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Saturday, December 2, 2023
Dec. 2, 2023

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Wing walking flights in Sequim draw lawsuit and FAA investigation


SEQUIM — In Sequim, on the north coast of the Olympic Peninsula, you can sign up for a daring thrill ride available nowhere else in America: Mason Wing Walking will take you up in an airplane to about 3,500 feet where you can climb out of the open cockpit and clamber across the wings.

“No previous wing walking experience is required,” the Mason website states. “We have never had anyone fall.”

A lawsuit by neighbors tired of the noise from the flights forced Mike and Marilyn Mason to move their business last fall from a small grass airfield at their home in Sequim; they now fly out of an airport 3 miles away.

The Masons are appealing the injunction. In the meantime, the Federal Aviation Administration has opened an investigation into whether the wing walking operation is properly authorized.

Thrill-seekers pay the Masons close to $1,000 so they can climb out of the cockpit of a 1940s Stearman biplane and strap themselves to a rig on top as it does aerobatics, standing tall above the wings, then flipping upside down at one point with their heads directed straight down at the ground.

Daredevils who put down an extra $400 can extend the ride and fly Harry Potter-style.

They must gingerly step across the lower wing to lie astride a pole that’s fastened to the crisscrossing cables between the upper and lower wings.

Jason Mayes, a lead engineer at Google specializing in machine learning for web browsers who two summers ago went wing walking with the Masons, said he decided to face up to the inherent danger.

The previous year, a close friend of Mayes had died in a hit-and-run. “I put it off because I was a little bit scared of doing it, but I said, ‘you know what, you only live once. So let’s do it,’” Mayes said in an interview.

Although Mayes had previously tried many forms of flying where he was entirely guided by an expert, including paragliding and hang gliding, stepping out onto the wing of the Masons’ biplane felt different as he faced the risk himself.

“For that moment in your life as you pull yourself out of the cockpit and feel the 70+ MPH winds in your face for the first time … your life is in your hands,” he wrote in an account of the experience on LinkedIn.

Still, Mayes said he was “very satisfied” with the training before the flight and the overall safety of the Masons’ operation.

Marilyn Mason provides the wing walkers about three hours of training on the ground, where they learn the footholds and handholds used to climb across the airframe, and how to secure the harness on top.

Wing walkers sign a waiver agreeing not to sue and then Mike Mason — an FAA-certified pilot, flight instructor and airplane mechanic who is also a former FAA safety inspector and an expert aerobatics pilot — flies his customers into the sky, where the wing walking begins.

A flight that includes both standing at the top rig then moving over to lie on the pole between the upper and lower wings lasts about 25 minutes.

The FAA says an operation like this needs its approval.

In an interview, Mike Mason said that when he started the wing walking business about 13 years ago, the FAA cleared the enterprise to operate.

He said it was approved under rules that exempt certain flight school, acrobatic and aerial photography missions from the standard regulations governing commercial air carriers.

“We had the FAA give us the word early on that they agreed we fall under these exemptions,” he said.

The FAA is looking into this claim.

“All aspects of Mr. Mason’s assertions that we have approved the operation are part of an open investigation,” the FAA said in a statement.

“Really free, kind of like a bird”

Wing walking goes back to the earliest days of aviation. From the 1920s on, it was part of the barnstorming acts that performed around the country impressing crowds with daring aerial stunts.

In modern times, professionals perform wing walking at various small airshows.

Stunt planes with wing walkers sometimes have crashed at air shows. But fatal accidents due to falling from the plane are rare.

In 2011, professional wing walker Todd Green fell to his death during a Michigan air show when he lost his footing as he tried to step from the wing of a moving plane onto a helicopter.

The Mason website claims to “train wing walkers to a professional level. Safety is stressed, and fun is assured.”

Mayes, the Google engineer, said the Masons emphasized that he could back out at any point.

“They don’t ask you to pay in advance. You only go up when you’re ready, and you pay afterwards,” he said. “They don’t want to put pressure on anyone.”

As a client climbs across the plane’s exterior, a long cable from the plane connects to a harness at the waist.

Mike Mason said if someone were to slip and was left dangling from the cable, he’d perform a Zero-G maneuver “to float them up to the same level as the pilot and assist them onto the wing.” He’s never had to do so.

Counterintuitively, Mayes said that once strapped to the rig atop the plane or lying astride the pole between the upper and lower wings, he felt less an adrenaline rush than an acutely vivid experience of flying.

It is “very peaceful and beautiful … you feel a sense of the size of the Earth below you,” Mayes said. “I just felt really free, kind of like a bird … It was very special.”

“I’m tempted to go again at some point,” he added.

Too many flights

The Masons live in a small rural community designed for pilots. At the Blue Ribbon Farms development in Sequim, a series of large houses, some with an airplane hangar attached, are arranged around a grass airstrip.

Many of the residents are former airline pilots. Some still fly their small private planes though older residents have given up flying.

Mark Long, chair of the Blue Ribbon homeowners board, said only about 10 people out of the more than 130 residents continue to fly regularly out of the airstrip.

The Masons moved there more than 18 years ago. Forming a company called West Coast Spin Doctors, Mike Mason taught pilots aerobatic maneuvers. Then 13 years ago, they started the wing walking business.

Marilyn Mason, an experienced wing walker, gave the ground instruction in the hangar by their house to as many as six people at a time. Then Mike Mason took them up one at a time for the wing walk.

By 2021, the business had grown successful and during the good weather months that year Mike Mason said he flew more than 500 wing walking flights.

The homeowners board heard complaints about the number of flights.

“That was just way too many. It became kind of obnoxious,” said board Chair Long.

That fall, the board asked the Masons to stop using the airstrip.

The 1940s Stearman is a noisy airplane. Yet Blue Ribbon residents are bound by pilot-friendly covenant rules that Long says explicitly allow airplane takeoffs and landings and prohibit noise complaints.

Still, the sheer number of flights during the good summer weather had grown too disruptive for many residents, and the covenant rules bar using the airstrip “for commercial purposes.”

The Masons moved their flying to Sequim Valley Airport, about 3 miles away, but continued to hold the ground training in their hangar.

The neighbors sue

Last year the dispute grew bitter as the board raised new issues.

No insurance company will cover the wing walking business. The board expressed concern in filings that it might be sued if an accident were to kill a wing walker.

“There’s no requirement to have insurance,” Mike Mason said. “We offered to indemnify them.”

The board also questioned the Masons’ assertions that the business complied with FAA regulations.

In May 2022, the Blue Ribbon board sued the Masons to try to stop them from operating out of the location entirely, largely on the basis that it was plainly a commercial operation and therefore in violation of the homeowner covenant.

Based on 2021 pricing, the revenue from the wing walking business that year was likely above $400,000. Current prices are $850 for the upper wing stand and $1,250 for that plus the ride astride the pole held between the upper and lower wings.

The Masons claim that the wing walking flights are “noncommercial” because customers are billed only for the ground training and, as their website puts it, they provide the flight that follows “free of charge.”

The Clallam County Superior Court didn’t buy it.

In October, it ruled that the Masons had violated the Blue Ribbon residents’ covenant and issued a summary judgment barring the Masons from using either the airstrip or their hangar for the wing walking business.

While the Masons’ appeal is pending, they’ve been forced to move both the training and the flights to the Sequim Valley Airport, where they take off and land on a grass strip adjacent to the runway.

The Masons’ 10-year-old daughter is paralyzed with spina bifida and must go with them to Sequim Valley Airport. She sits on the grass while her mom conducts the training rather than stay at home as she used to do when the training was in the hangar next door.

“It makes me so mad,” Mike Mason said.

At an August board meeting, court documents recount that some residents felt threatened by Mason as he accused the board and those voting with it of putting his family’s livelihood at risk.

In a deposition, one female board member said that at that meeting Mason told her he felt like he was being mugged “and when people get mugged they get violent.”

Mason says he spoke calmly, though vehemently, and didn’t physically threaten anyone.

A minority of Blue Ribbon residents opposed the lawsuit and supported the Masons.

“They are wonderful people,” said John Cuny, a neighbor and a pilot. “I’m an aviator. I love airplanes. I like watching their biplane. I have a park bench to just sit and enjoy it.”

Referencing the Masons’ pending appeal, he said “I hope they prevail.”

Is the operation FAA-approved?

Mason said he’d like to win the appeal just to get his legal costs paid.

But win or lose, he said “it’s not going to stop my business.”

Accepting that he cannot use the Blue Ribbon property anymore, the business has already moved. “The lawsuit is irrelevant at this point,” he said.

In a separate setback that forced another move for the business, this summer the FAA rescinded permission for Mason to fly where he had habitually conducted the wing walking flight: a little offshore over the waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

He’d been flying inside a geographic box known as “an aerobatic practice area” within which the FAA had previously granted him permission to fly. Such restrictions on aerobatics are required if close to airways where other planes regularly fly.

But after the FAA received noise complaints from residents along the shore, the agency withdrew permission to use that area.

So Mason switched to flying inland, a few miles south of the airport between the shoreline and the Olympic Mountains, away from any airways so that no special permission area is required.

Yet now looming over the future of the wing walking operation is the shadow of the FAA investigation.

Mason received a first letter of investigation from the FAA that stated it would examine whether he was exempted from standard passenger-carrying regulations.

Mason said the claim that the wing walking flights are free and therefore “noncommercial” was not an argument ever made to the FAA.

“I put that there to satisfy our homeowners association,” he said. “We weren’t trying to skirt any regulations.”

Mason said the initial FAA investigation resulted earlier this year in a finding of no violation and the case was closed.

But he subsequently received a second letter of investigation, reopening the question of whether the operation was properly authorized and raising a new concern: “the parachute thing,” as he put it.

According to FAA regulations, during aerobatic flights “each occupant of the aircraft” except the flight crew must have a parachute. His customers don’t wear parachutes.

Yet Mason insists that’s another issue he sorted out with the FAA years ago. He said he had specifically asked for a waiver on this rule but was told he didn’t need one.

He said an FAA official assured him that since his customers step out onto the wing before the aerobatic maneuvers begin, they are no longer “occupants” of the aircraft and so the parachute rule doesn’t apply.

“It’s not a showstopper,” Mason said. “I don’t think the FAA has much of a leg to stand on.”

Mason said he has support from the International Aerobatic Club and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, nonprofits that promote aerobatics and private flying respectively.

Beyond acknowledging the existence of the investigation, the FAA declined to comment on the details.

The Masons’ operation appears to be unique in the world.

The U.K.-based Wing Walk Company offers a somewhat similar service, although it straps its clients to the rig on top of the plane for takeoff and landing and the duration of the flight. There’s no actual walking on the wing while in the air.

Despite the legal and regulatory setbacks, the Masons’ operation continues to fly. On Friday, six customers were signed up to wing walk.

“We’re busy all the time. We bring a lot of joy to people,” Mike Mason said. “I don’t feel too threatened.”

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