Wingwalk display pilot Mike Dentith takes members of the public up on his Stearman.
Interview by Yayeri van Baarsen
16 April 2020
I’ve always wanted to fly, so when my income tax bill miraculously was less than I expected, I used the money that I’d put aside towards getting my PPL at Biggin Hill in the 1970s. Afterwards, I joined the Tiger Club at Redhill, which specialised in the type of flying I loved – proper vintage tailwheel aircraft.
I’m the chief pilot at Wingwalk Buzz. Based at Dunkeswell Airfield, we offer members of the public the opportunity to try wingwalking. Before strapping them onto the rig, we give them a full briefing and get them into a flying suit. Then we do some low-level zooming, 200-300ft above ground at 80 to 90mph. During the 10-minute flight, the only way to communicate is via a hand signal. Two thumbs down means ‘Take me back to the ground’. I can’t recall when this last happened, most people wave their arms or punch the air.
“For the unexperienced, the wind pressure can be quite intense”
If they really like it, on their second turn we can do a loop and a stall turn. For the unexperienced the wind pressure can be quite intense as we climb to a minimum of 1,700ft, hit 135mph on the dive in and pull about 4g in the loop. I’ve never had anyone throw up though – it’s almost physically impossible to open your mouth at that speed.
I fly from the back seat looking up. Concentration is important since we fly VFR and low-level in different weather conditions. The Stearman is sturdy, strong and stable. If anything, it’s a bit heavy on the ailerons, but you get used to that. Because the rig is in the middle of the aircraft, having someone on the wing doesn’t affect trim, only performance. It causes a huge drag, but the Stearman has 300hp so after taking off it only affects energy management.
My work is great. Our customers get a real buzz, as often wingwalking will have been on their bucket list for ages.
Having learned to fly Tiger Moths at the Tiger Club, I flew airshows as an amateur. At the time I owned a Druine Turbulent in which I learned formation flying and became part of the famous Turbulent formation team. In 1986 I turned professional and flew displays all over the world with the Skyhawks. In 1991 I joined a team specialising in wingwalking and performed with them until I started my own business in 2009. Last year I sold it to Wingwalk Buzz and became their chief pilot.
Currently, I’m one of only 12 wingwalk pilots in the UK, as well as a Display Authorised Evaluator. To become a wingwalk pilot, taildragger experience is vital. I wouldn’t want anyone with less than 1,000 flying hours, including lots of training on the particular bi-plane they’re flying.
In the early 2000s, I got to fly with the Red Arrows in a full display practice at RAF Scampton. Being a passenger in one of their Hawk jets is already a rarity and the privilege of getting to fly in the back seat during a whole display is even rarer. It was super-exciting to be part of the team, even if it was just for one flight.
Breighton Aerodrome in Yorkshire, where we regularly operate from. Home of The Real Aeroplane Company, it has the most fantastic collection of vintage aircraft there, some dating back to the 1930s. Breighton is a unique place with a great club atmosphere.
Yes, I own a Fournier RF-4, a small motor glider that I keep at a grass airstrip near my home. It’s the only motor glider that has ever crossed the Atlantic, which was in 1968. I bought it from the widow of the original owner. In summer, I fly it purely for leisure at least once a week, and I often fly down to Dunkeswell instead of driving.
The saying, ‘there are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots’! Whenever you’re about to be a bit gung-ho, remember those words. In my flying, the most threatening thing is bad weather. I learned early on in my career that when in doubt, it’s always better to play it safe and turn back. Even if there’s commercial pressure. Even if the weather isn’t downright bad, but only average. It’s just not worth it.
For more info:
With more than 3,500 flights with someone standing atop his aircraft, Wingwalk Buzz chief pilot Mike Dentith is the world’s most experienced wingwalk display pilot.
|Now flying||Boeing Stearman PT-17 Kaydet|
|Favourite aircraft||Concorde. “It’s the most beautiful bird ever to have flown. Sadly, I never got a chance to fly in it.”|
|Hours at job start||Approx. 5,200|
|Hours now||Approx. 5,205|