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Friends remember pilot and wing walker as great performers

Friends who knew Jane Wicker and pilot Charles Schwenker described both of them as “two incredible people.”

Wicker, a wing walker in the Vectren Dayton Air Show, and Schwenker, 64, of Oakton, Va., died Saturday afternoon when Wicker’s Stearman biplane nose-dived to the ground and exploded while the two were finishing up their show routine.

Wicker and Schwenker would have wanted the air show to continue as it did on Sunday, according to a friend and fellow aerobatic pilot Jeff Moss.

“Jane would not have wanted the show to be canceled,” Moss said. “This is the right way to honor her. She would not want things to stop.”

“I turned away for a second and when I looked back I saw the black smoke,” said Moss who flew a Cobra Helicopter in the air show. He then looked for Wicker’s plane, named Aurora, in the air, but didn’t see it. That’s when he went to search for Wicker’s fiance Rock Skowbo, who was with the announcer.

“We knew that due to the severity of the crash that there was very little hope,” said Moss, a member of the Sky Soldiers. “We lost two incredible people (Saturday).”

Due to the crash, Moss decided to not to fly during Sunday’s show.

“We have all lost a tremendous friend and performer. Jane was an incredible dynamic personality for the entire air show industry,” Moss said.

Wicker was a resident of Bristow, Va., mother of two sons and was in the middle of planning her wing walking wedding that was to take place on top of Aurora next year. She would have turned 45 on June 29, according to Moss.

Wicker received her pilot’s license in 1989 and learned to wing walk with the Flying Circus old-fashioned barnstorming air show in Bealeton, Va. after answering a newspaper ad calling for wing walkers, “no experience necessary.”

“Jane wanted to inspire young women to accept that they could become anything that they wanted to be,” Moss said.

Wicker, Skowbo and Moss were also working on a reality show project.

Schwenker was a well accomplished aviator who Wicker trusted, Moss said.

If Schwenker hadn’t been at the air show, he likely would have been at the weekly Flying Circus where he volunteered nearly every Sunday. He flew with the show for decades.

“Charlie would come here and fly every Sunday,” said Chuck Tippett, fellow wing walker and friend of Schwenker and Wicker. “He just had that love of aviation.”

Schwenker’s first love was aerobatics and he owned a Pitts S-1T and Extra 300 that he used to win numerous aerobatics contests. But he routinely took wing walkers including Tippett out on the flying circus.

Schwenker lived in Oakton with his wife and also had a career as an accomplished water treatment engineer, according to neighbor and friend Gary Hobbes.

“He was a friendly, outgoing guy,” Hobbes said. “He loved flying. That was his passion.”

The maneuver that ended in disaster was Wicker’s signature. It involved flying the 450 HP Stearman upside down, something Wicker modified the biplane so it could do.

“Her plane was one of the only planes that could do that successfully,” Tippett said. “There’s not, I don’t think, any other wing walker that would do that maneuver.”

“She’s been doing that inverted sit down for more than 15 years … and Charlie has flown her in that routine many times,” he said.

Tippett and others wondered if a gust of tail wind caught Schwenker by surprise, robbing him of the lift necessary to complete the maneuver.

Moss didn’t want to speculate on what caused the crash. “If you are not in the cockpit with your hands on the controls, it’s really hard to guess (what happened),” he said.

Tippett and King said danger is a fact of the kind of flying they do.

“We all accept those risks,” Tippett said. “Doing aerobatics like Jane does or like Charlie does, we all know what can happen. We’ve lost some great pilots, and we just lost two more.”

But it was still a shock to the Flying Circus family, which can’t wait to put on another performance in their honor.

“That’s what Charlie would’ve wanted,” Hobbes said.

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