On a wing and a prayer.
Jana Leigh McWhorter
My heart skipped a beat as I heard the announcer introduce me to the crowd. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, for the first time ever performing the daring wing walking routine... Miss Jana Leigh! The crowd let out a roar of applause as I began to work my way to the air field. With my head held high, I raised my hand and began waving to the enthusiastic crowd. As I walked by them, I noticed their faces. Some were enthralled just waiting with anticipation of what they thought might happen to me; others looked intently at me in disbelief. The expressions on their faces said it all, they thought I was crazy, and I had to admit I questioned my own sanity. Still others I could tell were just plain scared for me... but not half as much as I was. With my heart pounding I entered through the gate and onto the airfield. I thought to myself, am I really going to do this? Nervously, but confidently, I approached the biplane like a bull rider to the bull. I reviewed in my mind what I thought had become second nature to me. Nothing could prepare me for what I was about to do. Life or death was literally hanging in the balance - it was all up to me.
It all began in the month of May. It was Mother's day 2004 to be exact. My friend at the time, who was responsible for getting me into aviation, had planned a trip for us. We were going to fly in his plane down to Virginia to see the Flying Circus Air Show in Bealeton. I remember the day well. It was a beautiful, sunny day - a perfect day for flying. We left early and were to fly into the Warrenton airport since we were not able to land his plane at the Flying Circus aerodrome. I remember being very excited about seeing the show. My friend had been to see the Flying Circus before and was anxious for me to experience it. I had just finished my ground school training for my private pilot's license and was looking forward to the trip. I knew the show would be a thrill, but what tickled me even more was that I would get to fly his plane to Virginia to Pennsylvania.
We landed at the Warrenton airport around noon. We notified the Flying Circus of our arrival, and we were told someone would be out shortly to pick us up. It wasn't long before our transportation arrived. I remember the driver being rather friendly. He introduced himself and shook my friend's hand. His red pathfinder was adorned with Flying Circus logos, and he sported a Flying Circus ball cap. Ha had a cute smile with one predominant dimple. He opened the front door of his car for me to get in, and then struck my friend in the back. He smiled at me and I smiled back as began to travel down back roads eventually arriving at the Flying Circus Aerodrome. We thanked him for the ride, and I found myself immediately mesmerized by the beautiful biplanes. The sound of their powerful engines filed the air. In the background I could hear the big band sounds of the 1940's. It was as if it was 1940 all over again.
I had to concentrate on walking as I made my way over to the beautiful airplanes. There were Stearmans and Wacos of all different colors and markings. My friend caught up and the two of us made our way over to Fifi's cafe. We purchased a couple of hamburgers, and headed for the wooden benches to find ourselves a seat.
It was 2:30 in the afternoon when the show began. The pilots arrived onto the airfield piled onto an old beat up Oldsmobile. It was quite funny. As they were introduce, one by one, they began to hop off the old car and into the cockpit of their airplanes. The show consisted of humor both on he ground and in the air. It was educational as well as we relived the history of the Barnstorming era. There was a mail bag pick up, and a game of balloon popping. The pilots would take turns trying to hit the balloons released form the ground with the props of their airplanes. The pilot who was able to pop the most balloons was the winner. We were told this was common World War Two practice for the pilots to help them with target practice. I marveled at the strategically articulated performances of these pilots. they had no radio communication between each other but yet were able to accomplish the most intricate of flight patterns. It seemed to me this could only be accomplished through many years of flying together.
Although the aerobatic part of the show had impressed me the most, I waited with anticipation for the grand finale... the wing walk act. My eyes were fixed on the airfield as the announcer set the stage for the next, crucial act. He explained how there would be no use pf a parachute during the wing walk routine due to the fact the maneuvers would be performed to close to the ground. Most of the acts were performed anywhere form 300 to 500 feet, there would be no use of a tether line. The wing walker would be relying solely on his upped body strength to keep himself on the plane. He soon appeared our of the crowd wearing a bright red jump suit. He began waving to the crowd and then hoped over the fence and onto the wing of the Stearman biplane. I watched intently as he climbed into the cockpit and donned his helmet and goggles. After takeoff, I continued to watch in awe as this brave man made his way down he length of the wing and out to the end strut. The plane made a second pass, and I held my breath as I watched him lower himself underneath the wing of the fast moving plane, suspended only by his ankles. He then began to work his way back to the cockpit once again keeping us in suspense as he pulled himself to the top wing. One on the top, the plane began to dive for speed. I was completely amazed as the plane executed a perfect loop in eh sky. He literally hung upside down from eh top wing of the plane! I could see him waving his arms against the blue sky.
