An Excerpt from Risk
By Lynne Wainfan
This might have been a really bad idea, Nicky thought as the change from her pocket brushed past her cheek on their way to the ground. She was fully inverted now, wondering where she'd find bus fare home and where she'd lost her senses.
The idea of wing walking had seemed like a good one that morning. She had arrived at the airport at O'dawn:30 so she could sneak onto the grounds as a student pilot pretending to take a lesson. This trick had saved her the price of fourteen air show admission tickets so far that year. Nicky vowed to pay full admission after she paid off her student loans. Her toe-capped sneakers squeaked on the dewy grass as she made her way over to the hangar where the air show pilots parked their planes. Her navy windbreaker was too thin for the crisp morning air.
The hangar's huge wooden door was slightly open. Nicky peered inside, eyes adjusting to the darkness. A few bars of dusty light shot down from high windows, and Nicky could hear faint ticking from birds walking on the roof. The planes seemed to be still asleep in their cavern. From years of hanging around airports, Nicky knew she could take a closer look if she approached correctly. Some people swaggered in, got too close, and were shooed away by protective owners. She had learned that if she approached the planes slowly with her hands behind her back, kept at a safe distance, and admired the plane as if it were a new baby, the pilots were much more likely to let her hang around. You catch more flyboys with humility than hubris, she had discovered.
This hangar housed the antique planes, World War II trainers, fighters, and some barnstorming biplanes. How modern they must have all looked when they rolled off the assembly line; how classic they looked today. She knew that some day the Space Shuttle would look as ancient as these planes did now. One plane, a canary yellow Stearman biplane, practically glowed among the others. It had been meticulously refurbished to a state better than it when it was new. The same could not be said of its owner, a weather-beaten man kneeling on the top wing. Nicky followed the man's brown hands as they wiped every inch of shiny fabric, negotiating the hinges on the ailerons with loving efficiency. The sun was slowly peeking around the hangar doors, making the airplane glow even brighter. Nicky breathed deeply. The smell of machine oil and Lemon Pledge was a fine way to start a new day.
"Hand me that saddle soap over yonder," the old man barked.
Nicky scrambled to obey and awaited further instruction. The man took off his worn leather flight jacket and threw it in the cockpit. On the side of the plane under the front cockpit the name "Kip Mickelson" was printed in black script. The rear cockpit's name had been painted over.
"I don't know why I bother, she ain't going up today anyways," Kip said.
Nicky looked around. The two of them were the only ones in the hangar, so she guessed he was talking to her. "Why not?"
"I lost my partner."
"Oh, that's too bad. I'd sure like to be looking up at her in the show."
The old man's grin made his wrinkles line up perfectly. "She is a beauty, isn't she?"
Kip stood up to unbuckle a harness connected to a post on top of the wing. Nicky knew this was the rig that a wing walker used. The first time she'd seen a wing walker was when she was five and she thought it was the bravest thing she'd ever seen. Later when she saw the post and three harnesses she was bitterly disappointed. The wing walker seemed more like a hood ornament than a hotshot.
"You say you lost your partner?" Nicky asked. Kip slathered the harness with saddle soap for a few minutes before replying.
"She'd been my walker for 14 years and never had a problem." He breathed onto the metal buckle before wiping it on his denim shirt. "Then last week we were doing a show in Raleigh and the damnedest thing happened. . ."
Oh, this sounds bad.
"We were coming out of a barrel roll, and everything was going fine, when a june bug hit her."
"A june bug?"
"Well, to you, a little ol' bug might not seem so bad, but if you eat a june bug at 130 knots, it'll wake you right up."
"Well, she kinda choked. Couldn't breathe. Claimed that she gave me the hand signal to land, but I didn't see that. She did look a little odd though; I guess she was trying to give herself the Heimlich maneuver."
"Is she OK?"
"Yeah, she's fine. But it shook her up real good. She made a deal with God right up here on this wing: if He got her out of that scrape, she'd never fly again."
"So you've got no wing walker."
Nicky ran through seven different ways of asking before selecting one.
"Can I do it?"
The old man pushed up his baseball cap and looked down at her, his green eyes showing his amusement.
"You don't know what you're talking about. The first time my old partner walked, she threw up. The wind blew the stuff right back into her face and it messed up my pretty airplane."
"I took aerobatic lessons after I got my license and never threw up. I've been on every roller coaster in the state of Michigan and never so much as burped. I have a very strong stomach."
"You ain't no bigger'n a mite."
Nicky straightened up to her full five foot three height. "I may not look it, but I'm 22 years old."
The old man scratched the back of his head. "I don't think you'd like it, that's all. Normally it wouldn't be no big deal if you didn't like it, but these people pay to see a good show and there ain't no opportunity for you to try it out beforehand."
Nicky could tell she wasn't convincing him.
"Look, for as long as I can remember, I've known that I just gotta fly. When I was four, I made a superman cape out of my blanket. I jumped off the garage and that was the closest I've ever come to real flying-before I broke my leg. Getting my license in those Cessna spam cans was more like playing a video game than flying. I tried parachuting, which at least got me the feeling that I was moving through the air, but I was basically just falling, not flying."
