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Carol Pilon: Fearless Wing-Walker, Businesswoman, and Safety Proponent

From Bits and Pieces Newsletter - September

  • Pilon
    Carol in position – smoke on!

We spoke with one of Canada’s most daring wing-walkers, Carol Pilon, at the Eastern Townships Air Show. Carol lives on the Ontario/Quebec border but spends much of her time on the road. She is an FAA-certificated airframe and powerplant mechanic, has a U.S. commercial truck driver’s licence, and owns a Boeing Stearman and a homebuilt 65-hp Piel Emeraude. She is the only female wing-walker in North America to own her own business and aircraft, and she is also the only woman to have done wing-walking on a jet-powered aircraft. She considers air show safety to be one of her biggest passions, apart from her evident love affair with her aircraft. – Editor

In a normal year I expect to do 10 to 12 air shows, but with sequestration last year it was only four. This year it’ll be 8 to 10, but the Discovery Channel is also following me around and making a TV show. They’re doing a good job, and they want to show the struggles and the commitment it takes to do something like this. They also want to show you succeeding at the mission and making aviation look good. Obviously they want to make good TV and tell a story. They’re not being sensationalistic, although that would be so easy to do with the things that we have going on every day of the week. It would be easy to make us look bad or dramatic or portray me acting like a princess. But I’ve seen some of the end product, and they really do us justice as much as they possibly can.

I perform most of my own work on the aircraft. I have an N-registered aircraft and have a great team of mechanics and an IA in Oklahoma that [not only] do my annuals but who have also taken it upon themselves to teach me about my airplane. These guys are all old crop dusters and they really want me to know what I’m doing. Now, obviously there is stuff that I don’t know, and unlike the Canadian licensing which requires that you know it, the U.S. licensing is sort of “Here’s your paper. Now feel free to go and learn.” Of course that comes with the caveat that if you don’t know what you’re doing, you have to have someone show you when you go and do it. Some people would call that a loophole and it certainly is; but when my life is hanging by a thread 10 or 15 feet above the ground, I’m not messing with that. I did not know what my issue was with my brakes today, so I brought in someone who knows more about it than me. That’s a no-brainer; when it gets beyond my scope, I have no problem calling for reinforcements.

Pierre Dumond, local aviation mechanic, who “knows more about it”!

I have a lot of other eyes on the aircraft checking it out on a pretty regular basis. Here’s the kicker: Every now and then I’ll show up at an air show and find someone giving my airplane a 360 walk-around, and it might be a fellow pilot or somebody else’s mechanic. We do air shows together. We look after each other in a big way. I’m not saying that you can help everybody all the time, but I’m not alone out there. I met one guy who was basically on his hands and knees under the aircraft cowling with a flashlight. It turned out that he was an ex-performer, and when he gets to air shows he just breaks into the hangar and checks out all the performers’ airplanes. He’s seen problems and had things happen to him that drive him to check out all the planes at an air show. Maybe he’s a bit paranoid about it, but that’s a good thing. Anyone who knows specifics about my aircraft is welcome. You have to be open to that, especially with my airplane. It would kill me in a heartbeat.

The bulk of the work that gets done on the airplane is completed during the annual inspection, and I do that in Oklahoma. I took two wings across the border to my boyfriend’s place, and he helped me fabric cover them. That was a good learning experience. Most of the work gets done down there, but sometimes I sneak parts of it up here to work on. I live in Masham, Quebec, but the airplane lives in Oklahoma, and that’s why it has an N-number.

Hiring a new pilot to fly me for the shows is normally a team effort. The way it used to work on my team was that I would have three or four trained pilots who could just come in during each season as I was doing shows. I would ask my fellow teammates, “Who do you think would be a good pilot?” There are only 425 surface-level air show pilots in North America, and I’ve known them all for years. I look for a pilot who I think displays the right qualities of professionalism and predictable behaviour, someone that’s much calmer and more composed than I am! I’m like one of these little frantic bugs that’s always buzzing all over the place, and I really need someone who is on an even keel and really wants to be part of a team.