Without taking my eyes off of him, I said to my friend, "I want to do that." "Yeah right", he said! "No, I'm serious", I said "I WANT to do that." The show ended all too soon with the four biplanes flying in perfect formation to "America the Beautiful". After the planes landed, the other planes joined them as they lined up wingtip to wing tip in a straight line facing the crowd. They began to taxi in unison and stopped in front of the fence towards the audience. They shut down their engines and it was announced that the crowd could now enter the airfield and get a closer look at the biplanes. We would also be able to get autographs front eh pilots as well. I was first in line as I headed straight for the 450 horsepower Stearman painted in black and silver sunburst. It was the plane that carried the wing walker that thrilled me so much.
"Are you by any chance looking for another wingwalker?" I asked the pilot standing by the Stearman. 'You?" he asked with a smirk on his face. My friend turned his head and looked at me in disbelief. "Yes"< I said as a I cleared my throat, "me". For a split second, I wondered if I had what it took to become a wingwalker. I thought to myself about how much physical strength it must take to become a wing walker, not to mention, the need to have nerves of steel. The pilot pointed at my four inch heels "You sure wouldn't be able to walk in those - that's for sure". We all laughed as I continued to ask more questions. It turned out the show was in fact looking for a female wingwalker. I was ecstatic he handed me his business card and told me to call him If I was serious about becoming a wingwalker. I remember that's all talked about on the way back to Pennsylvania. It wasn't long before I made the call to set up the audition. the greatest adventure of my life was about to begin, in more ways than one.
The day I arrived at the Flying Circus, I realized that traveling back and forth on Sundays to the show was going to make for some very long days. That in and of itself made me question if I should continue with this fantasy obsession of becoming a wingwalker. As soon as I got to the air show, I sat down on the wooden bleachers and waited for John King. As the president of the Flying Circus he would be the one who would be responsible for interviewing me for the position. I was met instead by a very nice gentleman dark hair and a distinguished mustache. You could tell he was a pilot and you could also tell he was passionate about aviation. He introduced himself to me as John and I in turn told him my name was Jana Leigh. He asked if it was my first time to see the show. I explained to him thaw tit wasn't and that I was there to audition for the wingwalking position. He grinned ear to ear and said, "Come with me". He began introducing me to all the pilots as the new Flying Circus wingwalker. My heart sunk. What if I couldn't do it? What if I changed my mind? He led me over tot eh hanger and as we entered it I once again laid eyes on the 450 Stearman biplane. For a brief second I imagined myself getting into the cockpit and climbing onto the wing, an enthusiastic crowd cheering my in he background. As I stood there day dreaming, I was reluctantly pulled back to reality when John tapped me on he shoulder and said, "Come right this way". He led me to the briefing room where the show was rehearsed each Sunday. My introduction during the air show briefing that day I had to admit was a little intimidating. I was a woman coming into a man's world, and although their comments were cynical even down right crude, I was determined to stick it out. I was there to wingwalk and nothing else.
My audition began after the show that day with the test of my physical strength and endurance. They needed to see if I had the upper body strength it would take to be able to pull myself up onto the wing in flight. Countless sit ups were also performed to see if I would have the ability to pull myself up form underneath the wing in flight as well. I was reminded that only the strength in my upper body was what would be used to in keeping me on the wing, and that three points of contact would have to used at all times. the exercises were performed on the ground, and then I was asked to perform the same exercise on the wing of the plane while it remained motionless. I was told many a novice wingwalker would chicken out once the plane's engine was actually started and the plane began to taxi. Would that be me? I wondered. Would I allow myself to be intimidated by this beast? It was also emphasized that there needed to be a strong communication between the pilot and the wing walker, and that hand signals has to be learned. Once I discovered the physical strength part of the audition, the attention was then turned to my height. I need to be tall enough to be able to straddle the javelin that rested between the wings. With me being only 5 feet tall this became quite a challenge. I discovered with the proper attire and stretching exercises, I was soon able to overcome my 'short comings'. I had proven I had what it took to become a wingwalker, but the real test was yet to come.
He introduced himself to me that day as Jim. There was something very familiar about him, but I couldn't quite place it. Several weeks had passed and I found myself living for Sundays. I was trained under the guidance of seasoned circus wingwalkers. I would get there early and train before each show and again after each show. I would practice the routine over and over until it became second nature to me. When I wasn't practicing I would help setup the props for the other acts in the air show. I was even called on to play a character in the show form time to time.
