"He walked up to me," Donna recalls, "and said, 'You don't know this yet, but you're going to be my next wing walker.' I was standing at the cash register and I said, 'A what?' "
Donna is now touring the country with pilot Hughes, 45, and is believed to be the only female wing walker in the world. In 14 dizzying minutes on the wing of a Super Stearman biplane, Donna flips through 60 tricks, like the one at right called Hang Ten.
Daughter of a pilot, the 19-year-old graduated from Huntington Beach High School last June. For six years she has been developing agility and balance with courses in ballet and gymnastics. Once she'd signed on with Hughes, she trained for a month in a hangar. "After that," says Hughes, "there were three weeks of airborne practice."
Hughes explains that, unlike other acts where the stunt woman is merely strapped to the wing while the plane maneuvers, Donna climbs out of the cockpit and performs such heart-stopping feats as a headstand, a horizontal handstand and a split while perched on one leg.
In the air, Donna says, the important thing is to concentrate. "Every move I'm going to make—what's first, what's next—is running through my head," she says. "I'm not scared. I just jump out there and do it."
Donna Behrendt was slinging hash in the airport cafe in Huntington Beach, Calif. last year when Joe C. Hughes entered her life.