’More people have climbed Everest than wingwalked,’ is not the bon mot you want to hear when you’re strapped to the top of a Boeing biplane seconds from takeoff.
‘More people have climbed Everest than wingwalked,’ is not the bon mot you want to hear when you’re strapped to the top of a Boeing biplane seconds from takeoff.
As adventures go, a day out with Breitling AeroSuperBatics is certainly niche. But you only live once and most people don’t even do that, so I thought “why not” when asked to fly in July.
To my relief, stress gave way to serenity as the biplane swept across the Cotswolds countryside. That’s unexpected doing 150mph, yet wingwalking is very personal because by the time you’re at 500 feet, no one can see your face or hear your screams.
Essentially, it’s a rollercoaster without rails, and it’s sufficiently extreme that my Velcro-suited instructors warned me that my trousers might blow off.
Happily, that didn’t happen. But I well understood why the caution was issued.
We promise this is not a stunt double, this really is Freddy wingwalking
To begin with, my pilot meandered around Rendcomb airfield – a vital landmark as it is not only home to take-off and landing but, more importantly, a target when he plays chicken with the hangars at 30 feet.
As you puff in relief at missing, you soon realise that he’s heading skywards. And it’s not a gentle incline; it’s a vertical that NASA would be proud of.
Just below the cloud line, the engine slows and your plane – weighing one ton – is blown from side-to-side. Not comforting: modelled on a 1930s classic, it feels like it’s about to fall out of the sky.
And then it does. You free fall – even faster than skydivers – and so you wonder whether the plane is capable of arching up at the foot of the bomb.
Actually I lie. The response to imminent death is less silent contemplation and more two “Ahhhhhhs”: the first an everyday Alton Towers effort, the second a primeval roar.
Emitting such sounds is made easier by the fact that you can’t hear yourself over the engine. Moreover, your mouth is so dry from the high winds that you can barely recognise your voice anyway.
All in all, landing is the scariest part though. When airborne, you have no sense of time so you think that only two of your twenty minutes have elapsed. Therefore, when your pilot comes in to land, you think he's misjudged a loop and so you quite literally try to jump off the wing.
The Breilting team start displays in the cockpit and the crawl out mid-flight
Should this mental torture appeal then there are two ways you can take part. You can do as I did and become a temporary member of the team, or you can get the professional wingwalkers to appear at your birthday as Branson and the Sultan of Brunei are rumoured to have done.
Whereas I was strapped to the wing from takeoff, the Breitling team start displays in the cockpit and then crawl out mid-flight. That takes Herculean willpower; a feat akin to climbing a skyscraper in a hurricane and then performing ballet on top.
You’d have thought this would attract a certain character. Yet while Danielle Hughes, one of the senior wingwalkers, fits some of the stereotype, being a former Black Belt Second Dan British Champion aged 14, she’s otherwise quite down-to-earth.
Questioned how she and her teammates get adrenaline kicks elsewhere, she shrugs. One new recruit, Freya, a blonde Liverpudlian, volunteers that she’s done a sky-dive but doesn’t seem overly impressed, adding that it’s nothing compared to her current day job.
That’s understandable. Wingwalking perfectly illustrates how, in 2012, one has to flirt with death in order to feel alive. The cocoon of comfort that most Westerners enjoy can become so suffocating that they often need to break out simply to feel their natural state of vulnerability – to play the game of chance – and to experience the thrill of winning against the odds rather than the rigged nature of everyday life.
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