I clasped the gold necklace and held it tightly in my hand. As I closed my eyes, I felt myself momentarily being taken back in time, as though I was in a movie and the scenes were playing out …
Jim removed the necklace from around his neck and with one hand gently pulled back my hair. “I was wearing this when my airplane crashed,” he said. “I never told you the whole story, but I actually died, not just once, but twice that day.”
He had been spared from death, but why, he was unsure. There was still something important he had to do.
“I want you to have this,” he said as he placed the necklace around my neck. “It has never been off my neck since the day of the accident. The necklace will remind you of how I feel about you and it will protect you.”
My eyes began to tear as I realized the significance of what he was doing. In the accident nearly every bone in both legs and feet were either broken or shattered; his broken ribs had punctured his lungs and the crash had smashed his spleen. Doctors told him that he would be crippled for life — but now his orthopedic surgeon’s most prized photo is of this amazing man standing on skis atop a mountain in Nevada.
This necklace represented his pain, his perseverance and his determination to live. I was honored that Jim thought that much of me to have me wear it …
When I took my first actual wing-walk, at the Flying Circus, Jim was there. As the pilot taxied down the runway for takeoff, I held the necklace in my hand and recalled Jim’s words, “It will protect you.” I believed it would.
Jim, along with other pilots and the ground crew, were all lined up to watch my debut. They all appeared to be so stiff as the plane made its pass down the show line, past the empty bleachers. I could tell they were all holding their breath as they watched me maneuver from the cockpit, along the wing, to the outer strut.
With my second pass, I decided to put them at ease by blowing them a kiss. It worked! They immediately began to move about, and I knew I had succeeded in relieving their fears.
Upon landing, I climbed down off the lane and was met with cheers and laughter — then, without warning, cold water was dumped over me and I was “christened” as the new Flying Circus wing-walker.
Jim was there to congratulate me and give me a big hug. I was truly as happy as I could be.
**A wing and a prayer**
On Mother’s Day 2004, my then-boyfriend flew us in his plane to Virginia from Pennsylvania, to see the Flying Circus Air Show in Bealeton.
It was a beautiful sunny day, a perfect day for a flight. I remember being very excited. I had only recently finished my ground school training and was looking forward to getting my private pilot’s license; this flight down to Virginia was exciting for me because I actually got to fly his airplane almost the whole length of the trip.
We had to fly to the Warrenton airport because we weren’t able to land at the Flying Circus Aerodrome. The man from the Flying Circus who came to pick us up was rather friendly and spoke with a Southern drawl; I couldn’t help but notice that he had the cutest dimple.
When we arrived at the airfield, my gaze quickly fixed on the beautiful biplanes as the sound of their powerful engines filled the air. In the background, I could hear the Big Band sounds of the ’40s — I thought I had stepped back in time to the golden age of flight.
My boyfriend and I walked over to Fifi’s Cafe and bought a couple of burgers, then made our way to the bleachers. I loved the air show. The aerobatics were my all-time favorite until I heard them announce the next act — the wing-walking.
My eyes were glued on the wing-walker. I said to my boyfriend, “I want to do that!”
“Yeah, right,” he said.
When the show came to its conclusion, with four biplanes flying in perfect formation to “America the Beautiful,” they announced that the crowd could enter the field and get a closer look at the biplanes.
I felt like I was at heaven’s gate, ready to cross over into the sweet by-and-by!
I headed straight for the Stearman, painted in a black-and-silver sunburst, that had carried the wing-walker that had thrilled me so much. “Are you by any chance looking for another wing-walker?” I asked the pilot.
“You?” he asked with a smirk.
For a split second, I wondered if I had what it took to become a wing-walker. I thought to myself about how much physical strength it would take to wing-walk — not to mention a whole heck of a lot of nerve.
“Yes,” I said. “Me.”
**A new flight plan**
It turned out that the Flying Circus Air Show was in fact looking for a female wing-walker. They told me to just show up, and they would start training me.
The day that I arrived for my first training, I realized that traveling back and forth from Pennsylvania on Sundays was going to make for some very long days. But by then I had broken up with my pilot boyfriend and was glad to be getting into something totally new and different.
My introduction to the group that day, during their routine air show briefing, was a little intimidating, to say the least. The men were … well, men, and I was a woman coming into their domain and invading their world.
Despite their comments, I was determined to stick it out. I was there to learn to wing-walk and nothing else.
The adventure was about to begin, in more ways than one.
Jim introduced himself to me that day. Jim flies the opening act in the air show, where he takes up the skydiver who parachutes to earth with the American flag.
There was something familiar about him but I couldn’t quite place it, and I had met two other people named Jim that day.
Several weeks passed and I found myself living for Sundays — the Circus had definitely gotten into my blood. I would get there early and train under seasoned Circus wing-walkers before the show and again afterwards. I practiced the routine over and over until it became second nature.
When I wasn’t practicing, I would help set up the props for the other acts in the show. One morning, one of the pilots was warming up the Stearman, the biplane the wing-walkers used, and he called me over.
I ran over and climbed up onto the wing. “Hey, girl, did you miss me?” he asked with a big smile.
It was when I saw his dimple that I put two and two together — this was the driver who had brought my friend and I to the Circus that first time.
I couldn’t remember his name, and so I asked him what it was again. “It’s Jim. Just three little letters,” he said.
Jim truly has a passion for flying the Stearman, and an even deeper passion for flying in formation.
He started asking me out, and after the second time I turned him down, he developed a plan: He offered to pick me up on Sundays in his airplane.
How could I resist?
I guess his plan worked. During the following weeks, flying back and forth from Pennsylvania to the Flying Circus, we got to know each other pretty well.
We soon started dating — and were the object of much Circus gossip, I’m sure.
I was anxious to fly my first show, and finally the day came. I remember sitting with Jim in the briefing room that Sunday. John King, the president of the Flying Circus, reviewed the lineup and when he looked at the board, the space beside “wing-walker” was blank.
“Anybody want to wing-walk today?” John asked.
I jumped to my feet and shouted, “Me! I want to wing-walk!”
There was huge cheer as John announced that he thought it was time for me to do my first show.
The time came for me to be introduced to the crowd. My heart was pounding with excitement as I walked onto the field to meet the announcer.
I dedicated my first wing-walk to Jim and to all the members of the Flying Circus.
That first wing-walk went smoothly. It was over before I knew it. I felt that I had become part of the Flying Circus family … and soon, in a special way, I did.
Last October, at the conclusion of a show briefing, John asked if there were any announcements, and then called on Jim. I had no idea what was about to happen.
Before the entire Circus family, Jim asked for my hand in marriage. I was so thrilled. The room was filled with cheers and congratulations.
I often wonder how different my life would be had I not run away and joined the Flying Circus. Fate has a way of playing itself out most times in ways that we would least expect it.
Jim later told me that he had his eye on me the day he picked me up at the Warrenton Airport that wonderful warm day in May. In his words, he thought my boyfriend was “the luckiest man in the world to have such a beautiful woman.”
And he teases me to this day that I couldn’t remember his name. He’s told me that, on our wedding day, I’ll know who he is because he’ll be wearing a name tag on his tuxedo: J-I-M, “just three little letters.”
One of the more interesting parts of our story is that Jim believes the reason he was spared from death in that plane crash was that he is supposed to be here to take care of me for the rest of my life.
You know what? I’m beginning to believe that myself.