Winging it (on little legs)


In spite of her terminal illness, 73-year-old Marilyn McDonald planned a daring wing walk to raise funds for Dorset charity Countrymen UK

73-year-old Marilyn is terminally ill – but it was her little legs that defeated her. All images: Rachael Rowe

Marilyn McDonald has cared for people all her life. As a mental health nurse and manager, she has experienced people at their most vulnerable and challenging. This year, she is focused on raising funds for Dorset-based charity Countrymen UK. What makes the challenge particularly special is that 73-year-old Marilyn is terminally ill – but still determined to do something most of us would run a mile from … a wing walk.
‘It’s not about me, it’s about the Countrymen club. As a nurse, I’ve always been interested in people rather than illnesses. I am very appreciative that Weldmar and other cancer charities have helped me recently, but some of the smaller ones that look after people with Parkinson’s Disease and dementia don’t get very much money. I don’t have a lot myself, but I thought that if I could do something to raise £500, I could leave something that would help.’

Marilyn, centre, got to the cockpit, but could go no further

Stupid adventures
Why would anyone want to do a wing walk? Marilyn says: ‘Because it’s so stupid! Why would anyone my age want to stand on the outside of a perfectly good plane? It also had to be something I could still physically do.
‘I don’t have a bucket list, but people keep finding me ridiculous things to do. Thanks to Weldmar, I’ve ridden a Harley Davidson motorbike in Dorchester. I loved that!’
Naturally, Marilyn had to do some essential preparation for her wing walk: ’My doctor had to sign me off, and I had an extra blood transfusion to help me. But it’s strightforward: once you’re on, I think you basically just have to hang on tight! You’re supported by a perching stool … but I don’t even like roller coasters!’
It sounds as thought Marilyn does love an adventure.
‘Well, I once got trapped by a bear … I was with my husband in the Canadian Rockies and we stopped to photograph some dragonflies.,’ says Marilyn. ‘As we were near a swamp, we were on boardwalks when we heard a noise. We looked up, and saw a bear between our car and us. Then we saw she had three cubs with her. We were literally stuck. So, we did nothing. We just sat there and watched her feed the cubs until she slowly moved away. It was the highlight of our holiday! My husband was wearing a baseball cap with the words ‘support bears’ on it, so I’ve always said that’s why she left us alone!’

Daughter-in-law Dannielle Kottnauer, standing in for Marilyn

The Wing Walk
On Friday 31st May, Marilyn, accompanied by friends and family, went to Henstridge Airfield, which had supported her fundraising by donating the wing walk experience.
Anyone who does a wing walk has to get onto the top platform – and off it – unaided: it’s part of the safety regulations.
Marilyn, guided by the airfield staff, climbed onto the first level of the bi-plane’s lower wing. Then she got to the cockpit – halfway there and clearly determined. But there was a final, more challenging stage to go – getting onto the upper wing itself, which required grabbing the poles and levering herself into position.
The next moment will resonate with everyone who has short legs. Marilyn was unable to get to the top wing, or pull herself further: the distance was further than she anticipated – and her legs wouldn’t reach!
She had given it her all, but it was a step too far:
‘It’s designed for Tiller Girls – and I’m no Tiller Girl!’
To a loud round of applause, she returned to the observation area … but all was not lost. Like all nurses, Marilyn had a plan B. A few days before the flight she had said: ‘If I pop my clogs before the wing walk, my daughter-in-law said she’ll do it.’
That pragmatism meant that Danielle could take Marilyn’s place. She gave Marilyn a hug and was strapped to the plane in moments. Up she went, twirling in the sky, diving downwards and flying in a spiral as the pilot put on quite a show for the small crowd.
‘I asked them to give me the full works,’ said a smiling Danielle when she landed. ‘There was so much wind up there! The Henstridge staff have been absolutely fantastic – their safety procedures are second to none.’
Although Marilyn could not do the wing-walk, she still motivated and inspired others so that the essential fundraising could continue. Countrymen UK chief executive Julie Plumley praised her mentor Marilyn’s generous spirit: ’She motivated me when I started out in my career. It was Marilyn who inspired me to become a social worker when I didn’t know what to do. She is such a positive person. She has a wonderful calming manner, and she thinks of others all the time.’
Marilyn set out to raise £500. At the time of writing, she has raised more than £2,600 … and counting.

Click to donate to Marilyn’s Wing Walk in support of Countrymen UK

About the Countrymen
Countrymen UK’s farms and countryside environments help to meet the challenges faced by men who find themselves isolated – perhaps because of deteriorating physical or mental health, or changing social circumstances.
The organisation started when Julie Plumley couldn’t find an appropriate place for her father, who had worked on the land all his life: ‘He was 80, but thought he was 50. He simply didn’t want to be indoors all day.’
By developing Rylands Farm at Holnest as a care and support facility, men can spend time outdoors – caring for animals, perhaps doing woodcraft or a bit of gardening. There is now a Countrymen UK network nationwide, providing support for men.


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