Ormer Locklear is generally considered to be the first person to wing walk.
Ormer Locklear was known for a stunt called "the transfer," in which he switched from one plane to another while in mid-air.
Wingwalker Ormer Locklear poses atop his Curtiss Jenny in flight, around 1919-1920.
Four images of barnstormer Ormer Locklear performing various wingwalking stunts with his Curtiss JN-4D, around 1919-1920.
If barnstormers were the most exciting daredevils of the late 1920s, then wing walkers were the most extreme and intrepid individuals among them. Barnstormers were pilots and aerial stunt people who made a living entertaining crowds with breathtaking feats around the United States and Canada during the "Roaring 20s". While all wing walkers were barnstormers, not all barnstormers performed stunts outside the safety of a plane's cockpit. Wing walkers were the ultimate risk-takers of their day. As one promoter explained to his aerial stuntman: "Don't ever forget that we're both capitalizing on [the chance of your] sudden death." The entire wing walking phenomenon was founded on a bravado mentality. Every time a wing walker headed out to perform another stunt, his or her attitude became a game of one-upmanship with his or her rivals. The underlying and unspoken attitude among them was: "Can you top this?"
Scholars generally credit Ormer Locklear as the first man to wing walk, or at the very least, the person most responsible for the growth of the phenomenon. Locklear was working as a carpenter and mechanic in Fort Worth, Texas, when he joined the U.S. Army Air Service in October 1917, just a few days short of his 26th birthday. Stationed at Barron Field, Texas, Pilot Cadet Locklear started climbing out onto his Jenny biplane's lower wing while in mid-air to resolve certain problems. His first trip out onto his wing occurred when he could not see some communications clearly that were being flashed at him from the ground because the plane's engine housing and wing were blocking his view. Because he needed to interpret the communication to pass one of his pilot's tests, Locklear decided to leave the plane in the hands of his instructor/copilot and climb out onto the wing and read the message. He passed the test, but his instructor was less than happy with him.
His instructor's displeasure did not keep him from continuing to "wing walk." On one occasion Locklear ventured out to fix a radiator cap that had come loose from his plane's engine, and another time he left the cockpit to fix a sparkplug wire. Although Locklear could have been court-martialed for such antics, his commanding officer encouraged him, instead, to perform more "stunts" because they boosted his colleagues' moral, and their confidence in the soundness of their Jenny biplanes, which were suffering a rash of accidents at the time. Once other pilots started watching Locklear's performances, several of them started developing their own stunts. As a result, the art of wing walking took off.
Lieutenant Locklear received an honorable discharge from the Army Air Service in May 1919 and immediately became a professional barnstormer. Before long he had established himself as the "King of the Wing Walkers." County fairs throughout North America held special "Locklear Days" in his honor. Sometimes he received as much as $3,000 a day for stunting, and that was usually only for about a half-hour of work. Locklear became an international star. Everyone wanted to see the enthralling man who claimed: "Safety second is my motto." Still, as much of a daredevil as Locklear was, he did not have a fatalistic death wish. He had a definite reason for what he was doing. As he clearly stated: "I don't do these things because I want to run the risk of being killed. I do it to demonstrate what can be done. Somebody has got to show the way someday we will all be flying and the more things that are attempted and accomplished, the quicker we will get there."
Locklear developed most of the fundamental skills on which wing walking rested. Contemporaries viewed him as the father of aviation acrobatics. He perfected such basic wing walking stunts as handstands and hanging postures. He also helped develop the rather standard but impressive stunt of hanging from a plane by grasping only a trapeze bar or rope ladder with his teeth. As barnstorming grew throughout the early 1920s, many aerialists copied Locklear's basic moves and poses and built upon them.
Another important type of stunt that Locklear developed was "the transfer." He was the first person to switch from one plane to another while in mid-air. He was also the first to transfer from a speeding vehicle onto an aircraft, specifically from a car via a rope ladder. Both types of feats became standard stunts within the wing walking repertory. Clyde "Upside Down" Pangborn, another well-known barnstormer, also received a great deal of publicity for his own car-to-plane transfer. Several other wing walkers developed other unique transfer stunts during the 1920s including ones that began from speeding trains and boats.
One type of stunt Locklear did not perform was parachute tricks. Other performers perfected them as part of their acts. Charles Lindbergh, who got his start as a wing walker, performed the "double-jump," a parachute stunt calculated to make audiences gasp. Lindbergh would wear two parachutes, and shortly after his first chute opened, he would cut away from it so that he would continue to plunge toward the ground. For audiences, the scene was terrifying, but only until the last second when Lindbergh pulled his second chute and landed safely.
"Batmen" were another group of wing walkers who specialized in a different type of barnstorming stunt called "soaring." Men like Jimmie Goodwin, Cliff Rose, and Clem Sohn, among others, constructed special costumes (usually made primarily of canvas or a similar material), complete with wings. They would then jump from an airplane and soar most of the way down to the ground before opening their parachutes. The feat was a particular crowd pleaser.
