Cheryl Rae Littlefield braces herself as the vintage Stearman biplane under her climbs above Campbell Airport in Grayslake, Ill. The ground rushes by in dizzy rectangular patterns, and the wind—better than double hurricane force at 160 mph—begins to gag the petite 32-year-old daredevil perched on the upper wing. Her husband, pilot Gene Littlefield, flips and weaves the aircraft through a loop, a “half Cuban” figure eight and a “four-point roll” in which he stalls the engine, but Cheryl remains poised on the top wing, balancing like a surfer. As the plane rights itself, she unbuckles the harness holding her to a steel pylon and, secured by only a 15-foot tether attached to struts on the fabric-covered fuselage, carefully takes four steps backward and climbs down to the lower wing. Hundreds of feet below, the crowd cheers when Cheryl waves.
Marriage has always been a balancing act, but the Littlefields have taken the notion to new heights. One of only 10 wingwalkers in the world, Cheryl ascends to the skies twice a week to entertain and terrify gawkers. “It never grows old,” says Gene, 57, a flying-school manager in Aurora, Ill. “The wing act is the essence of barnstorming. At any air show, everyone waits for it.” It’s just fine with him that his wife is the glamorous half of the act. “Boeing put this real nice seat in for a reason,” he says. “When we do the show, either Cheryl gets out or we do it with both of us inside the plane, because I am not getting out.”
His reluctance is understandable. A dozen years ago, at an air show in Reno, wingwalker Gordon McCollom was killed when his inverted plane swooped too low and he was scraped along the ground. Cheryl has never been hurt, but during a 1986 appearance above Chicago’s windy lakefront, she was pummeled nearly to exhaustion. “It was so turbulent I didn’t have enough strength to turn around and get myself into the cockpit,” she says. “I finally gave up and fell in backward, with my feet sticking out.”
Gene, a master mechanic, checks the plane himself before each flight. Then the two ritually huddle for a few moments, and kiss. “How do you feel?” Gene asks. “No problems,” Cheryl replies.
“We never fly angry,” says Gene. “If there’s any friction at all, it has to stop. We have to be in absolute harmony. If she were to move when I think she’s standing still, we’d have a problem. The plane is going so slow, I might have to accelerate whether she’s stable or not. It would be every guy for himself for a while.” The act thus requires extraordinary coordination between the wingwalker and the plane. “My feet tend to want to leave the wing,” Cheryl adds mildly. “We are always dealing with gravity.”
Not surprisingly, flying is what brought the Littlefields together seven years ago. Raised in Chicago by an aviation-loving father who took the family to an airport on Sundays just to watch the planes, Cheryl was “going nowhere” as a clerk in a department store and was separated from her first husband. “I’d like to try wingwalking just once,” she told a friend. A month later he called back to say, “You’ve got your chance.” Littlefield, it turned out, was looking for a wingwalker because his partner had stepped in a pothole and ruined her knee. Cheryl and Gene met over coffee, and a new team was born.
Her new pilot had been hooked on flying since he took his blanket up a tree at age 7 for an unsuccessful impersonation of Batman. Littlefield was reared by an aunt who filled in for his impoverished mother, and enlisted in the Army in 1947. Laterhe worked asavan-line safety director for 18 years. In the early ’60s he got his pilot’s license, began flying in air shows in 1970 and started his wingwalker act 10 years later. Divorced three times—”Aviation was a culprit in the demises,” he admits—he was understandably cautious about another romance. “It surprised us both when we realized how we felt about each other,” says Cheryl, who married Gene last December.
“I have a great deal of respect and love for Cheryl,” says Gene. “She’s given my life a boost.” Gene had Cheryl Rae, Wingwalker hand-painted on the fuselage of his Stearman, above the larger inscription, Gene Littlefield Air Show. “We are all crazy,” says Cheryl. “But I always knew I could trust Gene. Anyone who can take good care of an airplane is sure going to take good care of the person standing on top of it.”