Barnstorming bi-plane pilots and their daring stuntmen caught America's imagination just as aviation was taking flight. They were the original ambassadors of flight giving regular folk a chance to see their world from a bird's eye view. This was the 1920's, flappers danced the Charleston. Behind the doors of the speakeasys, underground clubs that offered illegal booze so it was important to speak softly or "easy", champagne flowed and everyone lived like they were immortal.
How did this all start? Let's back up in time a bit. The first powered flight was in 1903 by Orville Wright, the younger of the Wright brothers. At that time everyone was racing to be the first in the air. Ideas and inventions abounded. A short decade later the airplane in its' many configurations made a sensation at expositions, air races, and "airfairs." Known as 'those magnificent men and their flying machines' they wowed audiences and captured the ladies' hearts.
WWI erupted and this is where wingwalking takes root.
The first wingwalker to perform daring stunts was a 26 year old Ormer Locklear. Legend has it that he first climbed out onto the lower wings during his pilot training in the Army Air Service during World War One. Undaunted and clearly bitten by the wingwalking bug, Ormer just climbed out of the cockpit onto the wings in flight whenever there was a mechanical issue and fixed the problem.
Necessity gave way to showmanship and on November 8, 1918, Locklear wowed the crowd at Barron Field, Texas, with his dare devil wingwalking stunts.
After this first demonstration, wingwalkers continued to play an important part in the Army Air Corps (now the U.S. Air Force) and Navy in the advancement of aviation.. They were instrumental in the first air ot air refueling as well as long distances flight records. In 1921, one brave man, Wesley May, strapped a fuel tank on his back and performed a plane to plane transfer. Additional tests were undertaken and a hose with aide of a wingwalker was the next exploration into aerial refueling.
WWI ended and pilots came home. They still flushed with adrenaline from living life on the edge. They found ways to buy planes, usually a Jenny, and to finance their adventure of flying they hopped from town to town giving rides. They landed in the nicest field they could find often with a barn in it, hence the name BARNSTORMERS. To let everyone in town know they were there, they created little dramas like flying down main street, "loop de looping," and the big attraction - flying with a wingwalker out on the wing, often one of the pilots themselves.
Ormer Locklear lead the charge with his plane to plane transfer and many followed. His female equivalent, the first woman to switch planes in the air, was Ethal Dare.
Some of the many aerialists to make a name for themselves were Tiny Broberick, Gladys Ingles, Eddie Angel, Clyde Pangborn, Lillian Boyer, Jack Shack, Al Wilson, Fronty Nichols, Spider Matlock, Gladys Roy, Ivan Unger, Jessie Woods, Charles Lindbergh and Mabel Cody, niece of Buffalo Bill Cody.
Flying circuses formed and they featured many of these stunt people. Promoters would herald the way with posters hyping up the danger and the new celebrities would perform.
Some famous early flying circuses or troops were The Gates Flying Circus, the Flying Aces Air Circus (Jimmy and Jessie Woods), The 13 Black Cats, The Five Blackbirds (an all African American team), Mabel Cody's Flying Circus, Bugs McGowen's Flying Circus,and a troop run by Douglas Davis.
The Gates Flying Circus is perhaps the organization that made the most impression on the public. In one day alone they gave 980 rides. This was done by pilot Bill Brooks at the Stuebenville Airshow in Ohio. Their one dollar joy ride was a sensation.
Others charged a penny per pound.
The stock market crash in 1929 folded many of the more prominent flying circuses, like the Gates Flying Circus. Smaller operations like the Flying Aces with Jimmy and Jessie Woods continued until the 1938 Air Commerce act required them to wear a parachute.
The CAA granted one waiver to the Fordon-Brown National Air Show which lasted until 1940 and America focused on World War Two.
Jessie Woods explained "They started making it harder and harder for us ....They made the waivers that we had to get so outlandish that you could not just put on an airshow and obey the rules."
The golden age of barnstorming came to a standstill during WWII.
After the war, undaunted by the rules, creative and energetic young talent took to the skies.
Teenager Cliff Rose, who later became a premier stuntman in Hollywood, made history with his famous "Batwing Death Spiral." Out of Long Beach, California, Cliff performed parachute jumps at 400 feet. He would pull the rib cord of his chute even before he let go of the Stearman. His pilot paid him an extra $50 or $60 to hit the target in front of the audience. Cliff said it was like stealing candy from a baby, "at that height how could one miss."
