A Wing and a Prayer
07/01/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT
AT THE ROSE FESTIVAL AIR SHOW IN Hillsboro, Oreg., aerial stuntman Lee Oman was completing his most dramatic maneuver, the "hang," in which he dangles by his arms from the landing gear of a biplane, pretending to walk in midair. Down on the ground, the crowd gazed up in amazement as Oman did his stroll, then suddenly dropped about 10 feet below the plane, tethered only by a slender steel safety cable hooked to his harness. "I thought, 'That's the greatest act I'd ever seen by a wing walker,' " says Bud Granley, another pilot with the air show, who was watching with the audience. "Then I wondered how he was gonna get up."
Some 1,500 feet overhead, Oman was wondering the same thing. What the crowd didn't realize at first was that the 38-year-old stuntman from Osburn, Idaho, had been jostled off the bar on the landing gear and that the performance had gone horribly awry. "I must have hit a big air pocket, and I was just gone," says Oman, who is single. Peering down through the glass bottom of his Waco biplane, pilot Jim Franklin, 43, quickly saw that his partner was in trouble. Radioing for help, he and airfield officials debated what to do. With only about 30 minutes of fuel remaining, Franklin tried dipping the plane down in short bursts to see if he could bring Oman close enough to the bar to catch hold. No luck. There was talk of attempting a plane-to-plane transfer or a plane-to-boat drop-off. Finally, Franklin and officials decided that a plane-to-truck transfer would be the quickest option. But while Franklin had performed a similar maneuver many times before at other air shows, Oman, who by then was getting cold and numb, would be attempting it for the first time. "I'd never done it myself," he says, "but there's a first time for everything."
At the airfield, Bud Granley helped commandeer a pair of trucks, one to receive Oman and one to guide Franklin. Starting at one end of the 5,500-foot runway, the drivers raced along at 70 mph as the plane came swooping in over them. Fighting off stiff crosswinds, Franklin slowly descended, responding to radioed instructions from a spotter. Fortunately, Oman, an experienced skydiver, was able to steady his body at the critical moment. "I can cause a swing or stop a swing," Oman says. Hovering over the bed of the truck, Oman was grabbed by Granley's crewmen, who cut him out of the harness in seconds. All told, the actual rescue took about two minutes. "When we got him, I started tooting the horn," says Granley. "There wasn't a dry eye in the crowd."
Aside from some rope burns and a bad chill, Oman was in good shape, though he did skip his next day's scheduled performance. And as he tours around the country, he won't be performing the hang for a while. "I don't have any more harnesses," he says. "They got cut up. But they were expendable."