnstormer, performing in county fairs throughout North America and earning as much as $3,000 a day. Pretty soon, Locklear had become an international star. His trademark stunt included jumping from one aircraft to another, and the “Dance of Death,” in which two pilots in two aircraft would switch places in midair. He was also the first to transfer from a speeding car onto an aircraft via a rope ladder. Locklear perfected various wing walking stunts, including handstands and hanging poses. He also helped develop the impressive act of hanging from a plane solely by grasping a trapeze bar or rope ladder with his teeth. His incredible performances caught the attention of fellow aerialists, who started emulating his moves and expanding on them as barnstorming gained popularity in the early 1920s.

Ormer Locklear in 1919.

Locklear often claimed: “Safety second is my motto,” although, he wasn’t someone who tossed safety to the air. He had a definite reason for what he was doing. “I don't do these things because I want to run the risk of being killed,” he once explained. “I do it to demonstrate what can be done. Somebody has got to show the way someday we will all be flying and the more things that are attempted and accomplished, the quicker we will get there.”

In 1920, while performing an aerial stunt during the filming of the movie The Skywayman, Locklear lost control of the aircraft and plunged to his fiery death.

Locklear wasn’t the only wing walker who lost his life performing stunts. Many pilots eventually lost their lives while stunting. Still the glamour of wing walkers and their seeming invincibility was too much to resist, and many men and women took up wing walking professionally. Charles Lindbergh, before he flew nonstop from New York City to Paris, made a living performing aerial stunts in country fairs. His favorite stunt was to jump from an airplane wearing two parachutes. Shortly after his first chute opened, he would cut away from it so that he would continue to plunge toward the ground. As the audience gasped, with only seconds left before he hit the ground, Lindbergh would pull his second chute and land safely.

A wing walker stands on one leg on the wing of a Curtiss ‘Flying Jenny’ biplane in the air above New Jersey. 1920.

Aside from men, several women became well-known wing walkers. Bessie Coleman, the first African-American female licensed pilot, performed figure eights, loops, and near-ground dips. She was also a parachute jumper. Gladys Ingle’s stunts included moving from plane to plane in mid-air, and flying on the wing of a plane while it passed under a bridge. One of Ingle's stunts involved changing a tire in mid-air. In another stunt, she shot arrows at targets while wing walking. In yet another daring stunt, she stood on the wings as the pilot made loops. Lillian Boyer was the first woman to transfer from a speeding automobile to an airplane, and Gladys Roy holds the world record for a lowest parachute jump from 100 feet. Roy also played tennis while on air, walked blindfolded across the wings, and danced the Charleston.

In 1936, the US government banned wing walking below 1,500 feet, which effectively brought the practice to an end because audiences could no longer see stunts performed above that altitude. Federal regulations also started requiring stunt people to wear parachutes, whether it was part of their act or not. This was followed by increased insurance premiums that made wing walking and stunting simply unaffordable.

Wing walking was revived in the 1970s, but new rules required them to be anchored firmly to the wings of the airplane. The uncertainty of whether a wing walker was going to live or die was no longer there. Still, wing walking as a sport is catching on and its popularity is soaring, with various professional wing walkers performing around the world.

Richard Schindler practices a stunt. 1919.

Richard Schindler practices a trick on a Klemp plane piloted by Richard Perlia. 1927.

Two wing walkers perform on a biplane in 1920.

Wing walker Lillian Boyer dangles from the wing of a biplane. 1922.

Lillian Boyer wing-walks in 1922.

Lillian Boyer hangs inverted from an airplane using her leg, circa 1920s.

Gladys Ingle walks on the wings of an airplane.

Gladys Ingle balances atop a biplane. 1926.

Gladys Roy walks the wings of a Curtiss JN-4 ‘Jenny’ biplane over Los Angeles while blindfolded. 1924.

Billy Bomar and Uva Kimmey of the Howard Flying Circus wing-walk on a biplane over New York State, 1930.

# Wing Walkers, Centennial of Flight
# Wingwalking History, Silver Wings Wingwalking
# The original wing walkers who defied death, 1920-1980, Rare Historical Photos


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