Another stuntmen, Cliff Winters, continued this tradition in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
About that same time after service to their country in World War II, other teams were formed including the Hollywood Hawks and the Cole Brothers' flying circus. Duane Cole and his brothers formed the Cole Brothers Flying Circus. His first two wing-riders were Byron Bryner and Merle Torrance. (A wing-rider is someone who stays in the same place on the plane during the entire flight vs a wingwalker who walks about the plane in flight.). Initially the men would stand on the top wing with their feet attached to the center section and cables around their waist. In 1950, After Merle broke both his ankles and his knees collapsed from standing up on the top wing while the plane was performing aerobatics, the first wing-rider stand was built. Other wing riders were Lloyd Stoner, Dave Turner, Eldon Peter, and Edward Tate. The ladies, Donna Vandemark and Judy Cole, joined the entertainment in 1957. By the 1960s Marion Cole sold his Stearman to Bill Adams and Judy Cole continued her act on his wing. The other team to boast a wing-rider was Harold Krier flying a Great Lakes with wing-rider Red Grant.
Aerial acts inspired others and Terry Holmes, Judy Cole's cousin, teamed with a Californian duster pilot Bud Fountain and Clyde Parsons to form the "Gold Coast Air Shows." In the northeast Rod Jocelyn and Bob Trauger fascinated crowds and performing on the Atlantic coast form Jersey to Florida was Mel Robinson with Shirley Stafford atop his Stearman.
By 1965 most of these acts had retired and a new generation of aerialist took the stage. Walt Pierce of American Barnstormer and his wife Sandi
In the mid 1970s, Ron David, a pilot and gifted narrator, became the director of the Flying Circus in Bealeton Virginia. Under his stewardship he returned this particular airshow back to it's barnstorming roots and included a wingwalking act. Since the Flying Circus aerodrome was a grass field, he asked the CAA to allow the wingwalker out of cockpit during flight and return back into the cockpit, so the wingwalker could be strapped in for take off and landing. His concern was talking off or landing with a wing-rider on the top wing and the chance of the plane flipping over if it hit a rut in the grass field. He was granted permission. His first wingwalker was Bill FitzSimons, a jumper with the Flying Circus. Bill left to continue his act around the country with pilot Ron Shelley. Jim Bradley, Bill's understudy, stepped in. Jim was a member of the Saint Michael's Angels there in the Flying Circus Aerodrome in Bealeton, Virginia.
When his Army duty called him, he choose Hank Henry to continue wingwalking with Ron. Hank wingwalked a year and Ron advertised for a new wingwalker. Nour Jurgenson responded to the ad. (Click here to read the inspiring story of Ron and Nour.) Jim Bradley, Hank Henry, and Nour Jurgenson busted the boundaries of wingwalking. The stuntwork they pioneered is still state of the art and continues to inspire wingwalkers around the world.
The Flying Circus continues this grand tradition at their airfield today. Perhaps the most famous Flying Circus wingwalking act is the Wicker's "Beauty and the Beast" routine performed in the 1990s.
See the side panel for a list of other acts at this time.
The showman who really cemented the foundation for all modern day wingwalk airshow acts is Johnny Kazian. (Click here for a recent article about Johnny.) He created new and daring stuntwork on planes that were many times more powerful than the ones used in the 1920s and 1930s and he did so without the use of any safety lines. He started in the 1965 and continued innovating new stunts on the wing for four plus decades with airshow greats Joe Huges, Art Scholl, Jimmy Franklin, and Dave Dacy. He generated national (U.S.) interest in wingwalking by performing in shows such as "You asked for it," (four times) and "That's incredible" (three times.) Teaming with movie stunt pilots Frank Tallman and Art Scholl, he invented stunts for many movies including "The Great Waldo Pepper" and "The Stuntman." Today he still makes appearances on the wing as part of three generations of Kazian's wingwalking with pilot Dave Dacy. (Today, his gifted son Tony Kazian is lead wingwalker for the Dacys.) Johnny has amassed over 3000 hours on the wing performing all around the globe and he continues to inspire wingwalkers today. Wingwalker Margaret Stivers says "Johnny set the standard by which we still try and reach for today. He is the greatest."
Equaling Johnnie Kazian's daring is stuntman Eddie "the Grip" Green, an unassuming, wiry, can do anything guy. Eddie would open shows by skydiving in with the American and Canadian flags. He would perform a car to plane transfer and then proceed with his wingwalk act act the apex of which was a ribbon pickup from a rope ladder suspended beneath the airplane. At 3.187 transfers, it is safe to say Eddie has boarded an airplane from a speeding car via a rope ladder more times than any other human being. During his 45 year career as a stuntman, Eddie performed with pilots Harold Krier, Bill Barber, Bob Barden and Jimmy Franklin. Todd, Eddie's son, continues the tradition his father founded with the United team performing a Stearman to Helicopter transfer. Both Father and son continue to inspire today's generation of wingwalkers.
