Carol Pilon Interview

Hailing from Masham , Québec, Canada Carol Pilon has been a professional Wingwalker since 2000.

She is the first woman and only woman to walk on a jet propelled aircraft.

She is the first and only Canadian Wingwalker.

She is the first woman, Canadian and Wingwalker to outright own and operate a team in North America.

She played an instrumental role in an all-woman Wingwalking team in 2002 and she formed another all woman team in 2011.

She performed Wingwalking in the Fox feature presentation of “Amelia”.

She was featured on the Maclean’s list of top Canadian daredevils in 2011.

Carol and her team were main characters on the Discovery Channel’s airshow. The show aired in 2015 in Canada, Europe, Latin America, Arabia and Africa garnering 17 million worldwide viewers over 12 weeks.

We talked to Carol Pilon about this unique profession she finds herself in.

Q - I think you brought your act to the Syracuse airshow didn’t you?
A - I believe in 2001 I did the airshow in Syracuse, New York. I was wingwalking on the Jet Waco at the time. It was a Waco biplane that had a turbine underneath it, and that’s what I was walking on at the time.

Q - We always seem to see female wingwalkers. Are there any mail wing walkers?
A - Well, when I got into the job about 17 years ago (2000) it was predominantly a male setting. There were about eight teams and I would say five of them if not six of them had mail wingwalkers. Right now were down to approximately 3 operational teams in the US and two local teams and their all female wingwalkers at this point except for the Belkin Flying Circus that occasionally uses them. So, were predominantly female now, but, I mean it ebbs and follows. But, there are definitely male wing walkers.

Q - You’re the first and only Canadian wingwalker?! Why do you suppose that is?
A - I don’t know. First of all there are never many wingwalkers at any given time on the face of the earth, Number one. Number two, the passion just runs so deep in you, you just make it happen. And, you really need to have that passion, because financially it’s really unsustainable. So, you need to be very tricky and find a way to make it work. (Laughs). So, I would say the biggest setback of wingwalking is the financial burden it causes or the financial side of it basically. I mean there’s just no great way of making any revenue or recouping any costs. If you have a break even year you’re doing excellent. And that’s the most you can hope for. Most people have lives to live in children to raise. Evidently wingwalking unless it’s going to be a motivating thing in your life is going to take the back burner. So, I would say the biggest challenge to any wing walker is the financial equation of it.

Q- What do you do when you’re not wingwalking? Do you work in another facet of aviation?
A - Oh, God, no. I wish I did. My parents and my family actually. We all own a grocery store together and that’s what I do when I’m not on the road. I help manage it. So, it’s very convenient because I get to walk away from my business. Because were a family there are other members who can step in and take my place. Otherwise, I would be among the many others who couldn’t afford to do it.

Q – The season for aviation shows is usually what, May through October? But how about Europe? Would their season overlap North America?
A - In Europe I imagined their season is very much the same as ours. There are performers in Europe so when you tally the expense of putting my airplane in a cargo freight and shipping it over taking care of me the whole time I’m over there, it’s much more economical for an airshow to hire a local guy.

Q - The only other country would be Australia, but, were really talking shipping charges to perform there aren’t we?
A - Yeah. There have been tours that have been mounted. Americans have gone over. I’ve been asked to do that, but, I’m just like no just too much risk. Not enough revenue coming in for it. It’s very dicey when you start putting antique aircraft on a freighter as to whether your airplane is going to show up in one piece or not. And then if it’s all broken there is little access to parts to be able to fix it.

Q - How many people does it take to get you up in the air?
A - Me. (Laughs). I am all of it when it comes to the logistics portion of it obviously when I’m flying I require a pilot. When I’m doing a wing walking dual act I require another wing walker with me but when it comes to the logistics of it I take it apart. I box it up. I’m the guy who drives it. I’m the person who books the shows. I’m the person who makes the schedules. I do the marketing. I do the selling. I do everything it takes to make it work. I am a team of one. (Laughs).

Q - How did seeing a wingwalker on local TV lead you to a career as a wing walker?
A - I saw a nano second of a girl go by on Javelin and that was it. Hook, line and sinker this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. It was the first time I’d ever seen wing walking. I had no idea it existed in the 20s. I’d never heard of anything like that in my life my family does not come from an aviation background. So, I started exploring aviation on my own. I had my first parachute jump. I started to learn how to fly. I bought my first airplane. Then this airshow was coming up, and I was interested in going and seeing it. All the while this advertisement comes on with this wing walker. I was like wow!! That’s for me. (Laughs). And that’s been the rest of my life.

