Flying High: Norwood resident walked wings with stunt pilot
Published 10:59 am Monday, June 19, 2023
By Jimmy Tomlin
High Point Enterprise Staff Writer
Diane Hicks Skidmore of Norwood comes from a family of fearless fliers.
Her grandfather was an old-timey barnstormer. Her father flew with the U.S. Army Air Corps, as did two of her uncles. Her brother had his small-plane license and was a purser for Piedmont Airlines. Even her grandson has caught the aviation bug, now piloting Cobra helicopters for the Marines.
But when it comes to flying without fear, the 83-year-old High Point native topped them all.
When she was 19, Skidmore was a “wing walker,” a daredevil diva who stood on an airplane wing — strapped to a pole that was attached to the wing — as a stunt pilot soared through the sky, performing such aerobatic tricks as flying upside down and executing fancy loops and rolls.
“Back then, I didn’t have any nerves at all,” says Skidmore. “I had always been interested in aviation, and this was just something that sounded interesting and exciting to me. I’ll try anything once.”
The year was 1959, and Skidmore was a student at High Point Memorial Hospital’s School of Nursing. Her older brother, George, had bought a small plane that he kept at the airport in nearby Lexington, and sometimes she went there with him.
That’s where she met Melvin Robinson, a well-known stunt pilot from High Point who performed at air shows throughout the Southeast.
“Melvin knew my brother, and he just asked me one day if I’d like to fly on the wing of his airplane,” Skidmore says. “I said sure.”
The very next day, she found herself standing on the wing of Robinson’s small biplane, securely strapped to the pole with a parachute harness, ready for takeoff. The only special equipment she wore was a crash helmet — sometimes she even flew barefoot — and she never received any sort of training. The only credential required was bravery — or insanity, depending on your point of view.
She fell in love with wing-walking from the get-go.
“It’s a great thrill to ride on the wing of an airplane,” Skidmore told a newspaper reporter back in her heyday. “Yes, I even find it relaxing. I have no fear. I’ve always liked airplanes and hope to be able to fly one someday. Other folks should try wing-flying. I feel no danger in it.”
She went on to wax philosophical.
“Fear is a lack of understanding,” she said, “and I feel flying is no more dangerous than riding in an automobile.”
Maybe not, but you don’t typically see daredevils strapped to the roof of the car.
Even when Robinson began to turn the plane upside down, and Skidmore became disoriented for a second, she reveled in what she was doing.
“He would start turning the plane, and you thought you were going to fall off,” she recalls. “It didn’t last but a second, though, because he was turning on over. And then when he turned back over, it was the same feeling.”
The one drawback Skidmore encountered as a wing walker — and she learned this the hard way — is that once she was in the air, she had to look straight ahead at all times.
“You can’t turn your head because you can’t breathe, because the wind blows your nose shut,” she explains. “I only did it once, and I learned.”
During the summer of 1959, in particular, Skidmore performed with Robinson at airshows almost every weekend, most of them in North Carolina, but a few in South Carolina, Virginia and beyond.
She was paid $50 for every time she performed.
“That was pretty good money back then,” she says, explaining that the cash helped pay her tuition at the School of Nursing.
Nonetheless, the director of the nursing school frowned on Skidmore’s new side job and required her parents to submit written permission expressing their approval of what she was doing.
Skidmore’s stint as a wing walker ended even more abruptly than it had begun, when her brother was killed in a plane crash on Oct. 30, 1959, only three days after his 21st birthday.
“When my brother got killed, I promised my parents I wouldn’t do (wing-walking) anymore,” she says. “And I didn’t.”
George was the purser on Piedmont Airlines Flight 349, which crashed on Bucks Elbow Mountain, near Crozet, Virginia, killing 26 or the 27 people onboard. Skidmore remembers being awakened by her housemother in the dorm at the School of Nursing, and learning of the crash that killed her brother.
“He was crazy about flying — I can’t remember much else that he was interested in,” she says. “He had just been accepted to the Air Force Academy, and he was supposed to start in January. He wanted to be a jet pilot.”
Skidmore also says her brother wasn’t even supposed to be on Flight 349, but he filled in for a coworker whose wife was having a baby.
Once she gave up wing-walking, Skidmore focused fully on her nursing career, graduating in 1961 and working for a short spell in the office of Dr. Gene Terrell.
She and her husband, Tommy — a High Point College graduate she met when he was a patient at the hospital — eventually moved to his hometown of Norwood, and she spent most of her career working at Stanly County Hospital in Albemarle.
Today, more than 60 years later, Skidmore downplays her days as a wing walker, though she admits how much she loved it.
“It was a lot of fun,” she says. “Those were good times.”