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Crash in Ohio shows risk, thrill of wing walking

Pilot, performer who died loved jobs, friends say

Jane Wicker and Charlie Schwenker were killed Saturday in a fiery plane crash in Dayton, Ohio. Investigators said Sunday that it was too early to rule anything out as the cause.Thanh V. Tran/Associated Press

CINCINNATI — Risking death every time they go to work, wing walkers need courage, poise, a healthy craving for adrenaline, and, most importantly, they need to be meticulously exacting with every step they take on the small planes that carry them past dazzled crowds at speeds up to 130 miles per hour.

Jane Wicker fit that bill, her friends and colleagues in the air show industry said Sunday.

Wicker, 44, and pilot Charlie Schwenker, 64, were killed Saturday in a fiery plane crash captured on video at a southwestern Ohio air show and witnessed by thousands. The cause of the crash is not yet known.


Jason Aguilera, the National Transportation Safety Board investigator leading the crash inquiry, said Sunday that it was too early to rule anything out and that the agency would issue its findings in six months to a year.

Wicker, a mother of two teenage boys and recently engaged, sat helplessly on the plane’s wing as the aircraft suddenly turned and slammed into the ground, exploding on impact and stunning the crowd at the Vectren Air Show near Dayton.

The show closed shortly afterward but reopened Sunday, with a moment of silence for the victims.

The crash drew attention to the rarefied profession of wing walking, which began in the 1920s in the barnstorming era of air shows after World War I.

The practice fell off the middle of the 20th century but picked back up again in the 1970s. Still, there are only about a dozen wing walkers in the United States, said John Cudahy, president of the Leesburg, Va.-based International Council of Air Shows.

Teresa Stokes of Houston said she has been wing walking for the past 25 years and does a couple dozen shows every year.

The job mostly requires being in shape to climb around the plane while battling winds, she said.


‘‘It’s like running a marathon in a hurricane,’’ Stokes said. ‘‘When you’re watching from the ground it looks pretty graceful, but up there, it’s happening very fast and it’s high energy and I’m really moving fast against hurricane-force winds.’’

Stokes, an aerobatic pilot before becoming a wing walker, said she was attracted to performing stunts because of the thrill.

John King, pilot and president of the Flying Circus Airshow, where Wicker trained, said the most important qualities of wing walkers are ‘‘strong nerves, a sense of adventure, and a level head.’’

He said they tell people who are interested that it would take a year of training before they’ll be allowed to walk on the wing of an airplane in flight.

He described Wicker, of Bristow, Va., and Schwenker, of Oakton, Va., as ‘‘ultimate professionals.’’

‘‘I don’t know of anyone who could have done any better than what they were doing,’’ he said.

In one post on Wicker’s website, the stuntwoman what she loved most about her job.

‘‘There is nothing that feels more exhilarating or freer to me than the wind and sky rushing by me as the earth rolls around my head,’’ says the post. ‘‘I’m alive up there. To soar like a bird and touch the sky puts me in a place where I feel I totally belong. It’s the only thing I’ve done that I’ve never questioned, never hesitated about and always felt was my destiny.’’


She also answered a question she said she got frequently: What about the risk?

‘‘I feel safer on the wing of my airplane than I do driving to the airport,’’ she wrote. ‘‘Why? Because I’m in control of those risks and not at the mercy of those other drivers.’’

From 1975 to 2010, two wing walkers were killed, one in 1975 and another in 1993, Cudahy said. But since 2011, three wing walkers have died, including Wicker.