Wing walker, pilot mourned locally

By Joe Beck

The deaths of wing walker Jane Wicker and pilot Charlie Schwenker at an Ohio air show last weekend were felt keenly at the Front Royal-Warren County Airport where Wicker stored her airplane and Schwenker performed at the 2011 air show.

Airport manager Reggie Cassagnol said the loss of both aviators hit him hard.

“I knew both of them very well,” Cassagnol said on Monday. “She was based here. The pilot performed at my air shows. It’s a close-knit circle of professional pilots, flying circuses and all that.”

Wicker, 45, of Bristow, and Schwenker, 64, of Oakton, died at the Dayton International Airport in Dayton, Ohio, on Saturday. Their plane hit the ground and exploded into flames after going out of control while being flown in an upside-down maneuver.

Both had been scheduled to perform at the Virginia Air Show at the Front Royal-Warren County Airport on Sept. 14.

News of the crash left Cassagnol shocked and saddened. He described Wicker as “quite a character” with an enthusiastic, bubbly personality well suited for a wing walker.

“It was in her blood,” Cassagnol said. “She was a performer. She loved the crowd, and she loved to perform for the crowd.”

Cassagnol said Wicker has stored her airplane, a 450-horsepower Stearman, at a hangar at the airport for the last two years.

“It was a beautiful yellow with red trim,” he said. “She called it Aurora.”

Cassagnol said he also knew Schewenker for more than 10 years through mutual interest and participation in aviation activities around Northern Virginia.

On her website, Wicker said she got her start as a wing walker by answering an advertisement in the Washington Post placed by the Flying Circus in Bealeton.

She said she took her first wing walk after a month of ground-based training and practice. She said her first airborne wing walk was also the first time she performed at an air show.

“It was the most incredible combination of adrenaline, excitement, apprehension and fear,” Wicker said. “I liken it to riding a roller coaster for the first time. You have no idea what it will feel like and no way to prepare. As the wheels click on the rails climbing up that first hill, your heart sinks to your stomach. You become hesitant, but after that initial drop, the worst is over, and you are prepared for the rest.”

Cassagnol said he intends to continue to schedule wing-walking performers at future shows, despite the loss of Wicker and Schwenker.

He said safety always has been a critical consideration for the air show and will remain so. But, he said, he believes Wicker would not want her death to lead to the disappearance of wing walking performances at the air show.

“She was excited about performing here in September,” Cassagnol said of Wicker.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com