Naturally with a lot of air show pilots, it’s just about them and what they’re doing. You can’t have that mindset when you’re working as a team, so I need someone who has that ingrained in them. Now it’s been Marcus Paine for the last two years, and I think we’ve found a home with each other that works. He’s pretty much in charge of all things aerial. He flies his own show. I flew one season with three different routines and three different pilots. It’s important that the pilot designs the routine that he’s comfortable with, how he wants to fly, where he wants to fly. I can say, “This is what I’m doing, try this.” But it’s basically his routine and they’re absolutely encouraged to change it up the way they want to. I’m not a pilot, so I have to rely on them to do what they know to be right. I had one pilot who was extremely aggressive in his manoeuvres, and with Marcus we’ve streamlined a lot and made it a lot more about the wing-walking. It’s also about comfort level as a pilot and what tricks you want to do, I mean, “aerobatic manoeuvres”.

What makes my show unique is the wing-walking. There are plenty of other aerobatic pilots out there, but as long as I’m out there on the wing, everything is okay. When I learned, it was with a fairly aggressive aerobatic pilot, so I’m okay with that – so whatever. It’s pilot’s choice.

I did my first wing-walk on February 7, 2001, in Chino, California, and that was on the very airplane that I now own. Basically I’d tried for seven years to be a wing-walker and had been met with closed doors at every attempt. Finally there was a gal out in California that just took pity on me. She had been watching me trying for seven years and she took pity on me. She said to come out, that she’d put me up and give me some basic training. I went up and I liked it just fine.

June of that year saw another wing-walker wanting to retire, so we took pictures and put a package together. I just went up to the guy and said, “Listen, buddy, I’ve been knocking on your door for seven years. Here’s proof that I can do it. I’ve gone up and I’ve got back down and nobody died. So at least let me try.” So he did! I stayed with him for three years.

I’d wanted to be a wing-walker since the day I first saw it. It just reached out and grabbed my heart, and I realized that this was going to be the rest of my life. Here I am 20 years later, still trying to make it my life.

My aviation idol was Jimmy Franklin. He taught me everything I know about wing-walking. He was the best pilot I ever new and I married him. Even with that, I still admired his flying skills. He was a great guy, but his skills as an aviator went miles beyond. There’s no room in the world for a pilot like that anymore. The rules, regulations, atmosphere, environment have changed, and they had to. We lost somewhere in the high twenties of air show performers - not all at air shows, some were ferrying accidents, practices, just all kinds, but we really had to buckle down and say, “Stop, what are we doing?”

Out of that came today’s culture of safety, and any time I see anything that I think is marginal I have the right and duty to walk up, question them, and try to stop them. They in return have the obligation to hear me out and address the issue.

Editors note: Jimmy Franklin and Bobby Younkin, founding members of the air show team “Masters of Disaster”, died in a midair crash in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, on July 10, 2005.

At some point it was hard to talk to each other because there was so much competition. There is mentorship and there is competition; and it’s very hard to marry those in this small, incestuous little industry we’re all in, so it can be hard to walk up to someone and say, “Know what, I think that loop you pulled was kind of marginal - you could have blown your limitation and you were only 20 feet above the ground.”

That used to be viewed as a personal attack, then everyone got defensive and stopped talking to each other for the next three years. At some point we had to start talking. The actual rules haven’t really changed, but we have. Our culture has.

To prepare for a show, I try to get some alone time, probably an hour before the show where I don’t let anyone get into my little bubble. I just try to chill and relax. I don’t let anyone get into my head space so I’m not excitable or angry or emotionally affected by what’s going on outside. I just walk through the routine physically a couple of times. I get in the airplane and rehearse the actual movements. Then I just get into my happy place because I’m going to go wing-walking.

They’ve given me no trophies or accolades in this business, but I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing. And that’s all I need. The fact that I get a paycheck is pretty awesome. I have trained a couple of pilots to do it. I’ve actually worked with two different wing-walkers, but I cannot train wing-walkers anymore. The last person I trained was a young man who I have immense feelings for. He’s awesome. He’s exactly the kind of kid that people teach me you have to say yes to. He’s going for this, heart and soul, and he’s just such a great guy. So I trained him and my two rules for him were “Always wear a tether, and don’t do it for free.”

Well, now he’s doing it for free and he’s not wearing a tether. And the reason he’s doing that is because he has no other option. There’s nowhere in the world for him to go and be a wing-walker. I was fortunate. I was able to create my own place. That meant buying or making my own team, but not everybody can have the privilege of doing that when they don’t come from an aviation background. I gave up the rest of my life to do this, but not everyone can have the opportunity or the resources. You have to eat a sandwich every now and then and someone has to pay for it. I get that.

