On a wing and a prayer Walking: Harford County native Teresa Stokes, who performs on a slim piece of metal hurtling 130 mph, is one of the few wing walkers left in the world.

September 15, 1996|By Claudia Moessinger | Claudia Moessinger,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

When Teresa Stokes, outfitted in skintight black pants and stiletto suede boots, her blond hair streaming in the wind, hops aboard the sunset-colored biplane "Show Cat," she looks like a missing member of the cast of the TV show "Melrose Place," not a wing walker.

Not someone who does headstands on the plane's wing in midair, hundreds of feet above the earth at 130 mph.

That trick, Stokes said, is difficult compared with the part of her aerial routine in which pilot Gene Soucy performs loops, rolls and figure eights with Stokes safely strapped to the wing.

Stokes, who grew up in Harford County, performed the daring stunts for hundreds of people attending the seventh annual Chesapeake Air Show yesterday at Martin State Airport in Middle River. "I'm just laughing and screaming the whole time," Stokes said.

Said Soucy: "She really gets a kick out of it. She waves to the crowd and they wave back."

Joyce Horner of Baltimore watched Stokes at the air show. "She takes your breath away," Horner said.

Growing up in Harford County, Stokes, 35, said she hung out at small country airports in Aberdeen and Fallston, hoping to catch a ride.

She now lives on a houseboat in Texas. She has returned to Maryland only twice in the past 15 years and said she forgot the natural beauty of her home state.

"Growing up, it was easy to take for granted how pretty it was."

Art, not wing walking, remains her "No. 1 job." Although she calls herself an aviation artist, she also has done artwork for rock 'n' roll bands, most notably a cover for Aerosmith's "Rocks" album in the '70s.

Stokes said she can see Johnson Space Center from her houseboat and takes pride in having a caricature she did of the space shuttle and its crew on Mission STS-27-- a top-secret flight for the Department of Defense -- that was taken into space.

Stokes began aerobatic flying more than a dozen years ago, and started wing walking eight years ago. She said her interest was sparked during a airplane ride with Soucy in Dallas.

"There was a wing stand on the plane and I thought, I've got to try this." Soon she was hooked.

Soucy, 45, has worked with other wing walkers but saves the highest praise for Stokes. "She's absolutely the best in the world," he said.

Stokes spends eight months of the year wing walking, a pastime that gained popularity in the '20s, she said, when it was called barnstorming and was more widespread because the planes were slower. She said she earns "a couple thousand" dollars a show.

Stokes said she is one of only a handful of wing walkers in the world today.

Stokes choreographs the 15-minute routines and practices on the ground before trying it in the air. "There is nothing ad lib about it," she said.

She said she slips once in a while when she's wing walking, but the wind usually presses her against the large metal band of wires that form an X between the two sets of wings and keep her from falling.

"I don't have to hold on," she said. "It's like a leaf sticking to the side of a fence without falling."

It can get cold up there, though, said Stokes. "It's much colder in the air, and with a 100-mile windchill, it gets very cold. And it's too hard to move if you're bundled up."

She likes to think she could mimic the feat of one recent wing walker, a performer from the '20s and '30s who went up again at age 84. "Maybe I'll be a little old lady if I'm lucky," said Stokes.

The Chesapeake Air Show continues from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. today at Martin State Airport, Exit 36 from the Baltimore Beltway. Stokes will perform at about 4 p.m. today. Admission is $10 for adults; children 12 and younger are free. Information: 686-2233.

Pub Date: 9/15/96

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