Kewaunee County couple: He climbed into planes from speeding cars. She rode on their wings.
TOWN OF LUXEMBURG – Nellie DeBaker is well-known in Kewaunee County for her volunteer work with the American Legion and other local veterans groups.
But her time in the military isn't the reason she once flew in a P-51 Mustang from Florida to Milwaukee, seeing the world below through a single bullet hole.
Instead, DeBaker found herself aloft in a plane loved by military and aviation buffs because she and her husband, Donald, performed in air shows across the country in the 1960s and early '70s.
Donald was the first of the two to perform aerial stunts. The Luxemburg native was a 20-something working as a welder for Caterpillar Tractor in Milwaukee — and he was in a skydiving club.
His ability with a parachute led in 1962 to a chance to work with the Bill Adams Air Show. Based in the Milwaukee area, Adams' show was considered one of the country's premier aerial spectacles, and Donald couldn't resist the prospect of getting paid to jump out of a plane while touring the country.
"I was in my glory. … I did it for the fun and the travel," he said. "All of a sudden, we're all over the country, doing shows in Canada, Florida, Washington, upstate New York."
Donald performed two stunts during the shows. He opened each show by parachuting out of a plane while carrying an American flag, and Adams would fly circles around him as he descended.
For his second stunt, Donald would stand on the hood of a convertible speeding across the air strip and catch a rope ladder dropped from a plane flying by, then climb the ladder into the plane. That took upper body strength, not to mention cooperation between pilot and driver, but Donald said there wasn't much advance training involved.
"The first time I did it was the first show I did, in Winter, South Dakota," Donald said. "I went up with the pilot, he threw the ladder out, and I climbed down to see what it was like. It was spring, so I said to him to find the lowest, muddiest field you can to fly over in case something goes wrong."
Catching the rope ladder was one of the staple performances of air shows at the time. The basic show consisted of an opening jump, a wing rider on a flying plane (more on this later), the rope ladder stunts, which sometimes had the performer sit on the bottom rung and try to grab a handkerchief on the ground, and the aerobatics — loops, rolls, spins and more by the planes in mid-air, including a comedy act that Donald said was a usual part of the show.
"Somebody in the crowd would get a free ride," he said. "Of course, (unknown to the audience) it was a pilot. They'd get in the plane and be flying. All of a sudden, the pilot would have trouble with the wheel and go to fix it, and this 'person from the crowd' would have to fly the plane … doing loops in front of the stands."
In 1966, Adams was killed in a crash in front of about 35,000 people during an airport dedication show in Valparaiso, Indiana. (Adams has since been inducted into three aviation halls of fame, and videos of his aerobatic feats are widely available on YouTube.)
That tragedy brought Nellie into the fold. She was working in an office in Milwaukee and not yet married to Donald, and she became the show's new wing rider. That's the person who stands on top of the wing of a biplane as it flies through the air.
"After (Adams) died, the one who was riding (the wing) said that's the last time, I'll never ride again," Nellie said. "So I said I'll do it. I'd been to several shows, knew the routine, knew how it worked."
Naturally, there's more to the stunt than just climbing on top of the wing. After Nellie got into her uniform, which included a long-sleeved turtleneck — "It gets cold up there," she said with a chuckle — she was helped up onto the wing by the pilot and strapped into place with a platform to brace herself against.
The plane would reach speeds as fast as 160 mph, which is why air shows no longer feature wing walkers as they did in the barnstorming days of the 1920s, when the planes were much slower. Plus, the pilot would perform aerobatics while Nellie was perched up there.
"He's doing loops, flies upside down in front of the crowd, 50 feet off the ground," Nellie said. "That was the favorite part for me."
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Air show audiences knew her as "Pam Winters" instead of her maiden name, Nellie Krinke, which she said is "not really a show name."
She said she never experienced an "uh-oh" situation during any of her stunts and never felt scared, even when first starting out.
"We were always very comfortable, always felt super," Nellie said. "If I would have felt like something was going to happen, I wouldn't have done it."
On the other hand, Donald went through a couple of sticky situations with his parachute jumps. One was at a show in Canada, when one of the chute lines crossed over the chute, causing it to billow out at the sides. Donald was able to deploy his reserve chute.
The closest brush with trouble Donald said he had was at the Cleveland National Air Show, then and now one of the biggest in the world. It's held at Burke Lakefront Airport on the shores of Lake Erie, and Donald found himself in the water instead of on the airport grounds after his flag jump.
"It was particularly windy that day," he said, "and I didn't have anything to gauge the wind. I borrowed a life vest from the Navy before the jump."
Nellie and Donald continued performing after Adams' death, eventually in 1969 joining Bill Bordeleau's newly formed Continental Air Show Productions, another national touring troupe then flying out of the Milwaukee area and still putting on shows today.
By about 1972, though, Donald and Nellie were married and had started a family, and Donald said it just seemed the time was right to leave that part of their lives behind. He did four more shows for Bordeleau, then he and Nellie moved back to Luxemburg in northeast Wisconsin.
The DeBakers never made a living from being air show stunt people. Donald said he was paid $100 a show, and both maintained weekday jobs and headed out of town for the weekend shows.
But they said they can take the memories of the people they met and worked with and the places they visited as part of a prestigious and select group.
Donald said the Adams and Continental shows were at the time the only ones in Wisconsin, maybe one of about three in the Midwest, and they performed in front of crowds of 40,000 or more in Cleveland and tens of thousands at other shows across North America, including the Experimental Aircraft Association show in Oshkosh. They also shared the bill with some of the world's top precision flying teams, including the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds of the U.S. Air Force.
"It's just all the places I've seen that I've never been to before, and I met some of the top pilots in the business," Donald said.
"It was fun just having someplace to go, meeting all these people, meeting the pilots," Nellie said.
Nellie also remembers the courtesy cars provided for her and Donald when the troupe would fly into an airport for a show.
"What was really neat was, we had convertibles to use," Nellie said. "When we'd come in, we just walked over to the cars, got in and go."
Oh, and there was that P-51 Mustang ride.
The DeBakers were leaving from a show in Florida. Adams flew Donald back to Milwaukee, but Nellie was offered a spot in the Mustang, one of the most hallowed aircraft of its time.
Thing is, she wasn't offered a seat, because there isn't one — the P-51 is a single-seat warplane, one of the most feared fighters of World War II and the Korean War, and since the pilot necessarily had to be in that seat.
"I was in front of the pilot's feet," Nellie said. "It's not built for passengers. I couldn't see outside. All I could see was out one bullet hole in the plane."
"Oh, I'd have liked to ride in it myself," Donald said.
Contact Christopher Clough at 920-741-7952, 920-562-8900 or [email protected]
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Kewaunee County couple: He climbed into planes from speeding cars. She rode on their wings.