Megan Williams is one of the most daring people I have met.
After hearing her story while researching wing walking, I couldn’t wait to talk to her. She is new to the world of wing walking, currently training with Mike and Marilyn at Mason Wing Walking Academy in Sequim, Washington. She is a frequent skydiver and a marathon runner, but on top of those incredible achievements, she is a Boston Marathon bombing survivor.
During this interview, I got to hear firsthand how Megan’s life has shaped her into a strong, fearless woman who loves wing walking. She overcame physical and mental boundaries and discovered a new level of adventure.
Megan’s story begins as a child with a passion for adventure. Starting at age 6 she would go skydiving strapped to her father’s body. She adored animals and at age 7 began learning equestrian vaulting. As she got older, she continued seeking things that gave her a huge adrenaline rush. With her adventurous spirit, she traveled the world doing skydiving, competing in marathons and triathlons, and climbing mountains.
On April 15, 2013 Megan was thrown for a loop when, at the Boston Marathon finish line, the ground beneath her shook with the intensity of a strong earthquake. After the initial shock she realized a bombing had occurred and that she had major injuries: a concussion and multiple shrapnel injuries all over her body. She was hospitalized for a week and a half and in a wheelchair through November. Participating in local activities helped her cope with the trauma, but Megan wanted to be in the air. Still without the ability to use her legs, Megan found a trapeze art organization that would work with her limitations, which helped her to move forward.
Megan’s desire to overcome, and to continue in her love of extreme sports, as well her background in gymnastics, dance and trapeze arts was the perfect segue into wing walking.
How did your love for adventure lead you into wing walking?
When I was about 17, my mom let me do wing walking overseas. It was actually more of a wing-ride, where you start out buckled in on the top wing. Recently, as I was searching for high-adrenaline activities, I came across the Mason Wing Walking Academy website and found out that I could take lessons that would teach me technique instead of starting me out strapped onto the wing. I could learn how to move around the plane if I was willing to go to Sequim, Washington. I decided it would be a lot of fun and it was! I actually feel more secure being able to move around rather than just being hooked onto the wing. It is much safer to be in the cockpit for takeoff and landing with the seatbelt buckled.
Can you describe what training is like?
Training with Mike and Marilyn is as nice as could be! You arrive at this amazing property, see their incredible planes, and are given a tour. They make you feel right at home. And before you get in the plane they show you what you are going to do: you learn hand signals to communicate if you want more or less of something, or just want to enjoy the flight. You learn about the “wing wag” which is a side-to-side tilt and what Mike, the pilot, uses to get your attention, since he is behind you. You learn about your starting positions and initially you practice the movements for getting around the plane on the ground without the safety cable.
For me, I am a person who very much depends on muscle memory. With my circus background, I train, train, train! I go into autopilot and depend on my body to do the movement. I do the same motions over and over to get it in my body.
Once you are okay with all the steps, movements, and places to hold on, you climb into the cockpit with the safety cable and then you move around the plane. You have to make sure you don’t get the cable buckled in the seatbelt or wrapped around your leg, or stuck anywhere. You have to learn how to move it to get it out of your way. They explain the steps, and what you grab as you climb up to the top and onto the lower wing.
Marilyn stays by your side and walks you through the steps slowly. They are both so great with questions. Also, they have GoPro cameras all around the plane so once you finish your flight, they review the videos and give you great feedback.
When we think of “wing walking,” we imagine someone on the wings of a biplane as it spins around, makes loops, and seemingly falls out of the sky. But what is it like being up there?
Once you are ready and the weather is clear, you apply everything in the air that you learned on the ground, realizing, “I am about to hop on a plane, get out of the cockpit, and move about the wings.” There are various factors in the air such as the wind and the propeller blast to take into account. Once you start moving around the plane, you may want to do more aerobatics or you may not feel comfortable doing any and may just want to fly. There is really nothing other than experiencing it that can prepare you for it.
I loved the javelin on the bottom wing probably due to my trapeze and lyra (which is an aerial hoop) background, because I am used to hanging by my legs and having them hold me onto some object above the ground. On the bottom wing there are multiple places to grab. There are steel wires known as flying wires which form an X on either side of the wing. Then the javelin is a long wooden object which is secured to the flying wires perpendicular to the wings. It is well supported so you lay prone on it; you could compare it to riding a broomstick.
Most people don’t like the javelin as much as they like the top wing, because on top there are footholds that your feet can slide into. There is a big belt that goes around your waist and a back support, so you are fairly well constrained there. The belt does most of the work to keep you on the plane. Once you are comfortable with the aerobatics on the top and bottom wings, you can begin working on skills such as moving about the plane’s wings faster, learning new poses for the pictures (one of the GoPros is set to take still pictures every second), going out further on the lower wing or even hanging off the wing upside down. It is very individualized flying with Mike and Marilyn, and training can really vary for each person.
I’m always sad when we end the aerobatics. Aerobatics are when you get to experience a range of g-forces from negative to positive g’s during maneuvers such as inverted flight, barrel rolls, loops, and hammerheads, which is where you go straight up in the air and then straight back down. During the negative or zero g-forces, you have a feeling of being lifted up, like when you are at the top of a roller coaster, except you are up in the air. You experience a lot of positive g’s as the plane speeds up or coming out of the loop or during the hammerhead. There are several different aerobatic moves that you can do as you get more practice. If you can imagine it, it is like the type of flying you see in Top Gun but more gentle when you are first learning!
Mike, the pilot, is amazing. If I had to pick one pilot for the rest of my life, I would pick Mike. He is very skilled with the aerobatics. He does loops and rolls in a way so you don’t get tossed around. His take-off is seamless and he gently sets the plane down when landing.
What thoughts about wing walking would you like to share with people who have yet to experience it?
Wing walking is so exhilarating and freeing! It makes you feel like a little kid again because everything is happening right in the moment. You can’t stop smiling and you don’t want it to stop. It becomes addicting very quickly.
It is something that anyone who is willing to learn can pick up. The biggest part is just surrendering to and trusting the pilot. You think, “I am in good hands. I know he is experienced so I am just going to trust in him.” As long as you can to do that, you’ll really learn to enjoy it.
It is also a major confidence booster. You feel a lot of resistance in the air, so getting up to the top wing or out on the bottom wing is a huge accomplishment. Once you land on the ground you think, “Wow, I was able to climb out of the cockpit and walk onto the wings and go upside down!” How many people in the world are there who can actually say they’ve experienced that?
[divider] Guest Contributor [/divider]
Caryn Libring is a freelance writer, the mother of two and lives in Italy. Caryn and her husband Donovan both serve as missionaries with Calvary Chapel.