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Fatal air show crash stuns thousands

A wingwalker and her pilot died in a fiery plane crash Saturday as they performed in front of thousands at the Vectren Dayton Air Show, the second fatal crash in six years at the show.

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

In the maneuver that led to the crash, the plane ascended and then looped so that it was flying upside down with Wicker sitting on the higher wing.

It then began a descent toward the ground. Next, the wing Wicker sat upon banked sharply and the plane hit the ground and exploded into flames.

Investigators did not have an immediate cause for the crash, which prompted officials to cancel the rest of Saturday’s show. The show is scheduled to resume today and Saturday ticket-holders may use their tickets to attend.

An investigation into the cause is expected to take months, said Terrence Slaybaugh, director of aviation for the city of Dayton. Federal Aviation Administration officials were on site for the show Saturday prior to the accident. The crash closed the airport for 25 minutes, 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,” Slaybaugh told reporters. “Right now, there’s no conclusive answer about why the accident happened.”

He added: “It is a very dangerous business. Today we get a vivid reminder of that.”

Wicker, a veteran wingwalker, 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 airshow location yet to be determined in the United States, according to a website announcing her pending marriage.

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 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, shouts of “Oh, no!” groans, and then a brief moment of stunned silence.

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, witnessed the plane strike 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 city councilman, was seated alongside his family members inside the city’s chalet when the crash happened.

“It seemed like everything was just routine,” Gerhard said. He added that Wicker had performed several stunts before the crash occurred.

“It was flying upside down. It just nose-dived into the ground,” 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,” said Ohio Highway Patrol Lt. Mark Nichols.

John Hart, a pilot with the Fastrax parachute team, was in a jump plane awaiting take-off. “Our ground crew stated there was a wind gust just prior to the accident,” he said in an email. “Jane was considered an exceptional pilot and the air show community lost (two) incredible people today.”

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

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

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

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

In an interview this week, Air Show General Manager Brenda Kerfoot told this newspaper the air show follows strict FAA guidelines to keep performers away from spectators, such as enforcing a minimum distance of keeping piston-powered aircraft at least 500 feet away from the crowd.

The last time tragedy struck the air show, veteran aerobatic pilot Jim LeRoy was killed when his plane crashed in 2007.

Staff writers Tom Stafford, Katie Wedell and Kelli Wynn contributed to this story.

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