One of the hazards of this job is inadvertently becoming a poser. It’s easy to appear more knowledgeable about topics on which you have no direct experience so the golden rule is to attribute every fact to a credible source. Still, there seem to be a lot of people who think I have personal experience with aviation topics for which I have none. For the record, I’m a low-time Cessna 140 owner and pilot who has never had an instrument rating.

I’m strictly a fair weather enthusiast who doesn’t fly anywhere near enough and probably never will. I’m one of those perennially rusty pilots your hangar buddies warn you about and believe me I know it. I never fly with non-pilot passengers and I will stay out of your way when I’m up there. I’m also constantly vowing to get better.

But I also have 40 years of experience as an investigative and political reporter with decades as a managing editor and editor-in-chief, first in daily newspapers and since 2002 with AVweb as owner and publisher of a couple of aviation magazines. The two lives mesh well I think. I can sniff out aviation news but I’ll never be doing in-depth analysis of IFR, turbine or professional flying. Fortunately, our company has plenty of folks with vast experience in all of those areas and I can call on them for help at will.

But of all the dozens of aviation journalists I know and hundreds I don’t, the former and current astronauts and a veritable Who’s Who of celebrity airshow pilots and seriously skilled, talented aviation professionals I’ve had the privilege of meeting, I believe I have one particularly esoteric 30-minute slice of experience that none, or very few, of them have.

Longtime followers of this space may recall that I have wing walked. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that I went wing riding and I’ll explain the difference later.

In 2011 I spent a half-hour lashed to a post on the top wing of Stearman at an airport in Buochs, Switzerland. I was strapped so tightly to that pedestal that I could barely move and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. And when I tell you there’s nothing quite like it, you’ll have to take my word for it because it’s not likely something you’ll experience.

It also makes me uniquely qualified to comment on the FAA’s move to ensure that the experience will be virtually unavailable the U.S., short of going pro like the handful of airshow performers who still keep that century-old art form alive.

Until March 18, there was one place in all of the U.S. where anyone could pay somewhere north of $1,000 for about 25 minutes of crawling around on the wings of a Stearman. And that’s where the difference lies between wing walking and wing riding.

Those who visited Mason Wing Walking in Sequim, Washington, in the warm months and Ventura, California, in the winter spent several hours training to move safely around the airplane and how to survive an error if they had to rely on a safety tether attaching them to the plane.

I had no such training. My wing riding experience came as a last-minute decision during a weeklong junket put on by Breitling, the Swiss watchmaker. Every year it used to celebrate its close connection to aviation and its sponsorship of a half-dozen airshow acts by hosting its top salespeople and their invited guests on a lavish tour of their watchmaking factories culminating in a day of flying with those airshow acts.

I flew in what was at the time the only flying Lockheed Constellation in the world, I did open cockpit aerobatics with a Pitts team and I was supposed to go skydiving but, thank heavens, there wasn’t enough room in the plane. Meanwhile, a group from Japan was returning from their wing riding experience as I got the wonderful news that I would not be plummeting to the earth under canopy that day (never had the urge and never expect to).

Perhaps it was the euphoria of avoiding, yet again, skydiving or maybe it was the giggles from the tiny Japanese ladies as they climbed down from the Stearman that caused me, against every scrap of better judgment, to go in the next group with the Breitling Wing Walkers. I won’t go on here. Watch the video. It’s actually pretty funny, which is in sharp contrast to what happened to Mike Mason and his family.

Mason and his wife Marilyn started offering wing walking flights in 2012 and have flown hundreds of people on what I can, without reservation, describe as a singular experience. It was done in full view of the FAA and other authorities, and Mason told the Seattle Times it had been fully approved by the local authorities.

There are dozens of videos on YouTube and glowing testimonials about the professionalism and safety attitude of the proprietors. By all accounts it’s been a good mom and pop business for the Masons, paying the bills and then some since one of their kids has special needs.

