Simply getting airborne at the start of the 20th century was an achievement, but getting back down to earth without ending up in a pile of broken wood and linen was an even greater one. Plenty of intrepid aviators met their end in homemade machines that managed one take off and no successful landings. Spectators in their thousands would turn up at the early airfields to watch young aviation pioneers pushing the limits of their flying machines.
Then came the Great War and with it galloping strides in aircraft development and flying skills. By the end of the war aircraft could fly higher and faster, were more reliable and their pilots more skilled. When the war was over there were hundreds of aeroplanes lying around that were no longer needed and that could be snapped up for peanuts by young daredevils who had caught the flying bug and weren’t very keen on spending the rest of their days working in an office. And so the flying circus was invented.
Airshows were staged at which members of the public could take joyrides for a few shillings or dollars. There were displays of terrifying loops and rolls and tricks like flying upside down. Naturally, the more outrageous and dangerous the stunt, the more the crowd en
joyed it, so if a young pilot wanted to make a living out of flying he had to come up with something a bit different Something that pushed the edges of the envelope a little further out.
In 1918 an American flier called Ormer Locklear came up with a stunt that was guaranteed to wow the crowds:he would climb out of the aeroplane and walk along the wing and even climb from one aeroplane onto to another. Apparently Locklear first clambered out of the cockpit to fix a technical problem while training during the war.
A normal person would have landed and then sorted out the problem. Pretty soon you couldn’t operate a flying circus that didn’t have a wing walking act and Locklear was soon joined by numerous other daredevils including the wonderfully named Ethal Dare, the world’s first female wing walk who like Locklear would walk from plane to plane.
Not surprisingly there were a few mishaps. Ormer himself came a cropper while working on a film. These wing walk pioneers were operating without a safety net: no parachutes, no safety wires tethering them to the aircraft. A slip of the foot and it was the high dive for our brave showman or showgirl. In 1938 the authorities in America decided that parachutes had to be worn though by that time war was on its way and the show was about to close anyway.
Flying changed after the war. There were new goals like breaking the sound barrier, space exploration and the development of quiet, fast and comfortable airliners so that we could all go on foreign holidays relatively cheaply. In other words we’d got used to flying and some of the magic had gone out of it. There were still airshows with amazing displays of flying skills and some truly incredible modern jet fighter aircraft shattering greenhouse windows on high-speed fly pasts. But a little bit of the between-the-wars glamour had gone out of it.
But those barnstorming days of the ’20s and 30s and the characters who manned the flying circuses hadn’t been forgotten by those with a deep love of flying and a passion for its history. A few wing walking teams operated in America in the 1970s but it wasn’t until frustrated barnstormer Vic Norman founded his famous AeroSuperBatics wing walking team in the early 1980s that the sight of dare devils handstanding and flying upside down on the wing was seen in Europe.
Yes, the wing walkers are safely tethered to their Boeing Stearman biplanes, but the glamour, spectacle, sounds and atmosphere is just the same as it was when young and brave Ormer Locklear went for a dramatic 10ft stroll along the wing of his warplane in 1918.