So, the next step for me would be to try to build that world where wing-walkers can go and earn a living doing this, which right now we really can’t. Rather than have conditions dictated to them, they should be the authors of their own destiny and conditions they want to work under.

I’m the only wing-walker who owns her own business in North America. There is another girl, Peggy Krantz in Austria, doing air shows in Europe who I have been able to help. I don’t know what was happening during wing-walking in the 1920s, but I think I was the first one to do it this way. Naturally we take risks whenever we fly, and we’ve lost some great friends and colleagues including wing-walkers. That is why I do everything possible to minimize those risks.

Safety at air shows is really important to me. Crash-fire-rescue (CFR) really needs to be on-site during not only the air shows but the practices as well. Nobody wants to be associated with an accident at an air show, so we need to be safe as possible. But realistically when the worst happens, we need help. This can happen on a practice day; it can happen on a show day. Right now, the way the CARs and other regulations are concerned, CFR is not required on practice day. Most producers have it in place, anyway, because they understand that stuff can happen. Practice day is really an air show, and it’s a rehearsal for the organizers, the CFR folks, and everyone. We’re trying to standardize this a bit.

CFR at airports are used to dealing with 747s, and they’re not used to dealing with us. So first of all, we need to be able to educate them and allow them to be able to save us. This event here in Bromont has been so proactive that it’s felt like a warm hug. But I’ve been to shows where they don’t have CFR in place and I think, “You know what, I’m not going there.” I’ve seen too many of my friends die, and as a matter of fact, most of them end up burning. It doesn’t matter if they would have survived the crash or not; the fire is going to be there. We’ve already given it an invitation to show up. But I want to do everything I can to stack that deck so I know that I can survive an accident if at all possible.

The walk-around that we did today with the fire services, showing them how to rescue us from our specific aircraft, is something that I’ve been doing at air shows for 13 years. A lot of times at air shows, they don’t come to the briefings, so I go out and find them and drag them over. I’m pretty merciless about it.

The bigger issue, and why I raise it, is that we’ve lost an iconic performer earlier this season. Eddie Andreini was hanging upside down in a Stearman for six minutes, and we know he was alive because we could see the controls moving in the videos. I didn’t see the accident, but CFR was refused access to the field. Somebody, somewhere, somehow was like “You can’t go there,” and the guy caught on fire after six minutes. The coroner’s inquest returned the verdict that he was alive at the time of the accident, and he died of “extensive thermal injuries” - he burned to death.

Most people might assume that falling off the aircraft is the biggest risk, but it’s just not going to happen. I wear a tether. That removes that risk from the equation. Nobody can tell and neither do they care. I walk around the air show with my tether carabiner showing. I want everyone to know that if I do slip I’ll be hanging on by a steel cable.

The biggest enemy to safety is not the elements or the aircraft. It’s your brain. You start thinking you’re a rock star and you’re not. Keeping your head in proportion with the real facts of what’s going on around you is important. I got in with the best team when I started doing this, and I got so arrogant and thought I was so great. And then everyone around me started having accidents, and it sort of steered me into the right direction. I learned that I needed to lose that attitude supersonic fast.

Keep calm. Be humble. At some point we all go through that, and you have to get through it to the other side. Performers are expected to demonstrate a certain ego, but it has to be just that, a performance. Many air show pilots fly with a lot of ego. But I’m not one of them, so I don’t have to go through that. I’m nothing but a performer. I was a pilot. I learned how to land it, passed my written, and got this far away from my checkride. Then I saw wing-walking.

This year I’ll probably get Marcus, my regular air show pilot, to teach me how to fly again. Many awesome people have come through my life and have offered to teach me how to fly, and I’m like “No, that’s okay.” It really is okay, because if you’re not into it, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. I’m only into it as a tool to allow me to do other things. It’s 24/7 wing-walking for me, but it would be convenient to do whatever needs doing, repositioning the plane or something.

I practise all the time, everywhere I find myself. I should have been practising here yesterday. I don’t have an airstrip at my home in Masham, and most of my boot camps are in the U.S. in Arizona, Oklahoma, Virginia, New York, all over the place. We set up a boot camp somewhere where we find a hospitable locale, and we go there and practice.