Life went on as usual for 12 years, except for a dustup with neighbors at their hangar home community. Some folks didn’t like the noise from that big prop in fine pitch as it launched those adventurers and that drew some attention to the little company.

For whatever reason, after 12 years of minding their own business and safely delivering a bucket-list experience to hundreds of appreciative customers, the FAA came calling. They told Mason they were reviewing the operation but they apparently didn’t tell him to stop conducting his business while they did that review. The results of that review came in the form of a letter on March 18 grounding the business and issuing an emergency revocation of Mason’s ATP certificate, leaving the family without its livelihood. Mason is appealing the ruling but for now his ticket is pulled for a minimum of a year and it will be a process to get it back.

According to my reading of the Times story by their wonderful aviation beat reporter Dominic Gates (everything we know about Boeing was reported first by him), the FAA acted as if they’d sleuthed out a case against Mason and found, to their horror, that the flights that he’d been carrying out in what he thought was full compliance with FAA regs were suddenly “careless or reckless so as to endanger the life or property of another.”

Now, I actually have some empathy for the FAA here. Given the pressure and scrutiny the agency has been under in Boeing’s home state, I can see where some new agency officials came to town, discovered Mason’s family business and had an instant aneurysm. As carefully and professionally as it seems to have been run, I can see where putting neophyte thrill seekers on top of a Stearman for a few laps around Puget Sound might raise some issues for the FAA these days.

But the agency also bears major responsibility for its existence in the first place. Mason Wing Walking could not have thrived for 12 years without at least the tacit, if not overt, approval of the agency’s Washington State brass. And while the most recent review was taking place, the FAA was in touch with Mason to tell him to stop flying the noisy warbird over areas where residents were complaining. To act like Mason had suddenly appeared on their radar and then to come down on him like a ton of bricks is both unseemly and excessive.

On the other hand, we also don’t know what those discussions with the FAA have been like because Mason won’t talk about it and the FAA can’t. So we don’t know what role Mason’s response to the review might have been. I’m going to go out on limb here and suggest that anyone who opens a wing walking business is probably not a shrinking violet, though.

Sure, I get it. Maybe wing walking shouldn’t be treated like a trip to Six Flags, but clearly there’s a market for this kind of activity and isn’t the FAA’s core mandate to foster aviation enterprises? Maybe the nuclear option shouldn’t have been the first choice.

Now, the only place left in the world where anyone can ride on top of an airplane is in England, which is not exactly known for its freewheeling disregard for safety rules. There, a company called the Wing Walk Company will give you the same sort of wing riding experience that I had, bound tightly to a post for all phases of flight.

In my other business I display photos of my lumpy form securely strapped to that Stearman and the associated storytelling has probably helped me sell hundreds of bottles of wine. Those of you who have met me know that I don’t exactly strike a heroic figure so it’s funny to watch strangers reconcile the vision before them with such an out-there experience.

Until now, I attempted to add some value for the relatively few clients who think wing walking might be something they’d enjoy. Sequim is only a day’s drive from our place and I’ve told hundreds of customers about Mason Wing Walking. I’ll bet at least a few of them have followed through and felt that slipstream wrapping their cheek fat around their ears and the rather incredible rush that being up there offers.

I’ll still tell the story and enjoy the perplexed and astonished looks of my customers. I just don’t like the ending as much now.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.


  1. Maybe they’re trying to scare Boeing with this over-the-top “nuclear” reaction? Unless he broke a specific FAR, I’d say the 12 years of tacit approval ought to have some weight in his fight. AND … taking an ATP away from a guy without a specific first warning with reference to a violation (assuming that’ the way it shook out?) seems a bit much to me.

    THIS is why pilots have such disdain for most parts of the FAA!

    • Thinking about it some more, there’s a sort of parallel issue here with the Boeing problem … though different, they have roots in the FAA NOT enforcing whatever rules they’re using against BOTH Boeing and Mason Wing Walking over a protracted period of time. Then, suddenly, they come down hard on both. I don’t disagree that Boeing deserves the scrutiny but why didn’t the FAA do what it’s doing now earlier? The same could be said for Mason if there is a valid reason to revoke an ATP from an entity who didn’t have a safety problem over a long period. Personally, I think the FAA should hold itself culpable for failure to act followed by over reaction. But we — here — know that won’t happen. I hope Mason’s lawyers make short work of HIS problem.

