Daredevil wing walker prepares for Monroe air show this weekend

abell@charlotteobserver.comNovember 7, 2013 

  • Want to go? The air show is Saturday and Sunday at Charlotte-Monroe Executive Airport, 3900 Paul J. Helms Drive, Monroe. Gates open at 9 a.m., and flying starts each day at 12:30 p.m. Tickets at the gate are $15 for adults and $10 for veterans and children ages 12-17. It’s free for children younger than 12. Battles and Shelton are scheduled to perform both days. More details: www.Warbirdsovermonroe.com

So what exactly scares Ashley Battles?

Certainly not her weekend plans in Monroe: Put on a Wonder Woman costume, climb into a World War II biplane and walk on its wings a thousand feet in the air at speeds of up to 165 mph on Saturday and Sunday.

She’s part of the rarefied daredevil culture of wing walking and will perform at the annual Warbirds Over Monroe air show, the only event of its kind in the Charlotte area and one of the larger nonmilitary air shows on the East Coast.

In addition to featuring several dozen World War II vintage aircraft, the city hopes to expand the show’s appeal by featuring an aerobatic comedy act, a precision flying team and the return of wing walking, among other activities, event spokesman Pete Hovanec said.

“Wing walking is definitely my niche in aviation.” said Battles, 30, as she prepared to leave the Tulsa, Okla., area for Monroe. “I just love being in the air.”

Hovanec called wing walking a small, dangerous profession. In June, a wing walker and her pilot were killed when their plane crashed and burned in a Dayton, Ohio, show.

“It’s very dangerous but very entertaining as well,” Hovanec said. “They know what they are getting into.”

Safety is always a key concern for the Monroe show, which has never had an accident.

Battles and her pilot, Greg Shelton, have worked together for about a decade. They met at an Oklahoma air show, where Battles, already a pilot for a few years, was searching for something more out of aviation.

She yearned to wing walk and was told Shelton was the man to help her do it.

Wing walking first soared in popularity nearly a century ago as returning World War I veterans and other pilots barnstormed the country. Nowadays, Shelton estimated, there are only about six or seven people who regularly wing walk at air shows across the country.

Battles recalled being quite nervous before her first time wing walking but found she had built up a lot of that anxiety in her mind. Now she has performed hundreds of times and holds the unofficial world record for wing walking at 4 hours, 2 minutes.

Her biggest challenges are dealing with the wind and remaining wary of birds. “Birds can do me harm,” she said.

Battles insists she is not worried about getting hurt. She trusts Shelton, a close friend who walked her down the aisle at her wedding, to do his job while she does hers. They work closely together to ensure safety.

“It’s definitely not scary, but I still get butterflies every time before we take off,” she said. “Every show is different. The weather, the crowds are different. The wind is different.”

Battles starts out in between the wings of Shelton’s 1943 Super Stearman, before climbing onto the top wing where she uses a seat belt to latch herself onto a metal stand. Battles said she chose the Wonder Woman costume because it matched the plane’s red, white and blue colors.

Shelton does loops, rolls and other maneuvers as Battles waves to the crowd during the 15-minute show. “Wing walking really gets everyone’s attention,” she said.

This is Battles’ first time at the Monroe show. She’s glad to be relatively close to her hometown of Augusta, Ga., and is looking forward to family and friends seeing her perform.

So what exactly scares Ashley Battles?

Skydiving. Riding on the back of a motorcycle. “I only watch scary movies during the day. And I hate snakes and spiders.

“But there’s something about wing walking that I was made to do.”

Bell: 704-358-5696; Twitter: @abell

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