It takes a special kind of courage to wing walk, the feat that involves walking on the wings of a plane during flight. But when your 91 years old, it also seems a near impossibility. Not so for Norma Howard, a retired British physiotherapist and former pilot, who was fearless as she took to the skies strapped atop a vintage biplane at 500 feet, becoming the oldest woman in the UK to wing walk. She thereby managed to beat the record set last year by Betty Bromage, 88.
The spectacle became popular at airshows in the 1920s and is still practiced using vintage planes, though the earliest recorded wing walking challenge was atop a a biplane designed by Colonel Samuel Franklin Cody in 1911. Cody hoped to prove how his Flying Cathedral biplanes had incredible lateral stability with a passenger 10 feet 6 inches away from the airplane’s center of gravity. Cody was followed by 26-year-old daredevil Ormer Locklear, who boarded the wings of his plane during pilot training in the Army Air Service during World War I. He would often exit the cockpit onto the wings whenever there was a mechanical problem.
Howard participated in the challenge at Rendcomb Airfield in an effort to raise funds for Dementia UK.
“I feel very relieved but also invigorated,” she said once she landed. “It was cold up there and I had so many layers on me I looked like the Michelin Man. The hardest bit was actually getting up onto the plane wrapped in so many clothes.”
Howard is also active in her community, shuttling older friends to and from the hospital. This wasn’t the first time she undertook a dramatic challenge. At 80, she swam twice the equivalent length of the English Channel in a local swimming pool. Then, at 83, she rode across the Wall of Death on top of the handlebars of a 1925 Indian motorbike.
A spokesperson for Dementia UK stated, "We cannot thank Norma enough for her efforts. All the money she is continuing to raise through public support will help Dementia UK's Admiral Nurses reach more people facing dementia." Howard managed to raise £2,000 for the charity.
Unfortunately, the Book of Guinness World Records cannot certify Howard’s record since it doesn’t distinguish between the sexes in the wing walking category. The oldest wing walker was the Tom Lackey, who was 93 when he flew over the Irish Sea in 2013.
Howard’s next challenge will be to abseil Portsmouth's Spinaker Tower. "It's only 170 metres, that's pretty much how high I was today strapped to the wing of a plane," she said undaunted.