Excerpt from Flights of Adventure
By Carol Pilon- Third Strike Wingwalking
There he stood, a tall drink of water if ever there was one, a hand in his front pocket, a cowboy boot exploring the hard pan of the sun baked desert floor and a faint smile playing with the corners of his mouth, unsure of itself and its place in time. His gangly limbs and shy demeanor lent him the air of an insecure adolescent. Only the scuffed cowboy boots and gaudy turquoise adornments spoke for the authenticity of a native, desert son. I had come looking for the best. My first impression of the man had left me doubting that I had. How could this unassuming individual, too meek for erect posture, be the best barnstormer on the continent? There must have been some mistake.
I had sought him out. I had asked the right questions. I had asked the right people. Time and again, his name was the one that I heard. If he was the best, then he was the one that I wanted to learn from. After a year or so of inquiry and several pleading phone calls, he had consented to meet with me. I jumped on a plane bound for Arizona, where he was to be working, looking forward to meeting the best. Now he stood before me, making a complete lie of the preconceived, debonair image I had so painstakingly created for him. For better or worse, I was there and decided to make the most of the visit and learn what I could. The day was passed in awkward conversation, meaningless trivialities and in closing, an invitation to see him fly at a later date, in another place. We held palaver but I had yet to see him fly.
I had slept on the hangar floor the night before the air show. I was at the appointed place on the appointed time, some 100 miles outside of Wichita KS. There were no hotel rooms available anywhere and I was limited to a taxi for transportation as I was too young to rent a car in the great state of Kansas. The lack of traveler amenities did not concern me in slightest nor did they dampen my spirits. I was invited to see the best and I had come to see the best. I was there but the flying legend was nowhere to be found and all of my messages went unanswered. Eventually, he appeared. Somewhat to my dismay, he acted as though he had no idea what I was doing there. Just what our fledgling relationship needed; more awkwardness! At this point, my opinion of him was growing quite dim. I can only imagine that he was more than likely hurriedly implementing anti-stalker counter attack measures.
Show time was at hand. Being both shunned and snubbed by barnstormer and company, I had put my time to good use by begging a flight back to Wichita with some war birds. I had also divested myself of the camping equipment I had purchased the night before. A sleeping bag, a portable Bar-B-Q and a cooler had all found new homes. There was nothing left to do but wait until the show was over so I could leave. Good riddance to a wasted trip. I found a nice patch of grass, removed from the air show staff who I suspect were beginning to think me a penniless vagrant and resigned myself for the duration.
My neck snapped to show left as I heard the take-off roll. The sound instantly evoked visions of grand barnstormers of eras past. And there he was, rolling on take-off a mere three hundred feet in front of me with a wingspan of altitude to his name and a streak of smoke chasing him down the field. The next fifteen minutes held me spellbound. My eyes never left the aircraft and the whole time, I wanted to be up there with him. From Cuban, through Lomecevack, from hammer head to knife edge, from barrel roll through the flat inverted with the engine knocking out and flames shooting from the stack, I wanted to be up there with him. God, how I want to be up there with him! Finally, I had met the man that I had been seeking. I had met the best barnstormer that my era was likely to produce and he blew me away. This man was to become the beginning of my life as a wingwalker. He, among all others, left the most indelible impression on my life.
That day, the man became my hero and he flew. Later, he became my friend and he flew. I doggedly pestered him every other month for his mentorship. After seven years went by and I presented him with proof that I could be a worthy student, courtesy of a trial wingwalk from Silver Wings Wingwalking, he became my mentor and we flew. He became my lover and we flew. He became my husband and on our wedding day, we flew. A short eighteen months later, he became my ex-husband and we flew without each other, leaving me to wonder if he felt the same empty space in his wake that I felt in mine. He died and I fly on. His name was Jimmy Franklin and there will never be another like him. Despite our trying, blissful, difficult, passionate and downright ornery relationship, he bequeathed me the greatest gift to which one such as I could aspire. He had made me a wingwalker. He had in fact, made me a solid one. I fly because of him, I fly in spite of him and always, I fly in honor of him.