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Wild Blue Wonders : Wing-Walkers, Stunt Fliers to Show Off at Oxnard Air Show

August 31, 1989|MEG SULLIVAN | Times Staff Writer

For most people, flirting with danger means boarding a commercial flight.

But Karen McCollough, a sales manager for a Dallas hotel, and Cynthia LeBourgeois, an attorney in Lafayette, La., aren't happy until they're hanging upside down from an inverted biplane 1,000 feet up.

Members of a wing-walking act that will perform this weekend at the Oxnard Air Show, they say nothing beats the thrill of standing on the upper wing of a plane as it carves spirals and loops in the sky.

"It's the ultimate freedom," said McCollough, 27, the senior wing-walker with Earl Cherry and the Roll Models.

Never mind that the plane is a 46-year-old former crop-duster, or that it travels up to 170 m.p.h. or dives 500 feet at a time.

"Once you try, you're hooked," said LeBourgeois, also 27.

Organizers of the Oxnard Air Show, which runs Saturday and Sunday at Oxnard Airport, hope that spectators will be similarly affected.

Air Rally

Another main attraction at the 13-year-old show is a Celebrity Air Rally, a timed competition that pits such luminaries of aviation as Voyager pilots Jeana Yeager and Dick Rutan, and Randy (Duke) Cunningham, the U.S. Navy ace pilot whose life the 1986 movie "Top Gun" was based on, in part.

Other competitors include such celebrities as actor Cliff Robertson, radio station KFI's "Eye in the Sky" Mike Nolan, and actress Lois Hamilton Knapp. The race, which touches down at five Southern California airports, is timed to conclude soon after the show opens at 10 a.m. Saturday.

Also featured will be such staple acts as Smoke-N-Thunder, an event in which a dragster on the ground competes against a plane in the air, and Joann Osterud, a United Airlines engineer who performs precision aerobatics. Stunts will run from 1 to 4 p.m.

Airplane exhibits and food stands will open at 10 a.m. both days. Admission is $5 for adults, and children younger than 12 get in free.

The Roll Models will constitute the first wing-walking act in a Ventura County air show. The group will return Oct. 28 and 29 for the Point Mugu Air Show.

Consistently Booked

Organizers of the Oxnard show had long tried to hire wing-walkers but found the eight or so acts nationwide consistently booked, said organizer Larry Cansler, a composer and television producer.

"They're pretty popular attractions," he said. "This is an art form that has been revived in recent years as part of nostalgia for old airplanes."

That's where the biplane comes in. The act's pilot, Earl Cherry, says it not only handles better at slower speeds than more modern planes but is also part of the lore of wing-walking.

"What we're really doing is preserving a part of aviation history," he said.

A throwback to the 1920s, when daredevil pilots barnstormed in air shows above pastures, wing-walking is actually much safer than it once was, said Cherry, 43.

In those days, performers did as their name suggests--they -climbed unfettered over the wings of a biplane as its pilot performed aerobatics. The approach was depicted in the 1975 movie "The Great Waldo Pepper."

Held in Place

Nowadays, wing-walkers are more accurately described as wing-riders. A cloth strap attached to a waist-high metal stand planted in the upper wing holds the performer in place as the biplane dips, rolls and loops. The few who actually roam do so with cables attached to their bodies.

Technology custom-made for stunt planes also makes today's planes safer than the World War I surplus aircraft used by barnstormers.

Cherry, a former Army helicopter pilot who has been wing-walking for 10 years, takes an additional precaution of replacing the Stearman biplane's 500-horsepower engine every two years--twice as frequently as is customary, he said.

So far, Cherry's act has had only one close call, he said. In 1982, the engine quit while Cherry was performing with then-wife Paula Landry. Although the plane was inverted and only 50 feet off the ground, Cherry, who also runs a flight school and small airline, was able to land safely.

"We've been very fortunate," he said.

Still, audiences sit on the edges of their seats as the plane performs barrel rolls, figure eights and inverted passes, which suspend the wing-walkers upside down for as long as 15 seconds.

The plane is painted with red and white checks. "Everybody thinks we work for Purina Dog Chow," McCollough quipped.

"I saw you fall off," a stunned 5-year-old once told LeBourgeois when meeting her after a harrowing performance. "How did you get here?"

The mystery is not without its toll.

Burdened Wings

Cherry, who dreamed of establishing the act during his 1,200 hours of combat in Vietnam, complains of the strain of maneuvering with burdened wings.

"He jokes that we're a real drag," said McCollough, who wing-walked for six years as a hobby before joining Cherry two years ago.

She talks of the force with which blood rushes from her head as the plane climbs into some of its stunts.

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