The days were long and hot and the drive to and from Virginia once again made me question my commitment to become a wingwalker. Some days my ankles would hurt so bad from locking them into position around the N strut as I hung below the wing. A custom bar had to be put in place to help me to be able to complete the move with ease. There would be no room for error. One wrong move could spell disaster, the day I performed the routine as the plane taxied along the runway, was the day I felt I made a major accomplishment in my training. At the random times I would be asked to perform the routine, If I places a hand or foot out of sequence, or even if I hesitated in placement of a hand or foot I was told I wasn't ready yet. I became anxious and wondered if the day would ever come that I would actually wingwalk.
By this time Jim had started asking me out after the show. after the second time that I turned him down he devised a plan. He asked me where the closest airport to my house was an offered to come pick me up in his airplane on Sundays. How could I resist? Not only would I not have to drive anymore, pay for gas and tolls, but I would be able to fly! I said "Yes!" His plan had worked. During the following weeks, flying back and forth from Pennsylvania tot eh Flying Circus , we really got to know each other pretty well. We soon started dating and were the object of much Circus gossip I'm sure.
When it came time for me to do my first actual wingwalk, Jim was there. John King, the same pilot who I had seen fly the wingwalker my very first visit tot he Circus and the president of the show, was going to be my pilot for the day. John and his son Jonnie Jr. were a father and son wingwalking team, and had been flying together for many years. With Johnnie's help in training me and John's piloting skills, I felt confident.
The time finally come and I was ready. After much review, I hoped onto the wing and into the cockpit. A million thoughts went racing through my head that day as the plane taxied down the runway. As I fastened my seat belt and adjusted my goggles I thought to myself, Am I crazy? What is this going to fee like? Will I be able to remember all my steps under the pressure" What if" ... I knew I had to remain focused. I said a prayer, and off we went. Soon the plane lifted off the ground and up into the clear blue sky. My heart felt like it was beating outside my chest, and my heads began to sweat as I held tightly tot he hand rails.
Looking in the mirror I could see John. I nervously waited for him to give me the signal to exit the airplane. When the signal was given, I could hear the engine begin to slow down. I immediately released my safety belt, and began to lift myself up front he cockpit. I reached for the left handle grip. I then grabbed the right grip with my right hand. My grip was tight and firm. I stood on the seat and lifted my left foot over the side of the plane and out onto the wing. I gripped the strut as tightly as I could with my right hand and with my left hand reached out tog grab the fly wire. Once I was completely out, the wind began to surge all around me, trying it's hardest to blow me off the wing. I began to balance myself along the wing, fighting the turbulence all the he way. I needed to make sure that I placed only the ball of my foot onto the ribbets of the fabric covered wing. Visions from the movie " the Great Waldo Pepper" bomb barded my mind. I began to think out loud, left hand, left foot, right hand right foot. Would I be able to clear the javelin? As I stretched out my leg to lift it over the javelin, the wind forcible blew it back. I mustered up all the strength and control and tried again. I was half way! I told myself, you can do this! Each time I would step. I could feel the plane drop out form under my foot, it would rise up to meet it once again. I had managed my way to work my way safely to the end of the strut, although the haunting reality was that I was going to have to work my way back to the cockpit eventually. I secured myself into position and looked down. Everything was so small. I could see people pointing to me from the nearby golf course. The plane made a turn and I soon found myself flying over the Flying Circus. As we came upon the show line, I noticed that Jim along with the other pilots, and ground crew, had lined up to watch my wingwalking debut. They all appeared to be so rigid and had been holding their breath as they watched me maneuver out along the wing and to the outer strut. I decided to put their minds at ease by blowing them a kiss. It worked! They immediately began to move about and I knew I had succeeded in relieving their fears. The second hand signal was then given, confirming it was now safe for me to maneuver myself back across the wing and back into the cockpit. I had to reverse my steps, each one strategically placed being careful not to step on any fabric part of the wing. The cockpit might as well as have been a mile away, and it seemed like an eternity getting back. I began again, right hand, right foot, left hand, left foot. As I came upon the javelin, I gently but forcefully lifted my right leg over, my left leg clumsily trailing behind. Soon I found myself safely on the other side. As I worked my way towards the cockpit into the prop blast, the wind force became even stronger than it had before. IT became quite hard for me to hold on.. The constant beating of the wind was making me weak. Just when I thought I was in the clear the unexpected happened. Oil from the engine splattered across my face and across my goggles obscuring my view. It shocked me and I froze not sure what to