About a dozen times each spring and summer, Ashley Battles secures her feet to the wing of a red, white and blue 1943 Super Stearman airplane. Then, dressed very much like Wonder Woman, she stands tall as pilot Greg Shelton flies the plane at 155 miles per hour through barrel rolls and dives and steep climbs into the sky.
To Shelton and Battles, it’s just another day in the Greg Shelton Air Show, a globe-trotting aerobatics production based in Collinsville.
Shelton met Battles at an air show when friends of his overheard her expressing an interest in walking the wings of an airborne airplane. Shelton had been performing on the air show circuit for 13 years, and in 2003 he decided he wanted to add a wing walker to his act. He’d been searching for just the right partner.
“Finding the right person for the act was, first, a matter of finding somebody who wants to get out there on the wings and do this,” Shelton says. “And on top of that, you need someone with personality – someone who likes to talk and sign autographs.”
Shelton says he talked to several candidates, but when he met Battles at that fateful air show, he knew she had the right personality.
“There I was, really young and with no idea what I was doing, and Greg was this big-time, veteran air show performer. I thought, ‘Even if I do terribly or if I get sick, all I have to do is walk once and I’ll forever be a wing walker,’” Battles says.
The younger half of the duo says she is generally not a risk taker.
“I drive like a grandma and I’m terrified of motorcycles. But wing-walking doesn’t feel like a risk. I can’t even do a simple cartwheel, but I can maneuver all over this airplane like a gymnast. I’ve never had a drive or a passion as strong for anything else,” Battles says.
When she’s not sailing through the sky with nothing between her and the ground except the wing of a World War II-era biplane, Battles spends her time during show season speaking and signing autographs. She has a strong following of young girls, who line up before shows for a chance to meet her face to face.
“I have been blown away at the response of young girls to wing walking,” she says. “They are so great to talk to. They ask really good questions, and they are so interested, so open and hungry for answers. I just hope I can inspire them to go for something they want to do, to not take no for an answer.”
Shelton and Battles both say they have loved flying and airplanes since they were kids.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” Shelton says.
“I knew I wanted to be a pilot, and I knew I wanted to do that for the rest of my life, but it didn’t quite fit. I wasn’t sure why,” Battles says. “When I found wing-walking, I found my niche in life.”
It was Battles’ early love of flying that led her from her home state of Georgia to attend flight school in Tulsa. She’s been a pilot herself for more than 10 years, but she hadn’t been flying long when, on a calm day and under a blue sky, she first walked on the wing of one of Shelton’s airplanes. She was 20 years old.
“We did a loop and a roll and she climbed back down,” Shelton says. “We talked about it, and she liked it. We kept adding tricks as time went on.”
“I couldn’t breathe at all the first time we went up,” Battles laughs. “I didn’t know cheek muscles could hurt like that, but mine did. Wing-walking is like being shoved into a brick wall with no end in sight.
“I had to call my mom to tell her I was about to climb out on the wing of an airplane, but that was nothing compared to how nervous I was to have to tell her I’d be taking a semester off from school because the show had taken off and we were so busy,” Battles adds.
The show will travel as far as the Dominican Republic this season, and the pair will perform at shows throughout the U.S., too, visiting states from Maine to Louisiana.
“If I can fly to it, we’ll go,” Shelton said.
“People tell us we bicker like we’re married,” Battles says. “As much as I love doing this show, when Greg’s done, I’m done. Our relationship is built on a huge amount of trust.”