Thanks to Johnny Kazian and Eddie Green wingwalking gained momentum. In addition to the mighty Stearman bi-plane, performers began innovating new approaches on different planes like the Waco, Ag Cat, Tiger Moth, Antonov, helicopter, and even an Ultralight. New top wing racks and gear axle trapezes were designed allowing a variety of stuntwork and teams pioneered their own creative style thus paving the way for today's wingwalkers.
Now wingwalking teams are performing around the world and its popularity is soaring. All inspire audiences as well as each other. Each act is unique reflecting the type of plane, pilot, and wingwalker. Wingwalking acts performing today push the boundaries of their sport and art while not forgetting the roots of their barnstorming tradition.
More to come see note below.
Barnstorming pilots of the 1920's were the true harbingers of aviation bringing the adventure of flying to the everyday person. Wingwalkers were their attention getting advertising. Their slogan:
"COME FLY WITH ME."
Ormer Locklear in the Air service
"Locklear: The man who walked on wings.": by Art Ronnie
Lindbergh in his barnstorming days
He went on to fly to Paris in the
Spirit of Saint Louis and became an aviation hero.
From the voice of Margaret Stivers
"I had the opportunity to meet Jessie Woods before she died.
She told me this story.
Before shows they would look through the town and find a stray cat. They had little parachutes for the animals and they would drop them from the plane and then give the hero cat a good home to some lucky person in the crowd. Well that worked just fine until one day they used a big tom cat. The last time Jessie saw that Tom Cat was an orange streak across the airfield with a little parachute twirling behind him.
Since I'm an animal lover, I'm glad the cat survived but I couldn't help but laugh at the image. "
past and present , at the ICAS 2005 convention, Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S.A.
Front Row:(all wingwalkers) Lee Oman, Tony Kazian, Johnny Kazian,Todd Green
Middle Row: wingwalkers, Allen Silver, Ashley Battles, Jenny Forsythe, Melissa Hawks, Teresa Stokes, Margaret Stivers holding hands with pilot/husband Hartley Folstad, who is standing next to Helicopter pilot Roger Buis.
Rear (all pilots,) Eddie Andreini, Greg Shelton, Bob Essell, Walt Pierce, Gene Soucy, Jimmy Franklin, and John Mohr
Other influential American wingwalker teams past, since the barnstorming era, and present.
Note: If you have photos of a team, please send a photo, date, name of team and country.
Exert From Timeless voices of Aviation
Jessie Schulz Woods
"So I got out of the cockpit my first time...
I just knew I was entering the last moments of my life! My mouth was dry and I just knew this was it... Well I stepped out into the blast and I almost fell right off right then I was so surprised! I overcame that, and made my way out onto the wing though the wires. That stupid rope got tangled in the wires and I decided this wasn't for me."
We welcome all information regarding wingwalking history. If you have any knowledge on wingwalking/wing-riding history, especially internationally, please contact us so we can reflect the facts as accurately as possible. Also If you see an error, please let us know.
Please include dates, names, locations, type of plane, any photos, if the stunt-person wore a parachute and any information that can easily verified. Please e-mail us at
Cliff Winters @Late 1950s or early 1960s.
Bud Fountain flying wing-rider Terry Holmes, Merced, CA, 1963.
Photo by Jim Larson.
Joes Huges flying with wingwalker Francis McCollum, mid 1970s
January, 1929, Burbank , CA, air to air refueling.
From Coyotelog 190th air refueling wing.
The Internet has opened many doors of exploration. It can be an exceptional learning tool. As the printing press was in Gutenberg’s day to Europe, so is the internet to the world today. Ideas, good and bad, can be shared and disseminated at astonishing speed. It can also be abused. It is up to the reader to hold judgment and discern ethics.
Please be aware that certain online encyclopedia have plagiarized some of the above paragraphs. They have taken, in some cases, our exact words without our permission and they have set them in time but out of context with concurrent wingwalkers thus neglecting the many contributions to the wingwalking field by well deserving others or slanting the importance of one team over another.
Collecting the many voices that are familiar with wingwalking takes time and it is an ongoing process. The above history on our web page leaves many gaps and it also stops short around the 1980s. The professional Wingwalkers International Network is currently working on collecting information on the many talented wingwalkers, active and retired, that have earned a place in the wingwalking world. They hope to honor all their contributions. This page will then refer to a more updated history of recent wingwalkers (1960s onward.)
Please be patient while the group assembles all this information.