The Virginia pilot and stuntwoman who died in a fiery crash at an Ohio air show Saturday enjoyed the same thing about flying, those close to them said: “The freedom.”
Pilot Charlie Schwenker, 64, of Oakton and wing walker Jane Wicker, 45, of Bristow — experienced and daring aerial performers — were doing inverted stunts when a low-altitude maneuver went wrong and sent their bi-wing plane to the ground in front of a crowd of thousands.
The cause of the crash is under investigation, and it was initially unclear why the plane, which Wicker owned and used regularly in air shows, went down. Wicker was on the wing at the time of the crash.
While a colleague said their routine that day was risky, their families said Schwenker and Wicker understood the perils inherent in the pursuit they loved.
Rock Skowbo, Wicker’s fiancé, said she had a deep passion for flying. It was a passion the couple shared, as Skowbo sometimes flew the plane while she did tricks on the wings. Skowbo said Schwenker and Wicker knew that their stunt flying was dangerous.
“They understood and knew the risk, and they were willing to accept that risk. It didn’t turn out very well for them,” Skowbo said. “They were both doing what they love to do, and they would want everybody to get on with their lives and hope everybody has the kind of life they had.”
John King, president of the Flying Circus in Bealeton, where Schwenker also performed as a pilot, said that the pair were highly skilled and admired within the tight-knit aerial stunt community.
“They were top-notch. If you’re rating them, both of those performers would be at the top of the list,” King said. “You lose somebody like that, you lose family.”
Schwenker had been flying since 1975, according to his biography on Wicker’s Web site, and won competitions, including the Canadian National Aerobatic Championship. A civil engineer, he spent his winter weekends on ski patrol and his summer weekends on one of his two airplanes, his wife, Susan Gantz, said.
Gantz said she thinks her husband was a careful pilot who took every precaution to make sure he flew safely. But she did not like to watch him at air shows.
“What can you do about it? If somebody loves something, you can’t say ‘Stop that,’ ” she said. “It meant so much to him that some days when he’d be crabby, I’d tell him, ‘Go out to the airport and get a flying fix.’ ”
Wicker, the mother of two sons, ages 15 and 18, took up flying in 1988 and began wing walking two years later, according to her biography. She boasted of being among only a few wing walkers in the world who crossed between the wings without a safety line.
King said Schwenker and Wicker were known to take risks at air shows, where they performed for a fee, risks that he thought were too high for his Flying Circus shows in Virginia.
“We try to keep our act so we’re not putting anybody at more of an extreme risk than we need to,” King said. “Jane and Charlie, they were at an air show, making a lot of money. Part of getting paid that kind of money is you try to be spectacular. Even as performers ourselves, we just shake our heads at what they were doing.”
Despite the risks, Gantz said she knew flying brought her husband intense joy. She described what he loved most about it: “The freedom and the speed and the exhilaration and not having roads or rules or maps.”