Saturday, during the Vectren Air Show near Dayton, Ohio, two died as a fiery biplane crash claimed the lives of a wing walker and the pilot of the plane.
Wing walkers risk death every time they go out on the wings of the planes they perform on. They need to have courage, poise, and be aware of the fact that every second they are on the wings of planes that fly them for the pleasure of crowds at speeds up to 130 mph, they are taking their lives into their hands.
Jane Wicker, 44, was a wing walker who fit that description to a tee, according to her friends and colleagues in the air show industry on Sunday.
Wicker and her pilot, Charlie Schwenker, 64, were killed Saturday in a fiery plane crash at a southwestern Ohio air show in Dayton. It was captured on video and witnessed by thousands. The cause of the crash is under investigation.
Wicker leaves behind two teenage boys. She had been recently engaged. The aircraft she was on suddenly rolled and slammed into the ground, exploding on impact and stunning the crowd at the Ohio air show. The show closed shortly afterward. It reopened Sunday with a moment of silence for the victims.
The profession of wing walking began in the 1920s in the barnstorming era of air shows which followed World War I.
Wing walking is rarely performed now, but it still has the power to attract huge crowds. Today, there are only about a dozen wing walkers in the U.S., according to John Cudahy, president of the Leesburg, Va.-based International Council of Air Shows.
Cudahy said that Wicker had “quite a following around the country.” She was known for her engaging, charming personality on the ground and creativity and professionalism while wing walking.
Teresa Stokes, of Houston,Texas,said she’s been wing walking for the past 25 years and does a couple of 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. 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.”
According to Stokes, originally an aerobatic pilot before she became a wing walker, she was attracted to performing stunts because she thought it’d be exciting.
“It is the craziest fun ride you’ve ever been on,” she said. “You’re like Superman flying around, going upside-down doing rolls and loops, and I’m just screaming and laughing.”
What does it take to become a wing walker?
You also need to spend at least a year training before you’re allowed to walk on the wing of a plane in flight, according to King.
“We give them an opportunity to walk on a wing down on the ground without the engine running. Then we start up the engine. And if that doesn’t spook them, OK, we taxi around the field and that’s when it gets bumpy. If they do that successfully, the next time they do it is in the air.”
Jane Wicker, in one post at her website, In one post on Wicker’s website, the stuntwoman explains 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.”
The announcer at Saturday’s event got the crowds into the spectacle of what they believed they were about to see, a demonstration of wing walking, as he narrated the event.
“Keep an eye on Jane. Keep an eye on Charlie. Watch this! Jane Wicker, sitting on top of the world,” he said, right before the plane made a quick turn and nosedive.
The first indication that something was wrong was that the plane was flying too low and slow, according to witnesses.
One of the eyewitnesses, Thanh Tran, of Fairfield, said he could see a look of concern on Wicker’s face just before the plane went down.
“She looked very scared,” he said. “Then the airplane crashed on the ground. After that, it was terrible, man … very terrible.”
Why is wing walking still allowed?
According to FAA spokeswoman Lynn Lunsford, the agency is often asked why wing walking is allowed. Her answer reflects the time and effort that goes into becoming a wing walker, and the relative rarity of a disaster occurring as a result of a mishap:
“The people who do these acts spend hours and hours and hours performing and practicing away from the crowd, and even though it may look inherently dangerous, they’re practiced in such a way that they maintain as much safety as possible,” he said. “The vast majority of these things occur without a hitch, so you know whenever one of them goes wrong and there’s a crash, it’s an unusual event.”
It will likely take anywhere from six months to a year before the final results of an investigation into the fiery crash in which a wing walker and her pilot died are made public.
If you’d like to view a video of what happened, it’s below for you to check out. But, it contains some images of a graphic nature, so don’t watch it if you are easily offended by such images.
Written by: Douglas Cobb