Friday 2 December 2016

Emily Guilding: At 2,000ft I climb out of the cockpit onto the top wing and do handstands

Emily Guilding (31) is a wingwalker. She used to be an environmental consultant. Born in Gloucestershire, she lives in Bristol, when she is not standing on the top wing of a vintage open-cockpit plane, enjoying loop-the-loops

Ciara Dwyer

Published 18/07/2016 | 02:30

I live in Bristol with a friend. I get up at 7am. For breakfast, I have granola and a cup of Earl Grey tea. I'm quite careful about what I eat, because there is a weight restriction to being a wingwalker. The more streamlined and lighter you are, the easier it is for the pilot to handle the aircraft. The height limit is 5ft 4in, and the weight limit is eight-and-a-half stone.

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I've been wingwalking for three years. I saw my younger sister doing it, and I thought it was such a fantastic thing to do. At the time, I had a proper job in an office as an environmental consultant. But then, a few years later, I decided that life is too short to sit in an office all day. So, when they had a vacancy, I applied, did an audition and got the job.

I suppose there was a bit of sibling rivalry in it, too. Most wingwalkers have sporting backgrounds, and I've always loved doing things that were high-adrenaline activities. In summer, I work full-time with an air display team called AeroSuperBatics. We go to different air shows around the world.

I try to go to the gym as much as I can, but that's not always possible, as we travel a lot for the shows. Also, I tend to go running and do some upper-body workouts. It's really important to keep in shape for this job. When I first started wingwalking, I was shocked at the strength that was required for it, because of the constant waving and the manoeuvres that you are doing when you're on top of the plane. Also, you are battling wind forces of up to 150 miles per hour.

It's really hard, especially when you're climbing out of the open cockpit onto the wing. We always say, imagine you are climbing a tree in a hurricane - the wind is constantly trying to blow you off the back of the plane. You are using your sheer strength to hold on and to keep you safe. It's really important to be strong and flexible.

On a typical day, I arrive at the airfield at 8am and meet up with the team. I'd definitely have breakfast to keep the energy up. And you need to get a good night's sleep the night before. It takes a while to get everything ready. We have to open the hangar doors, push the planes out and make sure that they are fuelled up. Then we do a quick check to make sure that they are safe to fly. The planes - Boeing-Stearmans - are vintage planes from the 1940s, but with new engines. They have two wings on each side, so they are known as biplanes.

Then the wingwalkers get ready for the show. We put on our suits - black Lycra catsuits - and lots of layers underneath. We could be flying anywhere. We put on leather aviator coats and helmets and goggles. It's an open cockpit, and it gets very cold, especially when we are flying over the English Channel. We don't really get wet because the rain gets pushed over us by the propeller, but it does get cold and quite noisy. I sit in the front cockpit, and the pilot is in the one behind me. When I first started this job, I used to watch over the side of the plane and pick out all the sites that I'd recognise. The other day, I was trying to find the Eiffel Tower, but it was too cloudy. I've done these trips so many times that now, I just fall asleep. It's like being on a train, in the sense that the rhythmic noise sends me to sleep. It's a pretty cool commute to work.

When we get to the airfield for the display, the pilot will go for a briefing and find out the time of our display slot. For lunch, I'll often have bacon butties. The diet goes out the window when you're on an airfield. It's best not to eat an hour before the performance, but it's not always possible. An hour before our slot, we will meet at the planes. We make sure that we've got our correct clothing on. We put on our safety harnesses, earplugs and goggles, and then it's time for the show to begin. I'll get into the cockpit and the pilot will start the engines. They take 15 minutes to warm up. Then we're ready to take off for the display.

A lot of the shows are on airfields, but some are over the sea. We are in Bray next weekend. I don't get nervous, but I'm just excited. There is apprehension because you want to put on a good show. It's really exciting to be up there and see the crowds. The first manoeuvre is a loop. The plane has to climb to 2,000 feet, and then the pilot will give me the signal to let me know that it's safe to climb out of the cockpit onto the top wing.

Standing up in the cockpit seat, you have to reach up and grasp the handles on the top wing, and then you have to put your feet on them. You have to use every ounce of strength you have, and then you grab on. Every movement has to be really assertive, because otherwise your arm would just get blown off the handles. The trickiest part is fighting those winds. The last time I performed in Ireland, there was a hailstorm.

Doing the loop-the-loop is my favourite. It's such a nice feeling, because you're at the top of the loop, and you're weightless. You see the world underneath you and you are tipping around and around. You've got the plane above you and the sea below you. It's a very surreal experience. After the loop, we do a series of formation passes, such as holding one leg up in the air, or a handstand. All the while you are waving and smiling at the crowds. Then I get back into the cockpit, and we fly back to the airfield.

The display is 17 minutes long. At the end of it, I'm pretty exhausted, but elated. Usually we meet the crowds, pose for photos and have something to eat. Then, if it's not too far away, we get back in the plane to fly home. I might have a glass of wine. Your body may be aching, but you go to bed really satisfied, thinking about what you've just done. Wingwalking is the best feeling in the world.

The Breitling Wingwalkers will perform next weekend - Saturday, July 23 and Sunday, July 24 - as part of the 11th annual Bray Air Display in Co Wicklow, a free, family aerobatic extravaganza sponsored by the Irish Aviation Authority. It starts at 12 noon on both days. See brayairdisplay.com

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