In a cloudless sky over central Indiana, Teresa Stokes, 46, steps out of the cockpit of a modified Grumman biplane and inches her way onto the wing as the plane flies at more than 100 mph, 1,500 feet above the ground. Stokes shivers as the cold wind slices through her red windbreaker. Taking a deep breath, she rises to her feet and waves to the crowd below.
The spectators gasp as Stokes, wearing a helmet, goggles and no parachute, climbs to the top wing and hangs by her knees from a pole attached to the top of the plane. Pilot Gene Soucy, Stokes' boyfriend of 20 years, smiles at her from the cockpit, giving her a confident thumbs-up, before taking the bright red and yellow biplane into a twisting series of stomach-fluttering banks, rolls and turns.
"It feels as if I'm running as hard as I can in a hurricane," she says. "It's the force of the speed and the steadiness of Gene's flying that holds me in place."
Stokes is a wing walker, a daring airborne occupation that dates back to the barnstorming era of stunt pilots, tightrope walkers, touring carnivals and big tents.
"Teresa and Gene's show takes audiences back to the great barnstorming days of the 1920s and '30s," says Roger Bishop, organizer of the Indianapolis Air Show in Greenfield, Ind. (pop. 18,401). "It's always amazing to see their show. There is such a fluid motion between them; they make wing walking appear easy."
Performing death-defying aerobatics in midair is all in a day's work for Stokes, of Houston, Texas. And while she insists that her job isn't dangerous, her only safety device is a belt worn around her waist and attached to the post on the top wing when Soucy performs rolls and flies the plane upside down.
"Wing walking doesn't scare me," she says with a laugh. "It's the sports such as skiing and riding motorcycles that terrify me, because there are so many variables beyond your control."
Aviation always has been a part of her life. Growing up in Maryland, Stokes lived in several small communities near Baltimore where her family befriended people in the aviation field. While other children have fond memories of taking car trips with their families, Stokes recalls taking impromptu plane rides across the state. In her early 20s, she earned her pilot's license and began performing aircraft aerobatics.
Stokes first met Soucy at the 1988 Reno (Nev.) Air Show. Soon after, the two began dating, and eventually Stokes asked Soucy to let her try wing walking. Initially practicing while the plane was on the ground, Stokes gradually began training in the air, easing her body onto the plane's wing and ultimately rehearsing routines. Months later, when Soucy's intended wing walker backed out of a full slate of performances, Stokes offered to fill in, and she's been part of the high-flying act ever since.
Like Stokes, Soucy, 58, grew up around airplanes. The son of parent pilots, he joined the U.S. Aerobatic Team at age 22, later became a captain for Northwest Airlines, and began professional air show piloting in 1968. Soucy has appeared in more than 3,000 air shows across the nation, earning the nickname "Mr. Air Show."
"He's an excellent pilot," Stokes says of Soucy, a three-time Canadian and U.S. national aerobatic champion.
Since Soucy is a seasoned pilot, he doesn't get too concerned while his girlfriend does a headstand in midair. "It looks surreal, but it doesn't scare me at all," Soucy says. "Teresa is one of the best wing walkers in the world."
He has no plans to take up wing walking himself, however. "Who would pilot the plane?" he asks with a smile.
Today, Stokes and Soucy team up to perform in more than 25 air shows between the months of April and November.
During the off-season, Stokes pursues her other talent-art. In a concurrent career, Stokes has established herself as a successful aviation and space artist, whose work is displayed in galleries and museums worldwide. Her paintings even have been in space. A painting of the Discovery STS-26 crew was placed aboard the space shuttle Atlantis in 1988. Another was flown on a 2000 Atlantis mission.
"I was very envious of my artwork," says Stokes, standing on the deck of her houseboat looking out toward the Johnson Space Center.
You can't help but wonder if she's envisioning walking on the wings of a space shuttle.