Wing walker, pilot die in crash

Plane loops, then falls at Dayton show

Wing walker Jane Wicker, 46, waves to the crowd seconds before the plane hit the ground. ‘Jane was one of our industry’s stars,’ said the president of a trade group.
Wing walker Jane Wicker, 46, waves to the crowd seconds before the plane hit the ground. ‘Jane was one of our industry’s stars,’ said the president of a trade group.

DAYTON — A stunt-plane’s wing walker and her pilot died in a fiery crash Saturday as they performed for thousands of people at the Vectren Dayton Air Show. It was the show’s second fatal crash in six years.

The 450 HP Stearman biplane carrying wing walker Jane Wicker, 46, and pilot Charlie Schwenker, 64, was the third act of the show. They were performing near the show center at Dayton International Airport when the crash happened about 12:45 p.m.

In the maneuver that led to the crash, the plane ascended, then looped so that it was flying upside down with Ms. Wicker sitting on the wing. It then began a descent.

Next, the wing upon which Ms. Wicker sat banked sharply and the plane hit the ground and exploded into flames.

Investigators did not give an immediate cause for the crash. The rest of Saturday’s show was canceled. It is scheduled to resume today.

An investigation into the cause is expected to take months, said Terrence Slaybaugh, director of aviation for Dayton.

Federal Aviation Administration officials were on site for the show Saturday before the accident. The crash closed the airport for 25 minutes, Mr. Slaybaugh said, but Saturday arrivals and departures were not otherwise affected.

“Obviously, this is a tragedy for what’s a very small community and our thoughts and prayers go out to those two individuals and their families,” Mr. Slaybaugh said. “Right now there’s no conclusive answer about why the accident happened.”

“It is a very dangerous business,” he said. “Today we get a vivid reminder of that.”

Ms. Wicker, a veteran wing walker, was making her first appearance at the Dayton Air Show in her plane. She was engaged to be married next year to another pilot, Rock Skowbo, at an undetermined air show location in the United States, according to a Web site announcing her pending marriage.

Ms. Wicker’s aerial performance act was advertised as different from others because she performed untethered, without safety lines, for most of the aerial display.

Seconds before the crash, after the plane had turned upside down, an air show announcer told spectators: “Watch this — Jane Wicker sitting on top of the world.”

Once the plane hit and broke apart in flames, the crowd reacted with screams.

An announcer tried to calm the crowd and told parents to turn children’s eyes from the scene. An announcement went out over the loudspeakers about 45 minutes after the crash that the show had been canceled for the day.

Janet Broderson, 60, of Spring Valley, Ohio, saw the plane hit the ground.

“I saw it coming in really low, and it sounded like the engine cut, and then it just went down,” she said. “It didn’t sound like a crash. It sounded more like a boom, a pop.”

Her companion, Stan Thayer, 55, of Wilmington was visiting the air show for the first time Saturday.

“All of a sudden I heard people screaming and looked up, and there was a fireball,” he said.

Mark Ellison, 25, of Columbus said the propeller driven biplane, on the final pass, “seemed really, really low.”

“You could hear the plane hit the asphalt and then just a small cloud of smoke and fire,” he said.

Dave Gerhard, a Vandalia, Ohio, city councilman, was seated with family members in the city’s chalet when the crash happened.

“It seemed like everything was just routine,” Mr. Gerhard said.

He added that Ms. Wicker had performed several stunts before the crash occurred.

“It was flying upside down. It just nose-dived into the ground,” Mr. Gerhard said. “Quick as you can blink your eye there was an explosion. It was a nose dive. Boom. Big explosion.”

“I’m very thankful [the plane] didn’t turn toward the audience,” said Brendan Keener, 19, of Columbus.

The airport’s fire department and law enforcement officers were on the scene within minutes. “It was my understanding there was nothing they could do for the victims of the crash once they arrived there,” Lt. Mark Nichols of the Ohio Highway Patrol said.

John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows, knew both Ms. Wicker and Mr. Schwenker.

“Jane was one of our industry’s stars,” he said by phone. “She had developed a very exciting wing-walking act that had made her in very high demand throughout the air show circuit.”

He said he was surprised that Ms. Wicker was involved in a crash. “She’s a consummate professional and took quite a lot of precautions to avoid exactly this kind of thing,” he said.

Mr. Schwenker was a “long-standing” pilot in aerial acrobatics, according to Mr. Cudahy.

“It’s like losing a member of your family,” he said. “These people [aerial performers] spend an inordinate amount of time with one another and get to know each other very well, so when this kind of thing happens, it’s very similar to the shock when someone in your own family passes away, so it will be very hard on the whole industry.”

Michael Emoff, chairman of the U.S. Air and Trade Show Board of Trustees in Dayton, said aerial performers are a tight group who would want the air show to continue today.

The last time tragedy struck the Dayton air show was 2007.

Veteran aerobatic pilot Jim LeRoy was killed when his plane crashed.