Monday 24 October 2016

On a wing and a prayer - braving a wing-walk at 500 feet

The all-female Breitling Wingwalkers will be among the top attractions at Bray Air Display this weekend. Writer Deirdre Reynolds joined them at their UK base for an airbound experience she'd never forget

Published 23/07/2016 | 07:00

Something in the air: Deirdre Reynolds braves the wingwalk at 500ft at the Breitling Wingwalkers base in Gloucestershire
Something in the air: Deirdre Reynolds braves the wingwalk at 500ft at the Breitling Wingwalkers base in Gloucestershire

Have you ever been sorry you agreed to do something?

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Strapped to the outside of a biplane as it sliced through the air at 100 miles per hour, I know I have.

For once, I can't even blame my editor. It was me who volunteered to give the fast-growing trend known as wingwalking a go this week.

Much like Melania Trump though, as I watched the experienced wingwalker ahead of me doing loop-the-loops overhead, I soon regretted ever opening my mouth.

Then again it was regret that got me into this windswept mess in the first place.

As a rookie reporter some years ago, I had the opportunity to try the then almost unheard of activity - and completely bottled it.

So when I got a second chance to tick the pulse-pounding sport off my bucket list, I grabbed it with both white-knuckled hands.

Bray Air Display takes place for the eleventh time this weekend, and the Breitling Wingwalkers from AeroSuperBatics in the UK are just one of the groups who'll be entertaining the crowds in the seaside town.

As the world's only formation air routine, the glamorous female wingwalkers are famous for performing a dazzling sequence of acrobatic manoeuvres -all while attached to the top wings of a Boeing Stearman.

But I wasn't going for dazzling sequences of acrobatic manoeuvres. As a first-time wingwalker, my main aim was simply to cling on for dear life.

Despite being popularised by Karl Pilkington on one particularly memorable episode of 'An Idiot Abroad', back in 2011, a clip I made the rookie error of rewatching the night before my own wingwalk, the extreme activity is not yet available in Ireland.

Sick of skydiving and jaded by jet skiing however, it seems more and more adrenalin junkies here are jetting over to the Gloucestershire-based airfield to give the newest high a whirl.

"We've had people from Ireland, India, Japan, Dubai, Australia," says pilot Vic Norman, who founded the company in 1987 using a crop-dusting plane he bought in the States. "It's just become incredibly popular. We get people from right across the board - we get 18 year-olds and we get 80-year-olds who suddenly want to do something exciting, but they don't want to jump out of a plane.

"Basically, I think they're doing it because it's different. It's also a jolly nice thing to have a picture of yourself [doing] at home in the loo or wherever - it's a good conversation piece."

Having previously hurled myself out of a plane at 15,000 ft, I figured being safely secured to one at just 500ft would be a breeze. But by the time I was buckled into place, I wasn't sure which was churning more loudly - my stomach or the engine.

At a petite 5'2" and 9 stone, I've apparently got the perfect dimensions for doing a Superwoman impression.

Human airbrakes over 6'2" or 14 stone can't participate as they slow the plane down too much, while the madcap activity is also strictly over-18s.

Not that this was of any consolation as the ledge I was perched upon began to wobble as pilot David put the foot to the floor in preparation for takeoff.

Since I'd already signed my life away, once in the air, there was little choice but to go with the flow - and try not to throw up.

At €399 for around ten minutes in the air, wingwalking is certainly a once in a lifetime experience. Unless, of course, you're Florence Rolleston-Smith, who quit her job as a sales executive to become an air acrobat with Breitling Wingwalkers.

"I saw them displaying at an air show a couple of years ago and I just thought, 'Wow, that looks absolutely amazing!'" says the 22 year-old, who's one of the performers who'll be wowing the crowds in Bray tomorrow and Sunday. "So I just went onto their website and applied for a job. I had an audition on the wing and that was actually my first go.

"As soon as we took off, and I got used to the speed and the height, I loved it. I just thought, 'This is something I'd love to be doing. People think we're pretty crazy," continues Florence, who underwent a month of intensive training to become a professional wingwalker. "They're just like, 'Oh my God, you're absolutely mad - why would you want to be doing something like that?' I still find it crazy now, but I enjoy it every single time. It's something very different."

Soaring through the air on the hottest day of the year, I've got to admit that the experience beats sitting in a stuffy office. Struggling to so much as wave at the camera, I've also got to hand to the ladies who make it all look so effortless. In the face of seemingly gale force winds, tight clothing and glued-down hair are definitely a must.

Sadly there's little you can do to stop your face from flapping about like a bulldog with its head stuck out the back window on the motorway, all unflatteringly captured on camera by a GoPro on the wing of the plane.

The wingwalkers aren't the only airbound attraction in Bray this weekend. The event, which has grown to be one of Europe's biggest air displays, is free, with an optional €70 Flight Deck or €120 Aviation Lounge packages for those who prefer to go first class.

Staring at noon tomorrow at the Promenade, Italian aerobatic display team Frecce Tricolori, British fighter plane Spitfire and the Red Arrows are just some of the other international acts due to take to the skies at the two-day event. Homegrown attractions include the Irish Air Corps, Irish Parachute Club and Aer Lingus' new passenger aircraft, the Aer Lingus Airbus A321. For more grounded types, there's a seafront fun fair, music on the bandstand and food and craft village.

Back at Breitling, who are appearing for the first time at the festival, boss Vic is hoping to capture the imagination of future Irish wingwalkers.

"There's no purpose for wingwalking other than to please the public," he says. "If you go to air shows, a lot of the aerial acts that take place are military acts.

"Because our show is flown very near to the ground, people can see us all the time. Also it appeals to the whole family. With fast jets and everything, it tends to be the dads and the sons, who think, 'I'd love to be a jet pilot'. With us, it's that, but also the girls think, 'Oh, I'd like to be a wingwalker'."

Ten minutes later, touching down with the company's 100pc safety record still in tact, my wingwalking career is over as quickly as it began.

But for the rest of the day, at least, I'm on cloud nine. As I settle into my seat on the somewhat sturdier Aer Lingus plane home, one thing is for certain - I'll never complaining about flying again.

* Bray Air Display takes place tomorrow and Sunday. See

Irish Independent

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