      • When has the FAA ever NOT overreacted when something happens to make them look bad? As for the FAA being supposed to “promote and support” aviation, that went out the window long ago. It isn’t in a government agency’s DNA to both act as an enforcer and a promoter. The enforcement part is just too easy – “Do as I say, or else!”

        • Correction: when has the GOVERNMENT ever NOT overreacted when something happens to make them look bad.

    • They’re being “Hoovered”…and I suspect it was initiated by those who don’t like airport noise.

  2. This kind of stuff happening with the FAA has been a problem for years. What one inspector may approve of, another comes along and (gasp!) your a threat to the safety of aviation. In the skydiving world, getting a field approval sometimes takes what is referred to as FSDO shopping to see who will approve a door mod for a C182 or C206, then finding a mechanic in that FSDO district to get the work done. I live in a FSDO district that will not do field approvals at all. Until this “fiefdom” nonsense is done away with, these issues will continue to occur. BTW Russ, the US government did away with the promotional mandate of aviation from the FAA’s mandate back in the 1990’s.

    • It’s exactly the fiefdom nonsense that needs to end. Unfortunately, all it takes is one rogue agent in a FSDO to make life a living nightmare for anyone under their jurisdiction. There’s little or no oversight from big FAA, and good luck if you want to appeal any ruling. Yet if someone from the FAA suddenly decides to “appeal” their previous blessing of something, they always win.

      • Yes. I had two seemingly well mannered guys from our FSBO shut down rentals on my plane because they decided the certification of the plane was done in error. They also said it was one of the best flying plane they’d ever flown. At least they camp back and rented my DA40 several times though, lol.

  3. Russ you never had me fooled about your flying credentials but I do appreciate you having gone public with those in the first two paragraphs of this blog. Thank you.

    You would however be more knowledgeable about how Transport Canada would handle the wing walking business, right? I’m ignorant about that. Would you consider informing us in another blog?

    As we all do, I too feel the onerousness of the FAA. For starters, I’d like to see MOSAIC happen before the FAA does anything else. But while the FAA and I are not by any means bosom buddies, I can say that every time I ever crossed back into US ATC from the earth’s four corners I breathed a sigh of relief.

    The FAA just shut down wing walking operation? I’m not sure the sky is falling just yet Russ.


  4. Another thing occurred to me. Bertorelli jumped out of perfectly good airplanes and LIKED it. Niles straps himself to a wing of a WWII biplane and LIKED it. Apparently, to become the head chickenchoker at Avweb, you have to be LOCO ??? What’s next … jumping out of an aiplane withoug a parachute and hoping your buddy hooks up with you before ya go … SPLAT ??? 🙂

  5. Definitely feels nuclear – one thing is to have them cease the operation while things get sorted out, but to pull his ticket and a possible means of earning a living is wrong.

  6. So, if strapping someone securely to an aeroplane and returning them safely to earth on the same aeroplane is reckless endangerment, how much more reckless and endangering is it fly people to several thousand feet and allow/encourage them to jump out of the aircraft? Look out skydivers and sports parachutists the FAA is coming for you!

    • Maybe I read the article wrong, but it sounds like Mason Wing Walking allows for the customers to move around on the wing, as opposed to the one Russ participated in where you are securely strapped on top of the wing. There definitely is a difference between those two.

      As for it being “careless or reckless”, that would imply that no thought was given to safety, which clearly sounds like is NOT the case here, at least as far as the currently know facts are presented. Now if they were doing low-altitude buzzing over a populated area, that would be a different case, but I haven’t heard that being the case.