Q - This job of yours would appear to be very dangerous. What’s the appeal to you? Are you a thrill seeker?
A - You know, I would have to say no on that. When I was a kid I hung out predominantly with boys. There were not a lot of girls to play with in my neighborhood. I would always be the guy standing back to see if the first guy succeeded at the first stunt we were trying to do whether it was climbing a tree, jumping off the fort rope, doing a high dive into the pool or racing the go carts down the hill, doing bike jumps I was always the guy in the back just waiting for somebody else to go first, seeing how it worked out for them and then I’d try it with my own spit of course. So, yes I do enjoy the risks but I enjoy taking calculated risks, I’m not necessarily a thrill seeker by nature.

Q - What is involved with dual wingwalking? That’s two of you, one on each wing?
A - Well, were both on each wing sometimes one of us is in the cockpit while the other is on the top. Sometimes both of us are on the top together. Traditionally dual wingwalking acts have always been one girl on each wing and the airplane strolling around. But what I really wanted to depict was the actual movement of wingwalking. So when I developed the dual routine it was really funny. I was white boarding it sitting on the floor of the hangar drawing stick figures on this airplane and going through the maneuvers. I look at everybody when I was done. I pulled back and said what do you  think? My main pilot at the time said it’s going to be squirrel cage up there. (Laughs). So, our dual act really focuses on somebody moving all the time and I think that’s where the grace and beauty comes into it. There have been dual wingwalkers in the past but, they were predominantly as you say one on each wing. So, I added the movement element to it.

Q - Nighttime Pyro wing walking? Now, that sounds dangerous! What’s that?
A - (Laughs). Well, pyrotechnics are unpredictable. So, there is an increased element of risk when doing it. What I did for that routine was I was substituting for another wingwalking act. The other wingwalker had quit and the guy called me in desperation, and said I need a wingwalker! I said okay I’ll try it, not only was it nighttime Pyro it was also on an ultralight which was more daunting than the nighttime Pyro portion of it to tell you the truth, but, it was a routine he had successfully done for the previous 10 years. I said okay I’ll give it a go and we went out and did it and it went off without a hitch. Today they’re using lighting rather than Pyro. There is one team doing and nighttime act right now and they’re using lighting on the airplane but I am waiting for this great product to become affordable it’s called LumiLor® electroluminescent paint it’s a paint that actually project light upwards of 5 miles when you add an electric current to it. So, I am waiting for that process to become affordable and when it is that is exactly what I am going to be doing. I will be riding a top a fire lit Dragon for all intents and purposes.

Q - Formation wingwalking is what?
A - That is two airplanes with wingwalkers, side-by-side or three or four. Right now there’s a team in Europe that’s doing it successfully and have been for several years, based out of England I went and tried it with them for a while and their really cool. I like them a lot, but, I did some stateside as well just as the one off.

Q - How many dates do you have for the 2017 season?
A - Well, this year I only have four dates booked and the reason for that is last year my team took an extremely devastating blow. I lost the entirety of my pilot roster completely from top to bottom. I had two of my pilots perish while performing their own acts in their own aircraft. I had another pilot whose sister suffered a medical issue and he’s now taking care of his sister so he’s completely out of the industry. My third pilot left for rather happy reasons. She’s starting a family. So, I ended up with zero pilots. So, this year is going to be all about rebuilding the team. So, I took on a very light schedule. Normally my schedule is anywhere from 10 to 20 shows the season. This year I am set at four and I’m just going to stay there. I’m not trying to book anything else. Mostly it’s going to be about getting the team back in fighting form.

Q - Should something ever happen in your act, could you parachute to safety?
A - Well, we’ve devised an exit strategy with a couple of my pilots. I don’t know how well this is going to work with my new pilots, but we use an emergency pilot chute and I do have some skydiving background, enough to get me away from an aircraft. I know how to fly my body. I don’t have 5 million jumps but I know enough to get away from underneath the airplane. Several of my pilots were very high time jumpers as well. So what we devised is I would click on to the emergency parachute that their wing and although that would be illegal and ill advised, it’s better than no alternative at all. But, what you need to understand is that option to be able to bail out of an aircraft is very, very slim when you’re doing airshows. The reason being were typically performing under 1000 feet and for a parachute to be effective we have to at least have 800 feet to jump. So, if the engine quits and your at 20 feet above the ground. Just going a land that airplane. We’ve also thought of the scenario where we could bungee strap an emergency chute onto the front seat, but then again it would be one of those deals where we would have to climb for altitude and I would have to have time to put on the pack before jumping. So really it’s nonsensical to try and think that that is going to offer any real safety.

Q - It sounds more dangerous then I realized!
A - The imminent danger that I face as a wingwalker is the same as any other airshow performer. It is the aircraft impacting the ground. Hopefully we can survive it. I mean the biggest factor that plays into most airshow accidents is pilot error. They’re very rarely mechanical but that’s not to say mechanicals don’t happen but when they do happen they happen at such a low altitude and so fast there is like at the same time and same altitude you can react.

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