Secrets of a Wing Walker: Woman Performs Aerobatics on Top of Flying Airplanes

Woman Walks on Flying
WATCH Woman Walks on Flying Planes

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.

PHOTOS: Ashley Battles and history's famous female wing walkers.

"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.

And her world record-breaking wing walk for longest duration standing above the Golden Gate Bridge changed everything.

"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.

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Ashley Battles Trusts Pilot With Her Life

Equal parts mentor and hero, Shelton has been Ashley's flying partner ever since. She trusts him with her life.

"We've spent eight years together, and I can practically read his mind," she said.

It is at the Neosho Hugh Robinson Memorial Airport in Missouri where "20/20" met Battles and Shelton during one of their aerobatic maneuver practice sessions. It is one thing to hear Battles describe how she'll ride the wings, quite another to watch a 28-year-old woman fly overhead on an aeronautic version of a dragon exhaling white smoke.

And at 165 miles per hour in the open wind, imagine a fire hydrant of air being forced on your face while walking the wings of a moving plane.

Once she makes her nerve-wracking trek to the top of the airplane, Battles fastens into a homemade rack that Shelton made for her, one that looks like a kind of upright back brace.

"This is our medieval torture device, also known as the rack," laughed Battles. "This is actually gonna be bolted on top of the wing of the airplane, and this is what I'm attached to when we're doing some aerobatics up there."

Because there are so few wing walkers in the world and no official organization, Battles has to figure most things out on her own, from the big questions of how to overcome her fear on the very first wing walk to the fine details of what to wear.

"This came from a Halloween costume shop," Battles said of her wing-walking costume. "Believe it or not, it is very difficult to find something red, white and blue to match the airplane, and that can be used to wing walk in."

Though Ashley's vocation is rare, she does have predecessors -- and these great-grandmothers of wing walking will take everything you thought you knew about gravity and turn it upside down.

Wing walking began in the 1920s, when unemployed World War I fighter pilots, who missed the adrenaline and needed the income, entertained crowds at air shows.

But there were some women who also felt the need for speed, performing for a nation ready for some awe-inspiring feats.

Gladys Ingles was a member of a stunt-flying troupe in the 1920s. She could change planes mid-air.

Lillian Boyer dangled from airplanes in 1922 with an easy smile, and just an iron grip on the wing's edge.

Gladys Roy could play tennis with a partner on top of a flying plane.

These gutsy pioneers of wing walking have an admiring fan in Ashley Battles.

"Playing tennis across the wing, those guys could do anything. I mean, Greg can barely keep his airplane going with one person on top of it. To have two people not only on top of the wing but on opposite sides of the outer wing, it's unheard of today. It doesn't happen," Battles said.

These lady legends lived on the edge of the sky. But for some, the danger proved too great. A few years after the iconic tennis photo was taken, the renowned aviatrix was struck and killed by a spinning propeller on the ground.

Danger can come to anyone, at any time, in a world of unknowns, but Battles said that she and Shelton take great precautions to stay safe.

"I feel that what Greg and I do minimize our risk so much that the danger of what we do is more minimal than when I drove my car to the airport this morning," she said.

The risks notwithstanding, the rewards of an impossibly good life in the sky have made all the difference.

"The rewards outweigh the danger," Battles said.

Sometimes the forces of destiny meet, and a person becomes more than she thought possible.

"I felt up until I started wing walking, I was always looking for my niche in life. I could not imagine not wing walking. I couldn't imagine being anywhere else. I look over the edge of the wing, and I see nothing but bright blues and greens, and to this day, I have not been able to close my eyes," she said. "It's a beautiful view."

Learn more about Ashley Battles on "Special Powers: Super Humans," a "20/20" special. Watch here.

For more information on Ashley Battles and Greg Shelton:

For more on Battles' record-breaking wing walk over the Golden Gate Bridge: