There is a woman who races the wind. Her world is a high country that touches the clouds.
It is a feat of astonishing daring to try be more than human -- to stand atop wings, melding a body of flesh and plane soaring through the blue. But Ashley Battles doesn't just go gently into the sky. She also falls out of it, and rolls through it and rockets past any doubt that to be alive is to fly.
"I can't really compare what I see in my eyes when I am on top of an airplane on top of Alcatraz right next to the Golden Gate," she said. "The clouds would just move in and move out. To be right next to them and think you could touch them was -- it's unbelievable. It seems unreal."
Battles is one of the world's few professional wing walkers. With stunning fearlessness, she can perform aerobatic maneuvers on planes moving at speeds of 165 miles per hour. But, in a heart-stopping twist on the iconic film "Top Gun" that defined a generation's reverence for adrenaline fliers, Ashley performs thrilling stunts while standing on top of spiraling airplanes.
"It's my passion. It's what I'm supposed to do. I can't do a cartwheel, but I can somehow maneuver all over this airplane -- through the wires on the wing. It's what I know I'm supposed to do," she said.
"I told myself it's four hours, and I'll forever have broken a world record. It was so amazing that words can't describe it," Battles said.
Tears of joy soon followed but they could have also been tears of relief. Battles works hard to make the art of hanging on for dear life appear effortless. It is not. Above the landmark orange towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, she had to endure hurricane force winds and frigid temperatures for the four-hour-and-two minute historic wing walk, while remaining vigilant for an ever-present threat: Ironically, the very creature whose graceful flying inspires her is also one that could cause Battles' death.
"We're right in the territory of where birds like to be. Being hit by a bird would certainly cause severe damage. You've seen what it does to airplanes," Battles said.
Growing up in Augusta, Ga., Battles always knew she'd end up in the sky. In some ways, it was written in the stars. Her grandfather, Larry New, is a pilot who has flown more than 250 types of aircraft, and spends the majority of his flight time in a B-17 plane. Battles' mother, Tonia Battles, is a whole-hearted advocate for dreaming big.
"My mom was the one who told me I could be anything I wanted to be, and has supported my journey to becoming a pilot and a wing walker. She is a respiratory therapist, and I watched her put herself through school and finish. That's really when I knew I could do anything," remembered Battles.
At 18, Ashley Battles made her dream of becoming a pilot come true, and for two years it was everything, until she went to an air show and saw a wing walker perform. There she realized it was time to stretch her own wings and get out of the cockpit and into the sky.
"I knew right then that that is what I was looking for," Battles said.
On that fateful day, Battles also heard about Greg Shelton, considered to be one of the best natural pilots in the area who also happened to be looking for a wing walker. Battles had never been wing walking, and Shelton had never flown a wing walker, but somehow together they made it through a baptism by air.