FOX19 Copy Editor Kris Nuss wing walked on Jane Wicker's plane on Friday. Here is her first hand account of that experience. This article was written before the tragic loss of pilot Charlie Schwenker and wing walker Jane Wicker. Thank you for the spectacular opportunity, and gift of flight. You will always be remembered and admired.
Email from family friend: "As you can probably see, I've been asked to ‘talk you out of it'. I will do no such thing. If you want to give family (especially mother) a heart attack or stroke, that is your decision. Why would I talk you out of doing something that I would love to do if I were younger? It is the chance of a lifetime and probably won't have the chance again. "
Imagine my delighted surprise to receive a phone call from Air Show Sheila from the Vectren Dayton Air Show asking, "How would you like to wing walk?"
I was intrigued.
Then she asked if I would like to sky dive. "No," I promptly replied, "that's just crazy." But sign me up for the wing walking, baby.
Being a big fat chicken, I surprised myself at the constant state of excitement the mere thought of zipping through the skies tethered to the top of a biplane evoked. Historically speaking, not too many people have had the privilege of experiencing flight from such a unique perspective and I simply couldn't wait. Fear of heights: check. Inherent klutz: check. Parental and coworker opposition: check.
Jane, of Jane Wicker Airshows generously volunteered her beautifully restored 1941 Stearman for a walk on the wild side (seriously, this is as wild as I get). Jane was one of the two people that died when the plane she was wing walking on crashed at the Dayton Air Show.
Beautifully painted in yellow and red sunburst wings, the biplane was meticulously restored and given a 450 HP souped up motor. Named the Aurora for the Roman Goddess of the sunrise, her maintenance is impeccable and was a visible source of pride of her owner and crew.
Barnstorming began in the 1920's when returning WW1 aviators found another way to stay in the sky. Adding aerobatics to racing, the veterans found a thrilling way to stay employed and travel the country, stopping in rural settings.
As crowds gathered at the farms to watch, the term ‘barnstorming' was coined. Pilots would offer joy rides, but as the novelty wore off, they realized that doing crazier flying would attract more of an audience. The pilots would employ tactics culled from their military combat experience and the wing walkers adapted their routines to amaze the crowds.
Eventually WW2 and jet propelled engines changed the face of air show performances and barnstorming fell away.
Now we have solar paneled planes, and jet travel is common. But yet…what would it be like to fly with the birds, away from the crowds, and experience what it might have been like decades ago?
Thanks to Jane Wicker, pilot Charlie Schwenker, mechanic (and fiance of Jane) Rock Skowbo, pilot Bill Gordon, and ferry pilot Brian Rosenstein, I was gifted with a spectacular opportunity to experience on a tiny, tiny level what a barnstormer might try.
To suit up I needed pants, long sleeve shirt, no high heels, and borrowed goggles and leather hat. Fatty had every intention of losing 10 pounds before the flight (both to look good and not put undue pressure on the poor Aurora) but that didn't happen.
I told myself to stretch before hand, but predictably forgot. I also told myself to mimic the "O-H-I-O" while airborne but Fatty forgot about that, as well. Charlie and Jane showed me how to climb aboard the wing without splitting my pants, balance on the back rest of the front seat, then slide through the wires, easing from the bottom wing onto the top, then turn around and place my feet on the tiny footrest, while leaning against the back rest.
Jane nimbly climbed up behind me and oh so casually stood in front of me on the top wing and showed me how to buckle in.
"Here, let's show you how to do it and practice, just in case it comes undone in the air," she said casually. What?
Charlie and I wouldn't have any contact in the air, just like he and Jane and hand gestures (thumbs up, thumbs down) were the only form of communication. Because that's how they roll.
Any advice? "Just waaave to the crowd, and have fun!"
At this point in time, I still couldn't quite grasp how trusting Jane was to let a member of the unwashed masses stand atop her glorious plane. Not gonna lie, I rather doubt I would find the courage to let some stranger stand on my baby. I knew what a privilege this was. Yet she was so carefree, and genuinely wanted to allow someone who would normally never have this opportunity to experience it, full throttle.
