Family, friends, fellow aviators mourn loss of wing walker

By Joe Beck

BEALETON — Seven biplanes flew over an appropriately cloudy sky at the Flying Circus airfield Tuesday in a mournful tribute to the loss of one of their own.

As the planes slowly passed over a crowd of about 300 spectators in the bleachers, one of them broke off, headed west and disappeared over a tree line on the far side of the airfield. The plane, part of what is known in aviation circles as a missing man or woman formation, signaled the close to a two-hour memorial service for Jane Wicker, wing walker extraordinaire.

Wicker, 44, of Bristow, and Charlie Schwenker, 64, the pilot who died with her in an airplane crash at an air show in Dayton in late June, were well-known at airports around Northern Virginia, including Front Royal, where Wicker kept her plane when she wasn’t away at air shows.

Another wing walker, Janaleigh McWhorter of Lancaster, Pa., participated in the missing woman formation. She was visibly moved after she landed and walked away from the plane that carried her.

“It was different from any show I had done before,” McWhorter said. “It was for Jane. It was just amazing.”

Moments before the missing woman formation took flight, a lone plane spread Wicker’s ashes over the airfield where she got her start as a wing walker in 1990 after answering a newspaper advertisement. She was chosen from a field of 53 who auditioned for the spot.

Rock Skowbo, a fellow wing walker, who planned to marry Wicker while standing on the wing of a plane, was among those who recalled her as a spirited daredevil. Skowbo appeared along with Wicker’s former husband, Kirk Wicker.

“It’s great you’re all here today and paying your respects,” Skowbo told the audience.

Kirk Wicker said many people were surprised to learn that he still flew planes for his former wife during some of her air show performances. Their personal differences disappeared whenever they took to the air together, Kirk Wicker said.

“We came to the conclusion we may not live together, but we sure do work well together,” Kirk Wicker said.

Jane Wicker’s older sister, Elizabeth, spoke of a childhood that gave little hint of the life of a performer her younger sibling would lead. Their parents were conventional people who raised their children in conventional ways, Elizabeth said. But that began to change when Jane appeared in musical production in middle school, Elizabeth recalled.

From then on, Jane was increasingly drawn to public performances that led her into a career as a wing walker.

“Even though she was fearless and she took risks, she wasn’t reckless,” Elizabeth said.

Reggie Cassignol, the manager of the Front Royal-Warren County Airport, was among those paying their respects. Cassignol said Skowbo plans to keep using the hangar in which his fiancée stored her airplane.

Cassignol said this year’s Virginia Air Show at the airport will include a performance paying tribute to Wicker’s memory. She had been scheduled to perform at this year’s air show.

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