  7. More proof of the FAA’s unofficial motto of “we’re not happy until you’re not happy.”

  8. Are these FAA garden variety slugs from the same garden, that the slugs who took Bob Hoovers medical come from?

  9. I watched the video, Russ. God Bless you, you crazy SOB! 🙂
    The trouble with the FAA has always been that they are inexperienced bureaucrats who collect a paycheck, but have no skin in the game!

  10. Russ–this is possibly your best column I’ve seen!

    One wonders how the FAA came up with “careless and reckless?” Does there need to be an FAA parts approval for aircraft seats? If the belts, bolts, harnesses, and hold-downs are FAA-approved–what is the charged infraction? You can go flying in that same open-cockpit 1940s-era Stearman (with an open cockpit)–why is it legal to do so when strapped to the SEAT by the very same belts, bolts, and fixtures as those used on the wing-walking post–and it is just as legal to do aerobatics if strapped into a seat as it is secured to a post by the very same materials.

    Would the FAA feel better if the Stearman was altered to move the seat or the stand up ABOVE the fuselage? How about homebuilts–like the “Breezy”–“a pilot and either one or two passengers sitting out in the open–ahead of the wing and pusher engine–riding on an 8” beam fixture with NO side rails–yet the FAA blesses those. How about the same configuration on a helicopter–the “Tomcat” conversion on a Bell 47–no “bubble”–and the seats are out in the open–either in tandem or side by side.

    It’s a matter of semantics–sit inside, or outside the cockpit–secured by the very same hardware and materials in any case.

    “Government (in this case, the FAA) OVER-REACTING?” SAY IT ISN’T SO! (sarcasm)

  11. I know a woman who has been one of Mason Wing Walking’s regular customers for years. When she felt overly stressed and just needed to get away from it all, she’d airline from her home in Idaho Falls to SEATAC and then spend some quality time upside down on the Stearman’s wing. I have beautiful pics of her standing on the wing upside down with arms outstretched, and the operation is conducted offshore, with the blue Pacific below. As she said, “If I ever fell off, nobody would ever see me, since I’d hit the water.” In other words, they aren’t doing it to show off. But as the Seattle Times previously recorded, they’ve had no such accidents. This is yet another example of a vocal, ignorant minority making way too much noise and then getting their way, taking rights away from others. Really tired of this new way of being an American. That’s not what “freedom” is about. Is there a chance that one of these wing-walkers could fall off? Theoretically, yes. But you could also crash your Cessna every time you take off. It’s a risk you are willing to take, and you do all you can to mitigate that risk. That’s why you have to have a bit of recent experience before you take a passenger, and why commercial operators are held to higher standards. From the reporting done previously by the Seattle Times (I’ve been following this story for months), this operation seems as sound as any other commerical GA operation. Yes, it’s unusual. But unusual isn’t unacceptably unsafe. And frankly all GA is at least slightly unsafe. Life is unsafe. But the FAA just took away this family’s livelihood for, in my view, no good reason.

  12. Mike and I grew up together. Mike comes from a family of Lockheed test pilots, his grandfather being the famous Sammy Mason who among other things flew an aerobatic routine in the Lockheed rigid rotor helicopter at the Paris Airshow. Sammy wrote the book Stalls Spins and Safety. Mike and I flew Gulfstreams together for several years.

    One correction I would add is that Mike’s wife is Marilyn. Jenna is one of his daughters.

    I would love to expound on this story. I can’t. I will say this is a massive overreach by the FAA. Mike is getting the Bob Hoover treatment and I hope the FAA gets punished for this to the degree it doesn’t happen to anyone else. Mike is the most safety minded pilot I’ve ever flown with and this should infuriate every pilot out there.

  13. There’s lots of good about the BasicMed process, but one down side is that it seems to have given the FAA some spare time to pick nits on other things. Is this perhaps one of those? Or is it just one of those times that Big Government feels a need to flex its muscles and beat up on the little guys?

  14. People living in an airpark complaining about airplane noise, what a bunch of jerks. Maybe if it was a training operation doing touch and go’s 8 hours a day it would be understandable, I wouldn’t think the wingwalking business would be that often.
    Great writing, up to Paul B. standards!

