Created on Monday, 24 June 2013 Written by AMANDA LEE MYERS,Associated Press
CINCINNATI (AP) — An aerobatic pilot and a wing walker killed in a fiery crash at an Ohio air show over the weekend had clean safety records, according to Federal Aviation Administration records released Monday.
Neither wing walker Jane Wicker, who had a pilot's license, nor pilot Charlie Schwenker had accidents in the past or were disciplined for any reason, the FAA records showed, according to agency spokesman Roland Herwig. The information was released as the result of a public records request by The Associated Press.
Wicker and Schwenker, both of Virginia, were killed Saturday in a crash captured on video and witnessed by thousands of horrified spectators at the Vectren Air Show near Dayton. Wicker was on the wing of the plane when it suddenly went down after a stunt, exploding on impact.
Wicker, 44, was the mother of two teenage sons and was engaged to be married next year atop an airplane. Schwenker, 64, was about to celebrate his nine-year wedding anniversary, which is Tuesday.
Friends and family were working on planning funerals for both.
Wicker is the third wing walker to die in two years.
From 1975 to 2010, just two wing walkers were killed in the U.S., one in 1975 and another in 1993, said John Cudahy, president of the Leesburg, Va.-based International Council of Air Shows.
In 2011, Todd Green fell 200 feet to his death at an air show in Michigan while performing a stunt in which he grabbed the skid of a helicopter. That same year, Amanda Franklin died two months after being badly burned in a plane crash during a performance in South Texas when the engine lost power. The pilot, her husband, Kyle, survived.
"It's not entirely an anomaly but not quite as dangerous as it would appear to be," Cudahy said, adding that the recent spike appears to be a coincidence.
He said it was too early to say whether Saturday's crash would lead to any changes in safety standards among wing walkers and their pilots and that those standards already are high.
Jason Aguilera, the National Transportation Safety Board investigator leading the probe into the crash, said Sunday that it was too early to rule anything out and that the agency would issue its findings in six months to a year.
Wing walker Teresa Stokes of Houston and her pilot boyfriend, Gene Soucy, said their hearts were heavy after watching video footage of the crash, but it doesn't give them any second thoughts about what they do.
"It is the craziest fun ride you've ever been on," Stokes said. "You're like Superman flying around, going upside-down doing rolls and loops, and I'm just screaming and laughing."
Soucy said he never worries because he's "really good at flying upside-down and doing rolls."
"This is just what we do," he said. "Some people sit at a typewriter looking out a window all day. We're flying with the wind."
Wing walking began in the 1920s in the barnstorming era of air shows following World War I.
The practice fell off the middle of the 20th century but picked back up again in the 1970s. Still, there are only about a dozen wing walkers in the U.S., Cudahy said.
John King, pilot and president of the Flying Circus Airshow, where Wicker trained, described Wicker, of Bristow, Va., and Schwenker, of Oakton, Va., as "ultimate professionals."
"I don't know of anyone who could have done any better than what they were doing," he said.
On Saturday, Wicker sat helplessly on the plane's wing after she had just finished a stunt as the aircraft suddenly turned and slammed into the ground, exploding on impact and stunning the crowd.
In one post on her website, the stuntwoman explains what she loved most about her job.
"There is nothing that feels more exhilarating or freer to me than the wind and sky rushing by me as the earth rolls around my head," says the post. "I'm alive up there. To soar like a bird and touch the sky puts me in a place where I feel I totally belong."
She also answered a question she said she got frequently: What about the risk?
"I feel safer on the wing of my airplane than I do driving to the airport," she wrote. "Why? Because I'm in control of those risks and not at the mercy of those other drivers."
FAA spokeswoman Lynn Lunsford said the agency is often asked why wing walking is allowed.
"The people who do these acts spend hours and hours and hours performing and practicing away from the crowd, and even though it may look inherently dangerous, they're practiced in such a way that they maintain as much safety as possible," he said. "The vast majority of these things occur without a hitch, so you know whenever one of them goes wrong and there's a crash, it's an unusual event."
Associated Press writer Verena Dobnik in New York contributed to this report.