One of the hazards of this job is inadvertantly 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.

Long-time 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 week-long 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 sales people 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 Jen 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 story telling has probably helped me sell hundreds of bottles of wine. Those of you who have met me know that I don’t exactly strike an 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.

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