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June 24, 2013

Ohio air crash shows risks, thrill of wing walking

CINCINNATI — Risking death every time they go to work, wing walkers need courage, poise, a healthy craving for adrenaline and, most importantly, they need to be meticulously exacting with every step they take on the small planes that carry them past dazzled crowds at speeds up to 130 mph.

Jane Wicker fit that bill, her friends and colleagues in the air show industry said Sunday.

Wicker, 44, and pilot Charlie Schwenker, 64, were killed Saturday in a fiery plane crash captured on video at a southwestern Ohio air show and witnessed by thousands. The cause of the crash isn’t yet known.

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.

Wicker, a mother of two teenage boys and recently engaged, sat helplessly on the plane’s wing as the aircraft suddenly turned and slammed into the ground, exploding on impact and stunning the crowd at the Vectren Air Show near Dayton. The show closed shortly afterward but reopened Sunday with a moment of silence for the victims.

The crash drew attention to the rarefied profession of wing walking, which 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., said John Cudahy, president of the Leesburg, Va.-based International Council of Air Shows.

Teresa Stokes, of Houston, said she’s been wing walking for the past 25 years and does a couple of dozen shows every year. The job mostly requires being in shape to climb around the plane while battling winds, she said.

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