One of the most famous and skilled wing walkers of all time was from Kansas.
Jessie Woods and her husband, Jimmie, were part of the Flying Aces Air Circus. During the 1920s and 1930s, the couple performed some of the most daring acts in the air. What made them unique is that, unlike others who did similar acts, they survived.
In 2003, Jessie Woods was named by Women in Aviation International as one of the top 100 women who most influenced aviation during its first 100 years. She stands with Amelia Earhart and Olive Ann Beech, the other Kansas aviation notables on the list.
Jessie E. Schulz was born on Jan. 27, 1909. She spent the first 10 years of her life on a farm southeast of Seward in Stafford County. Her father, William Schulz, was a real estate agent and farmer who bought land in Grant County in western Kansas, according to Ann L. Cooper’s book “On the Wing, Jessie Woods and the Flying Aces Air Circus.”
When she was 19, her family attended a barnstorming event in Ulysses. It was there she met Jimmie Woods. She was smitten, and within days, they eloped.
She told a St. Petersburg Times reporter on Jan. 15, 1991, “You know, an awful lot of women get into an awful lot of trouble marrying men.”
In Wichita, the couple struggled to make a living. Jimmie became a salesman for the Swallow Aircraft Company. She was a waitress.
To make ends meet, Jessie Woods learned not only to fly and repair planes, she also became a wing walker and the star from 1928 to 1938 in the Flying Aces Air Circus, which became one of the longest-running air circuses in the nation.
On Oct. 13, 1994, Woods told The Eagle that when the subject first came up that the group needed a wing walker, she thought her husband was kidding.
“My husband tried to teach me how to do it,” she told The Eagle. “Yeah, Mr. Big Shot. He wouldn’t do it himself.”
She learned to wing walk barefoot and without restraint. She learned to place her foot exactly on the wood struts of the plane, careful not to puncture the cloth fabric, which could rip and place both her and the pilot in jeopardy.
In time, Woods learned to climb down a rope ladder while the plane was in midair. In Cooper’s book, Woods described what that was like: “The rope ladder was slung beneath the fuselage and tied up against the belly of the craft for the takeoff and landing. Released, it fluttered below and backward in the slipstream. I clung to the wheel with my hands, grabbing the rung of the ladder with my outstretched toe.”
By the end of the Depression years, the late 1930s, many of the flying circuses around the nation were shutting down due to regulations from the Civil Aeronautics Association. By then, Woods was forced to wear a parachute, although she wore it only when the plane took off and landed, as it inhibited her from doing her gymnastic routines.
According to Cooper’s book, Jimmie Woods – who died in 1959 – was an alcoholic and a womanizer. It was up to Jessie to keep the business going.
During World War II, she ran a flight-training program in North and South Carolina. She became a certified ground and commercial flight instructor.
In 1991, at age 82, Jessie Woods went wing walking one last time in Lakeland, Fla.
She told The Eagle, “It was like I had never stopped doing it. I let go of the ropes, I waved. It was the same feeling.”
Jessie Woods died on March 17, 2001, and is buried in Fairview Cemetery in St. John.