Wing Walkers Seek High-Flying Thrills at Virginia Air Show

06 June 2014 WAMU

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The Flying Circus in Bealeton, Virginia was started in 1970 by a group of guys who wanted to pay homage to the barnstorming era of the 1920s, when pilots would fly throughout the country selling airplane rides, usually operating from a farmer’s field.

For 44 years, the Flying Circus has been the place to watch pilots push themselves and their planes to the limits — and to see “wing walkers,” people who perform stunts on the wings of airplanes.

It’s a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon and half a dozen brightly painted biplanes planes are lined up on an airfield and ready for takeoff.

Out on the long, grassy airfield, Jana Leigh McWhorter is standing in front of a microphone, singing the national anthem. In a little while, she’ll also be wing walking. That’s right — literally walking around on the wing of an airplane, dangling beneath the plane by a rope, or strapped onto the top wing during a series of aerobatic loops.

“It’s about 3G’s coming into the loop. And then you dive and go upside down and as you go upside down you lose gravity, you lose the G’s,” McWhorter says. “So you’re actually weightless at that point. You can wave your hands, feet whatever. But just remember the backside of the loop is coming where you’re going to gain the 3G’s back again.”

Jana practiced her routine on the ground for more than a year before performing in the air. She’s been wing walking for well over a decade, making her a veteran performer here.

Another veteran? John King, who has been president of the circus for more than 20 years. John says he was living in Chicago when his father, who helped start the Flying Circus, encouraged him and his wife Nize to follow in his footsteps.

“He said you’ve got to come back, something really neat is going on here,” John said. “So we packed up and moved back to Washington!”
Nize says their kids spent their summers at the circus, learning how to ride bikes and even how to become wing walkers.

And so Nize knew exactly how to comfort the mother of the Flying Circus’s newest wing-walker, 22-year-old Rachel Holmes. Rachel wing-walked for the first time during a show two Sundays ago, as her mother and Nize stood far below.

“She was nervous, I think she tried to talk her out of it, but there’s not much we can do when they get to be that age and that’s what they want to do.”

A love of flying has been in Rachel’s blood for a long time. She’s been helping out with the flying circus for years and has always wanted to wing walk. When she’s not taking classes or working, she’s at The Flying Circus.

“I think it’s just one of the most beautiful capabilities of human kind. For me, wing walking is really like a dance, but you have to consider the plane and the pilot. So it’s that much more complex and beautiful because you really have to trust yourself, the equipment, your aircraft and your pilot most importantly,” Holmes says.

Rachel is talking with me in the Flying Circus’s briefing room, a room connected to the airplane hangers with just enough space for a long wooden bench to run down its center. Thirty minutes before the show, the whole flying circus family gathers to hear John King give last-minute updates, and share other news.

Mark Menefee has been at The Flying Circus for 15 years. His grandfather Bill Menefee helped the flying circus get its feet off the ground. Bill was killed in a plane accident at Shannon Airport in Fredericksburg in 1976, and Mark never met him. But he says he feels like he does know his grandfather because of all of the stories he’s heard and the photos he’s seen preserved, lining the walls of the briefing room.

“Here’s my grandfather, with his Sopwith pup there that he flew in the air show,” Menefee says.

Plans are in the works to soon begin building brand new hangers and a briefing room as well as a museum to display artifacts from the circus’s early days.

Melissa Chamberlain is one of the people who remembers those early days. She’s from New Cumberland, West Virginia and came to the Flying Circus 22 years ago. On Sunday she brought her son along to see the show and take an open cockpit ride.

“The performances were even better this time than they were 22 years ago…I was impressed. It’s awesome. I’d come again and again just to see what they do, I think it’s beautiful. It’s just amazing that they can do what they do,” Chamberlain says.

In the briefing room of the Flying Circus, there’s a sign that says, “the sky is not a limit.” And with that motto in mind, I gathered up the courage to take a ride in an open cockpit plane after the show ends and the crowd had left.

Music: “Loop de Loop (Flip Flop Flyin’ in an Airplane)” by The Beach Boys from Endless Harmony