4:11 am, in a hotel room that looks exactly like any other hotel room at 4:11 am when you can’t seem to get back to sleep after that suspicious bump in the night has roused you. It is not a good place to be on the Friday morning of practice day of your last show of the season. This is an hour at which all good little wing walkers should be curled up in bed, sound asleep.
I could at least understand if concerns for my aircraft, my pilot, my health or my routine were keeping me awake but a quick mental check insures me that none of these oft time distractions are the guilty culprit. So what is keeping me awake, you ask? The future or, more likely, the end…. and everything after it.
I sit here typing these words with the knowledge that I am in my mid forties and that I am the second youngest wing walker on the circuit. This does not bode well for my industry at all. The very simple truth is that we, as an industry, have absolutely failed to supply any future generation of wing walkers with even the remote likelihood of a sustainable industry let alone one that they can earn a living from. When faced with the ongoing struggle of keeping your own team afloat, there is little left to pass onto future generations save the stripped bones of the meager carcass that you started with.
When did it become acceptable to pay upwards of a quarter million dollars for a ticket sales program while the talent that graces the sky (and hurls their pink bodies along with millions of dollars worth of aircraft straight at the ground) isn’t worth a fraction of this cost? How do I explain that I’m taking a financial loss even while I’m charging double what performer X is charging? Why do events subsidized by my own tax dollars insist on hiring those who operate below cost and thereby undermine the entirety of the industry?
Why have we done nothing to address the issues and the behaviors that prevent us from becoming a truly professional industry? My predecessors have gifted me with this impossible stage from which to try to extort a livelihood. What remains to be seen is what you and I will leave in our wake.
Once upon a time, someone tried to convince me to work for free by stating that we would set a record and that my name would be carved into history. Little did he know that I could care less for history and that my name need only be whispered by those that loved me for me to be content. I told him that my goals in life were much loftier than my name in a book. My goals were to leave behind me a place were wing walkers could not only survive but thrive. Where they could teach, learn and soar. Where they could have a reasonable expectation of earning a living and where they could perfect their craft. That place can only be built upon the actions that I take today as a responsible performer and the actions that the industry takes to support the right decisions, at the right time.
This is not a problem relegated solely to the wing walking community. I have had the opportunity to closely follow two air show pilots through their ACE accreditation to surface over the past two years. I have seen them take more abuse than a gimp breaker in a roller derby. Not only do they not get paid a single dime to perform in aerobatic boxes before an audience, they also get sent fuel bills after the fact. This, after hopping more media flights than any sane performer would think of.
Although it’s out of my realm, I have also seen event producers struggling in this new economy as well. I see them struggling to make the responsible choices that will benefit the whole of the industry. I see them being valiant when it would be so easy to take the cheap way out. They are the true leaders that we need to espouse and emulate because they have understood that the future is as important as the present. They have understood that there is a bigger picture and that for one of us to prosper, we must all prosper. These people are not happy to simply exist, they, like many of us, want to build something bigger and better for tomorrow.
Try as I might to leave this industry better off than when I arrived, I feel that my efforts have been for naught. The onslaught of fly by night producers and performers who come wanting all and giving nothing back is as steady as the sun rising and setting. I don’t know where they come from. They never last for long but they are there long enough to mess it up for everyone else before disappearing as effortlessly as they came.
It’s 4:11 am and I can’t sleep because when I close my eyes, I am plagued by the vision of wing walking coming to an end in my generation and the thought of this happening on my watch is a notion that I can not tolerate.