Notably, there were several women who became well-known wing walkers. Bessie Coleman, the first African-American female licensed pilot, was a parachute jumper. Gladys Ingle, a famous plane transfer specialist, also took archery target practice on top of her plane's wing. Georgia "Tiny" Broderick became the first woman to perform a parachute jump above 2,000 feet (610 meters). During her career, Broderick would make more than 1,100 jumps. And Mabel Cody, one of Buffalo Bill Cody's nieces, in 1926 became the first woman to complete a transfer from a speeding boat onto a plane. She also performed parachute jumps and ran her own barnstorming exhibition team.
Despite the glamour of wing walkers and their seeming invincibility, several of them eventually lost their lives while stunting. By the fall of 1919--only a few months after Ormer Locklear had received his military discharge and become a professional barnstormer--eight wing walkers, who had been trying to copy some of Locklear's stunts, died in the process. Ivan Gates, a man who ran his own flying circus in the 1920s, also lost several wing walkers, some in quick succession. Even Ormer Locklear, the "King of the Wing Walkers," died while performing a stunt for a Hollywood film in August 1920, only a year-and-a-half after turning professional. Although Locklear was supposedly the greatest stunt person of the day, even his skills were not enough to overcome the uncertainties that sometimes accompanied such seemingly death-defying feats.
In 1936, the U.S. government outlawed wing walking below 1,500 feet (457 meters), which essentially doomed aerial stunting; audiences could no longer easily see stunts performed above that altitude. Federal regulations also started requiring stunt people to wear parachutes, whether it was part of their act or not. And as if those changes were not enough, increased insurance premiums soon followed. Essentially, wing walkers and stunt pilots could no longer afford to perform because of significantly greater expenses and their inability to excite audiences with stunts that definitely appeared to have them walking the line between life and death. Although a handful of performers would continue to wing walk into the 1950s and 1960s, it was difficult for them to capture their audience's attention the same way their predecessors had during the glory days of stunting, an era when audiences could truly suspend their certainty about whether a wing walker was going to live or die.
--David H. Onkst
Sources and further reading:
Caidin, Martin. Barnstorming. New York: Bantam Books, 1991.
Cleveland, Carl M. "Upside-Down" Pangborn: King of the Barnstormers. Glendale, Cal.: Aviation Book Company, 1978.
Cooper, Ann L. On the Wing: Jessie Woods and the Flying Aces Air Circus. Mt. Freedom, N.J.: Black Hawk Publishing Co., 1993.
Corley-Smith, Peter. Barnstorming to Bush Flying: British Columbia's Aviation Pioneers, 1910-1930. Victoria, B.C.: SONO NIS Press, 1989.
Corn, Joseph J. The Winged Gospel: America's Romance with Aviation, 1900-1950. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Dwiggins, Don. The Air Devils: the Story of Balloonists, Barnstormers, and Stunt Pilots. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1966.
___________. The Barnstormers: Flying Daredevils of the Roaring Twenties. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1968.
O'Neil, Paul. Barnstormers and Speed Kings. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1981.
Rhode, Bill. Bailing Wire, Chewing Gum and Guts: the Story of the Gates Flying Circus. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1970.
Ronnie, Art. Locklear: the Man Who Walked on Wings. South Brunswick, UK: A.S. Barnes and Company, 1973.
Tessendorf, K.C. Barnstormers and Daredevils. New York: Atheneum, 1988.
"Barnstormers," Public Broadcasting System. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/kids/flight/feature_barn.html
"Barnstorming and Air Mail." Prairie Public. http://www.prairiepublic.org/features/RRRA/air.htm
"Barnstorming and Early Pilots in the Mid-Columbia Area." at http://www.angelfire.com/me/mcalch/barn2.html
"Barnstorming to Bush Flying." Stuart Graham Papers. http://collections.ic.gc.ca/sgraham/barn.htm
"Barron Field." http://www.answers.org/free/barron/index.html
"Charles H. Hubbell, 1899-1971." Barnstormer Art. http://www.barnstormer.com/charleshubbell.htm
"Cliff Winters." Parachute History. http://www.parachutehistory.com/men/wintersc.html
"Clover Field," on Norman Granger's website. http://burgesses.com/airracing10.htm
Earle, Joe. "Barnstorming Pilots Always Drew a Crowd." Wings Over Kansas. http://www.wingsoverkansas.com/history/aviation-pioneers/barnstorming.html
Fairley, Bill. "Museum to Honor Pioneer Daredevil Locklear," Virtual Texan website. http://www.virtualtexan.com/writers/fairley/bill042199.htm
"Fun Facts about Barnstormers." at http://www.angelfire.com/me/mcalch/barn2.html
"Information About and How to Fly the Curtiss Jenny Barnstormer." Fiddler's Green. http://www.fiddlersgreen.net/aircraft/WWI/jenny/jenn_info/jenn_info.htm
"International Society of Aviation Barnstorming Historians." Cross Roads Access Corinth History. http://www2.tsixroads.com/Corinth_MLSANDY/isabh.html
"Kirk Wicker Airshows," Wing Walker's website. http://www.wingwalk.com
Kline, Col. Timothy E. "Walking on Wings: Courage for Manned Space Flight." Maxwell Air Force Base. http://www.airpower.Maxwell.af.mil/airchronicles/aureview/1986/may-jun/kline.html
McCullough, David. "Daredevil Lindbergh and his Barnstorming Days." WGBH/PBS website. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/lindbergh/sfeature/daredevil.html
"Walt Pierce," http://www.Americanbarnstormer.com/people.html