do next. All I knew was letting go was not an option. I became frustrated not being able to clear my goggles. I also knew there was danger in that the oil would make a slick surface. This was something I hadn't anticipated; my concentration was broken. As I clung onto the fly wires outside of the cockpit, my strength dwindling, I could see the look of concern on John's face through a clear spot in my goggles. I took a deep breath and began regain my composure. I once again became focused and strength seemed to come over me from nowhere. As I reached around tow here I knew the hand hold to be, I was relived when I found it. I began to pull myself back into the cockpit and shaking as I cleared off my goggles. My heart pounding a mile a minute, my mouth incredible dry from the wind and nerves. Exhausted I looked at John. He had a look of relief on his face. I was back in the
cockpit safe and secure and ready to return to the ground. Just then, to my surprise, John gave me the signal to get out once again from the security of the cockpit. Was he crazy? I thought he had to be kidding, but he wasn't. I guess he thought it was like falling off a horse, and that I needed to get right back out again. As weak as I was, I stood up on the seat and managed to muster up the last of my strength to pull myself up out of the cockpit. Every attempt I made to place my foot in the hand hold was a struggle. (Note from Margi: Jana is now climbing to the top wing of the Stearman where there is a pole or rack.) Finally, I succeeded and after I was in position, I placed my back against the stantion. I fastened the waist belt and gave the signal for my next feat ... the loop. We began to descent like a roller coaster on it's way down a sharp decline, increasing to a speed of about 150 mph plus. There was a strong pull as I felt the g forces take control of my body. A few seconds later I felt weightless as centrifugal force worked it's magic. I watched in amazement as an upside down world appeared before my eyes. In the midst of my fear I actually began to laugh as I experienced the beauty of it all. Then all too soon, the strong pull of the g forces were felt once against we came out of the loop. The plane leveled off and with wonder and amazement I was able to take in the moment. I could see for miles and it was the most beautiful site. It was so peaceful in spite of the deafening roar of the engine. At the pilot's cue, I unfastened my waist best and once again carefully made my way back to the safety of the cockpit. I fastened my seatbelt as we began to make out descent back to the ground.
Upon landing, I unfastened my safety belt and threw off my goggles. I climbed out of the plane and down off the wing, my legs like Jell-o quivered upon reaching the solid ground. I was met with cheers and laughter without warning; a barrel of ice water was dumped over me as I was "christened" the new Flying Circus Wing Walker. Jim was there to congratulate me and gave me a big hug. I was truly happy! I had done it!
I was anxious to fly my first show. I had trained all season and felt that I was more than ready. I remember sitting with Jim in the briefing room. I had checked the line up board several times to see who would be wing walking that day. The name was blank - no one knew. As John King briefed the air show line up, he finally got to the Wing Walking act of the show. He looked at the board - and then turned to face everyone and asked "Anyone to wingwalk today?" I jumped to my feet with excitement and raising my hand, I shouted,"Me! I want to wing walk!" There was a huge cheer as John announced that he thought it was time for me to do my first show.
Kirk Wicker would be my pilot for my first show. Kirk was not only an East coast aerobatic champion, but he also had many years of experience fling with wing walkers. He and I practiced the routine several times together and I felt comfortable and safe with him as my pilot.
I dedicated my firs wing walk to Jim and to all the members of the Flying Circus. What a day that was, I hoped onto the wing of the plane and into the cockpit. The crowd cheering me on. My dream was about to come true.
My first wing walk went smoothly and was over before I realized it. It felt so good that day to sign autographs.. Jana Leigh ...wing walker. I felt that I had become part of the Flying Circus family so to speak and soon in a very special way, I did.
In October 2004 the Last show of the season, something very special happened. A the conclusion of the show briefing, John asked if there were any announcements, as was the practice, he then called on Jim. I had no idea what was about to happen. Standing before Circus pilots, ground crew, and guests, Jim asked for my hand in marriage, and I accepted! The room was filled with cheers and congratulations as Jima and I embraced each other. My heart was pounding with excitement - he had really done it- Jim has asked me to marry him and I had really said "yes".
I often wonder how differently my life would have been had I not "runaway and joined the Flying Circus." Fate has a way a playing itself out most times in ways that we would least expect it. I also reflect on my first trip tot eh Flying Circus. Yes in case you were wondering, it was Jim who picked me up a the Warrenton Airport that warm wonderful day in May. He later told me that he had laid his eye on me that day and thought my boyfriend in his words was " The luckiest man in the world to have such a beautiful woman". He later told me that my boyfriend had offered money for the ride tot he show. Jim had countered with" I'd rather have your girlfriend". Little did he know!