Everything is mobile on this team. Home is a house in Masham, but there is no airport, no hangar, no strip. It’s just a place I sleep. I’m the quintessential aviation gypsy. I have no roots in the ground anywhere. Eventually that’ll change, but it’ll be later. Right now I’m still busy paying for that aircraft. I can’t afford an airstrip for it.

I’ve done some night wing-walking air shows which are something else. That’s where you just say to yourself, “This is all on the pilot.” Trying anything new is kind of scary, but trying anything new in this wing-walking world – it has to be with someone who has done it before.

I was called in to substitute for another wing-walker. The pilot, Bob Essell, had his routine in the middle of a pyro air show. He called me and asked if I wanted to do it. I said, “Er, really, nighttime pyro, Bob?” He’d been doing it for 20 years, so obviously he had it figured out. So off I went and did wing-walking with the smoke and pyro and 45-hp Quicksilver. I was amazed that I didn’t overpower the airplane by standing up or moving my arms; because I went wing-walking in a Texan, and I can fly a Texan by standing on the outside of it. It’s kinda like to the point where you can’t even move because you have to stabilize the flight pattern with it. It’s not about horsepower; it’s about aerodynamics.

I was explaining this to my dad and I said, “You know what, we’re not going to crash and burn. There’s only 2 gallons of fuel in this plane, so if we do crash we certainly won’t burn, at least not for long. You could step on that fire.” Even with the Stearman, we load just enough fuel for the show. We just put 20 gallons in it. We want to be as light as we can and as safe as we can. The aerobatic guys really calculate their fuel down to the millilitre. The racing and the aerobatic world is similar in how precise they need to be. The incidence and risk of fires at air shows is huge, and in those high-performance airplanes the difference of an extra unneeded 3 gallons of fuel is huge. Everything is measured and they have start altitudes, start speeds, and such. In contrast, the average pilot flies on full fuel tanks and will top off whenever he lands. It keeps moisture out of the tanks and it’s just the safe thing to do.

I transport my airplane in a trailer from show to show. And that’s why I have a DOT trucker’s licence, so I can take the plane myself. My trailer is parked out there right now. They told me I needed to be a qualified truck driver to do this, so I took the license. But I find no joy in driving and certainly wouldn’t want to do it for a living.

In the future I’ll probably wind up doing more of the same because it demands so much of my time. But what I’d really like to do is revolutionize the air show industry so performers can actually make a living, do away with fences. Hunt me down in five years and see if I’m still doing the same. We just have one life to live.

I want everyone to stick by their airplanes like Americans stick by their guns. If we allow the privilege of flight to be taken from us, we’ll never get it back. Whether it’s flying air shows or just GA, we have to be vocal about it. Insurance is just despicable these days. I’m really resentful of the way insurance has been handled because of 9/11. The across-the-board increase is totally unjustified for air show performers, general aviation, and events like this. One air show was handed a bill for $30,000 for insurance for a one-day show because of 9/11, and he already had a contract. They said, no, we’re not covering you – this has changed the world.

I’m thinking, “You know, there’s never been a terrorist thing happen at an air show in Canada, so what the hell are you talking about?” Now I’m hearing of people doing events where they’re being asked for upwards of a million dollars for insurance. The FAA might be backing off a bit with the reduction in medical requirements, and so they should.

Really, why do you even need a licence for some guy to jump into a plane and drive around risking almost nobody but himself. You can putter around on a lake in a small boat without having that level of cost and bureaucracy. It’s a different world if you start doing things for money, then it’s commercial. But we need to stand up for ourselves. I just think the situation at the moment is oppressive. You can get into a lot of trouble driving your car, but you know what, we all do it. If you just have some guy going around on the side of the road in a motor scooter, do you really care what he’s doing? I don’t really think we should be prying into GA to the point that we are, because realistically these are just people who just want to go out, hop in their plane, and have fun.

I’ve been told how flying is a privilege, but shouldn’t it be a right? The fact is that we accept what we’re told, but we should always question that.

Technology has changed to make everything easier, and it’s enabled us to take back some of the power that the regulatory bodies had. I believe in personal freedom within the context of personal responsibility. The world we live in would take that away from us. I’m willing to take the responsibility for my own life. The people who act out of step cause the rest of us to bear their burden. We’ve prevented natural selection from happening by regulating everyone to the extent that Darwinism can’t function. The gene pool would be a lot healthier with less regulation, and that’s coming from a wing-walker, albeit one with a tether!

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