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Patrol pins crash on pilot

The Ohio State Highway Patrol said initial evidence points to pilot error as the cause of the plane crash at the Vectren Dayton Air Show that killed a wing walker and her pilot last week, an investigator and an accident report said.

But the conclusion is based on witness statements, videos and measurements made at the site, said Sgt. Jeff Kramer, the Highway Patrol’s lead investigator of the crash. It did not look at a potential mechanical cause, leaving that assessment to the National Transportation Safety Board, he said.

The NTSB will make the final determination on what caused the June 22 accident of a 1941 Stearman biplane that killed wing walker Jane Wicker, 44, of Bristol, Va., and pilot Charlie Schwenker, 64, of Oakton, Va. The two died as they performed in front of thousands of spectators at Dayton International Airport.

“We’re a support role in the crash,” Kramer said. “Just from what we can determine, it is pilot error. Ours could be right, it could be wrong. That’s for them (the NTSB) to determine.”

The NTSB will review autopsy and toxicology reports, the condition of the air frame, weather conditions, the flying environment at the air show and the pilot’s flying history, said Jason Aguilera, the agency’s lead investigator of the crash. He said Tuesday it was “too early” to determine the cause.

“We look at a lot of things, we really do, just to see if there’s any contributing factors to the accident,” Aguilera said. “We cast a wide net.”

The Federal Aviation Administration reported Wicker and Schwenker had clean safety records with no accidents or incidents prior to the deadly crash.

Kramer said the cause of the accident appeared to be the biplane losing speed, causing the aircraft to stall, or fall towards the ground, because of a lack of lift over the wings.

While the plane was inverted, the wing that Wicker was sitting upright on, and closest to the crowd, suddenly tilted and struck the ground, video shows. The aircraft broke apart in flames when it crashed.

No spectators were injured.

The Highway Patrol will provide data to the NTSB, he said. “We do it as we would any normal crash up to a certain point and they have the experience and knowledge to take it a couple of steps further in this case,” he said.

The FAA also is involved in the investigation, Aguilera said.

The NTSB has not released a preliminary report on the accident, which is expected in the coming days. A final report is not expected for six to 12 months. The wreckage was stored in an airport hangar shortly after the accident.

The crash was the second in the history of the four-decade air show. In 2007, acrobatic pilot Jim LeRoy, 46, of Lake City, Fla., died after failing to maintain clearance from the ground during an aerial routine in a Bulldog Pitts, the NTSB found. The board also concluded “smoke oil” in the air where the performers were flying was a factor in that crash.

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