"I don't know."
"I will wing walk some day. I won't throw up, I'll wave at the audience, and I'll paste a smile on my face even if I'm sure I'm going to die. If you don't let me try, you don't get paid. What have you got to lose?"
The man studied her for a while before reaching down with one hand.
"Well then come on up here and let me show you how to strap this plane on."
So now, hanging upside down by that strap, she was truly committed. The biplane was at the top of a square loop, leveling off inverted. Nicky wondered how deep the falling coins would stick when they hit the ground. Or hit a person. Nah, the airplane was not flying directly over the audience and the wind was blowing away from the colorful dots below. Nicky wanted to grab onto the post behind her, just to make sure she wouldn't follow those coins, but she remembered her promise, smiled and waved.
And then the engine quit.
As a child, Nicky had been particularly sensitive to loud noises, jumping when a car backfired or a firework exploded. No sound had ever jolted her as much as this sudden silence. It drove the metallic taste of fear up her throat. It was just like in her nightmares, where she opened her mouth but couldn't scream, couldn't call for help, couldn't wake up. The plane started falling, upside down. As it accelerated downward, an eerie whistle started to come from the wires bracing the wings. It started low and got higher and louder but over it she could barely hear the pilot yelling,
"It's OK! It's all part of the show. I'll start her up in a minute"
Anything else you forgot to tell me? Nicky wondered. The flight briefing had been truly brief, and she wondered if there were more surprises ahead.
In her excitement, she had hardly noticed that the forces on her had gradually lightened up. The harness no longer dug into her shoulders. The strongest force on her now came from her borrowed flight suit flapping in the breeze. As the plane arched over towards the ground, she felt the gradual weightlessness of zero-g. Wow, this is amazingly cool! Her arms floated up, freed of their own weight. She kicked her legs in front of her and they hung in mid air. Never before had she felt such lightness, such freedom. She was floating among the clouds, swaying along the blue horizon, dancing with distant gulls. As her body rose unconstrained by gravity for the first time in her life, her mind opened up to this new surreality. This is what it's like to die and go to heaven. I don't know how, but I will do this again, many times. She tried to take in as much of this moment as she could, to make it last longer and to have more images to return to in her dreams-the pillow-like clouds, the glint of the sun off the lake to her left, the quilted pattern of the farmland above her head.
The bump of the engine starting snatched her from her moment. Under power now, the plane accelerated towards the looming ground. My God, it's so close, she thought with a mixture of fear and wonder. The cows had grown from little dots to black and white lumps and now she could see the tags on their ears. No longer in zero-g, Nicky was hanging from the harness like a parachutist, facing straight down at the green earth. The wind was becoming unbearable-it rammed into her nose and mouth and Nicky gulped at the air to breathe. The loose ends of the leather harness started slapping at her flight suit, stinging her chest.
Nicky knew that the g-forces would get very strong at the bottom of the loop, as the force on her body slowly shifted back to the familiar feeling of the wing supporting her feet. Sure enough, she felt herself grow heavy-2.3 times her normal weight if she remembered right, and straightened her knees so they wouldn't buckle. Nicky could feel the skin on her face being pulled down by the g-forces and she fought what felt like a grimace. It got harder and harder to push the air out of her lungs, so Nicky tightened her diaphragm and exhaled each time with a loud grunt. What a show the audience must be getting, a grimacing, grunting gal, she thought, but the growling engine overpowered any sound she could make. She turned her head slightly to face the audience, and slowly, as the plane resumed its level flight attitude, the g-forces started to subside. She was gradually returning to her normal, 96-pound weight. Nicky was able to hoist one arm up and do a stiff, monster-like wave at the people on the ground and was surprised to see them smiling up at her. They waved their hands, their hats, their programs, and they appeared to be cheering.
OK, the hardest part for me is over, but the hardest part for the pilot is yet to come-landing. During the briefing, the old man explained that the wing walker would normally climb down into the front seat for landing. Since there wasn't time to practice climbing down, he'd had gotten a special waiver to land with Nicky still on the wing. She'd had to sign something involving heirs and assignees, which she hadn't understood. What she had understood was that if the plane flipped over, they'd have to use DNA to identify her body. She'd be scraped off the wing into a thin layer the length of the runway. Nicky had been assured that that wouldn't happen.
As the biplane lined up with the runway, Nicky waved at the audience with both hands, clasping them like a champion fighter. If she were going to go out, she'd go out with style. Little kids were on their feet, bouncing up and down, running to race the plane. One took her picture with a Mickey Mouse-shaped camera. The pilot shut off the engine, and the wires grew quiet as the plane slowed for landing. Nicky was over the end of the runway now, floating, floating until she felt the wheels hit the ground, sink a bit, and stagger slightly as the pilot worked the rudders to keep the plane straight.
As the plane turned onto the taxiway, Nicky could hear the announcer on the PA. "Ladies and Gentlemen, let's give a big Chino greeting to Kip Mickelson and his partner Nicky Davis. That little lady is a gen-u-ine rocket scientist fresh out of engineering school. That's showing the boys how to do it, Nicky."