Carol Pilon leads a double life. “One day, I’m a rock star and everybody wants my autograph – and the next day, I’m getting xxxed at because I don’t have canned soup on sale.”
Pilon is a produce manager at Alimentation Pilon, a family-run store in Wakefield, Que., 30 kilometres north of Ottawa. When she isn’t resolving disputes over the price of the canned soup, she is working on her second career: performing acrobatics on the wing of an airplane in flight. The stunt is commonly called wingwalking.
Pilon, 43, is the owner of Third Strike Wingwalking and its sole wingwalker. She said she always had an interest in aviation, but wasn’t sure where it would take her. One night, after working at the family store, Pilon came home, got into bed and turned the televison on. Seconds after, she saw a short clip of a wingwalker.
“I just stood right back up and said ‘what is that shxx?’”
She later called the local air show and got a list of wingwalking teams. “I just started calling them, harassing them and stalking them,” said Pilon with a nervous laugh.
She went to countless air show conferences to meet wingwalkers, hoping to prove that she, too, belonged on an airplane wing. At one of these conferences she met Margaret Stivers of California-based Silver Wingwalking.
Stivers didn’t have a job to offer Pilon, but nonetheless agreed to give Pilon her first wingwalking experience. “It took me seven years from the time I first found out about wingwalking to the day when I actually got out on an airplane wing.”
In 2000, Stivers got Pilon on the wings of a Boeing Stearman biplane. “The airplane she took me wingwalking on is the airplane I own today,” Pilon says with pride.
Armed with photographs of her first wingwalk, Pilon approached stunt pilot Jimmy Franklin for a job. “Jimmy Franklin, at that point in time, was probably one of the best performers on the circuit,” said Pilon. “In two weeks, he probably taught me more than most wingwalkers learn in a lifetime.”
The pair soon married, but divorced shortly after. Without a pilot or a plane, Pilon was back to Square 1. Her determination, however, was unwavering.
“I was still a wingwalker. So I did something that nobody before me had done. As a wingwalker, I went out and bought an airplane, established a team and trained a roster of pilots to fly for me.”
It wasn’t the first time Pilon broke new ground. She claims to be Canada’s only wingwalker and she flies as part of an all-female crew. In the last year, she has performed in Summerside, P.E.I.; Selfridge, Mich. and Dayton, Ohio, among others.
Pilon is presently preparing to bring her airplane to Oklahoma for its annual inspection. Because her airplane is a U.S entity, the annual inspection must be performed by an airframe mechanic certified by the U.S. national aviation authority. Like most mechanical inspections, the final cost can be unpredictable. If there is a problem with the propeller or the engine, it cost could cost her more than $10,000 in repairs.
Pilon is constantly researching possible venues for her show and seeking sponsors. Among the clutter on her dining room table is a stack of proposals ready to hit the mail. Unfortunately, she has yet to secure a sponsor.
But this doesn’t discourage her. Despite the many challenges she faces, Pilon says there is no Plan B.
“I don’t care if I starve. This is the pony I’ve decided to ride and I’m going to drive it across the xxx desert until it’s xxx dead – and then I’m going to drag it a couple of hundred feet for good measure.”