  15. I suspect your article would have had a completely different perspective if you had been writing about this operation after having an accident where a passenger was killed. They were clearly violating the rules by charging for ground instruction on how to wing walk but not the flight itself. Thats the same thing many warbird operators got shut down for a few years back when they too tried to get around being considered a commercial operation. It is also drilled into every pilots head that has ever done aerobatics that a chute is required for all passengers. If it was too difficult or dangerous to do the walk with a chute on then they should be staying upright with the airplane. Just because the FAA didn’t shut them down and they got away with it over the past 12 years doesn’t mean that what they were doing was legal or right.

    • Then why not have the FAA cite them for not providing/requiring a parachute, instead of leaping straight from “approved” to “not approved, and we’re also yanking your pilot certificate too”? That definitely is an overreach, especially since the FAA apparently had previously given their blessings.

      • Because they were doing much more than just flying passengers without chutes. The owner himself has gone on record saying that they charge for 3 hours ground instruction but the flight is free. It was free because it was illegal for them to charge for it as they were not a commercial operation and did not meet all the requirements to be a commercial operation. The same thing happened to many warbird owners who were trying to sell sightseeing flights as “instruction” or selling a $1000 hat or t-shirt that just happened to come with a free ride. They knew they were twisting the rules to try and get away with it. The only shocker is that it took this long to get shut down.

        • Except compared to those warbird operators, this outfit apparently had the blessing from the FAA to do what they were doing. To suddenly reverse course AND yank the pilot’s certificate is an overreach unless there was some recent sudden and drastic change in their operations.

        • There is an outfit called Sky Combat Ace that operates as you describe and their less than stellar safety record speaks directly to your point.

        • This was probably as much a sticking point as anything else. Charging for one thing on the ground, but saying that it wasn’t for the real risky part will sound fishy to anyone as an attempt to avoid one thing or another.

    • Disclaimer: I have no previous wing-walking experience…

      …however, it would seem to me that wearing a parachute would actually introduce a hazard that outweighs the safety benefit. I am imagining a parachute accidentally deploying while the wingwalker is strapped to the mast, as Russ was during his epic experience in Switzerland.

  16. Knowing today’s date, when I first read the headline I just knew this story was going to be a joke. But then as I read, I quickly realized it was not! It was really quite interesting. And Russ, you did great on that wing too!

  17. I sometimes wonder if the FAA, with its contemporary attitude, would have allowed two bicycle shop owners from Ohio to attempt flight off a public beach in North Carolina. What crazy nonsense. Hadn’t Langley proven just days before, with a govt grant and a team of engineers, that man could not fly?

  18. The rules were different a while ago. Danny Grecco wing walked and moved from aircraft to aircraft without a parachute or harness.

    “In addition to running a flight school, Tex Rankin had employed a number of “extra ordinary, brave, or plain crazy” men who were part of his “Tex Rankin Air Circus.” As he worked to pay for flying lessons and training, Grecco became a “wing walker.” Walking on the wings of in-flight aircraft was a popular performance in the years following World War I, and Grecco was one of the best. He would walk from one plane to another, one plane to a boat, or one plane to an automobile. He accomplished all this without a harness or a parachute, flying 400-500 feet off the ground. Grecco performed in cities along the West Coast, especially in Oregon, at state fairs and other functions. In 1928, he “hung on to a Curtiss Jenny’s wing as it flew over the Columbia River.””

  19. Wow. A ton of deep-felt energy being spent on this board stating opinionated wrongs of the FAA and the FSDO inspector that performs the duties that the American public has charged him/her with. I highly doubt that any of that energy is actually being directed at the policy makers themselves. That would take a little more effort and would not be as immediately gratifying.

  20. Note to those who believe that parachutes by wing-walkers are the answer–Chutes don’t make it safer–for the rider or the pilot. As a former skydiver, and jump plane pilot–one of we probably spent as much time covering how to safeguard against an inadvertent deployment of an emergency parachute than any other possible danger to the operation.

    An inadvertent deployment of a parachute (whether as a rider in an airplane or as a wing-walker) is more deadly than falling off the airplane–you just CREATED a danger that didn’t exist before. An inadvertent deployment while securely strapped to the airplane is deadly for the wearer of the parachute–and deadly for the pilot as well. I can’t find an instance of a wing-walker falling out of a harness in flight–can anyone else find one? ANYONE? ANYONE?

    Yet there are any number of instances of inadvertent deployments of parachutes inside the aircraft by untrained observers. It was my biggest concern as a jump pilot. The loadmaster (and I) ALWAYS took the time to show the observer how to guard against an inadvertent deploymnet.

  21. Perhaps the FAA would have been satisfied if Mason had named his business “emergency training for 737 passengers.”

  22. While we still don’t have the whole story here, it seems like the common symptoms of the bureaucratic disease. Regulators, if they were truly doing a superior job, would have very few enforcement instances because they’d have everyone onboard and following the rules. Unfortunately, if that’s not the case (which it very rarely is), they have to justify their existence and show activity. This means they often go after the low hanging fruit. Auditing thousands of papers to find shady operators involved in counterfeit parts or short cuts or whatever is very hard, and if nothing is found proves no activity. Also, in law enforcement, if you do your job wrong you expose a crime only to give the violators an easy defense and perhaps an easy lawsuit. Not to mention actual criminals are often dangerous. So, the IRS agents go after people without expensive counsel (I have a friend who got audited for over ten consecutive years because he did his own taxes and only had one mistake in the period having missed a form for some small extra income). The ATF goes after small dealers and collectors with zero criminal records. The FAA goes after the unordinary and under capitalized. Etc.

    Now, as a small government, fiscal conservative, I realize those like me actually can be partially at fault. Look at what happened after, and actually during, Desert Storm. First, the USSR were so deterred by the military and economic strength of the time, they finally gave up. Then the US military performed so well in Iraq that the game got called early to avoid the appearance of piling on (and to save the poor young men of Iraq who were not the guilty parties). The “peace dividend” resulted in a huge reduction in force. People with good records got small checks as severance and their careers were ended. I’m talking about guys who had successful battalion commands in the army and were let go two years before retirement. Ouch!

    So, while I have good ideas on fixing this stuff, it’s going to continue and it’s not just piston aviation getting ground beneath the wheel.

  23. Great article Russ. Before I comment I’d like to add that I’m the guy that flew you in Buochs, summer 2011.
    I was the pilot of Breitling Wingwalkers aircraft No3. We are no longer sponsored by Breitling, we are flying under our own banner: Aerosuperbatics Wingwalkers. (Google it).
    This year will be the Company’s 40th anniversary of flying Airshows. I am still Lead Display Pilot, having been on the team 18 years. I have 5000hrs on the 450 Stearman, I’ve flown displays in 21 countries, a total of over 1300 Airshows. And I’ve flown over 7000 members of the public.
    Public wingwalking (wingstanding) is legal here in the UK subject to operating under a regulatory scheme run by the CAA which is similar to AOC. There are 3 companies in the UK that operate public flights. We are the only company to offer full aerobatics to include loops, rolls, stall turns etc.
    Training is very straightforward, as you know. Instruction on how to climb up and down on the ground, and how to release the harness in case of emergency egress, that’s all you need to know. People are briefed and strapped in by our professional Wingwalkers. These girls fly at all the shows we perform at, they have a very short steel cable attaching them to the aircraft as they do not climb out on to the wings. They can only free climb up and down from the front seat. The cable is short enough to only allow them movement as far as the lower wing root. We do not use long tether cables as we feel thot are not safe.
    There have been zero incidents over here, involving public wingwalking flights, mainly due to regulation and stringent maintenance requirements.

    I feel the treatment of the Masons is a bit harsh. As far as I am aware, they too have had no incidents. The Masons are highly experienced in their field, they should have been encouraged rather than stamped out.