Standing atop the plane, centered on the support pole, I joked with the crew and people gathered below, excited beyond belief to be off. I had no reservations, no queasiness (thank you Dramamine), no second thoughts.
Charlie, was an aerobatics award winning pilot. He also flew for the Flying Circus in Bealeton Virginia, and was Jane's pilot for her air shows. He took superb care of me as we gently eased our way through the back lot of parked planes, past FiFi (B-29) on the runway next to us, then set us up at end of the runway.
Imagine my unease, strapped to the top of a biplane, waiting…waiting… waiting… for our turn to take off. I felt awkward up there, not knowing where to put my hands. Couldn't have a conversation with Charlie. Checked my pockets to make sure I didn't have any loose change. Awkward. We were at the mercy of an inbound commuter jet. I waved to the passengers as they came in, wondering if I looked fat up there.
Finally, tower granted us takeoff. The Aurora purred, then roared beneath me, tickling my feet. I wanted to put my arms out but had a worry that they might get ripped off on takeoff. As we gained speed and my facial cheeks flapped in the wind (the lower cheeks were clenched) I couldn't contain the gasp of pure exhilaration. I glanced about wildly, desperately trying to draw it all in. The ground fell away at an alarmingly fast rate, the skyline tilted and I squealed with unparalleled delight. Ascending into the heavens on top of a plane was breathtaking and awe inspiring. I could think of nothing but "thank you, thank you, thank you" to Jane.
But then I soon thought, 'why are we not leveling out?' Up, up. On the heels of that I thought, "I have made a terrible, terrible mistake."
I had every opportunity to let my arm fall back and give Charlie the "thumbs down".
However that would be the cowardly, which obviously was unacceptable. Once in a lifetime gifts are not to be returned ungraciously.
We went up 1,500 feet (I think; someone said we were at 2,500 but I don't think that's correct) and flew around 80-90 mph. Picture sticking your arm out your car window while driving 80mph. Now picture your whole body.
The wind was fierce but it was time to let go. I tentatively stuck an arm out. Then another. Admittedly, I was afraid to move my feet lest I wasn't able to get them planted back on the footrest. I grew up with horses and always rode bareback, so I griped the pole between my thighs as though I were still riding. Silly, but a habit I simply couldn't break. The urge to grasp the wires behind me was tempting for some strange reason, and I had to reach behind to hold the pole for my chicken support. Not real adventurous of me, I realize, but there you have it. Coward at heart.
The drone of the motor was loud, the wind was fierce, and the temperatures chilly. It was very difficult to turn my head or keep my arms extended for long, and I had no sense of direction and couldn't locate a single landmark. I was at the mercy of the pilot who I trusted with my life (and I liked Charlie a lot; he's was good guy) and once the fear of " I have no business being here" finally waned, I fully gave myself over to the joy of flight. I was enraptured. I was free. I was cold, but I was free.
Thanks to Jane and Charlie, I now fully understand the poem "High Flight" by John Magee. I paraphrase, but I truly felt I touched the hand of God.
Very few people will believe or understand this, and most of you will think I'm high (never did drugs, for the record) but strange as this sounds…at one point the wind stopped clawing at me. The motor roar stilled. I was suspended in a peculiar time and place where I felt the presence of, well, quite frankly, my grandparents and guardian angel slightly behind me on either side. And I felt their happiness and approval. For just a moment, I felt the ethereal presence of those who at one time loved and protected me as if they were physically at my back. Call me nuts as my last name means in German, but there you go.
All good things must wind down, and admittedly my body was slightly fatigued. I could feel the temperature warm as we descended further and further, gently, and with great reluctance.
After we came to a halt and I slid out of the harness, through the wings, gently caressing Aurora in a silent thank you on my way down, the first thing that greeted my feet on solid ground was a hug from Charlie.
Don't think what I did was brave; my fingers were bloodless and not from the chill of the air, if you get my drift. Jane did this all the time, and most of it without a safety harness.
The hardest part of her routine was getting out of the plane after it takes off. In essence, she crawled out of her front seat into 100mph winds (imagine walking through a hurricane). One of her crew members piped up that she had a bug on her cheek once. Jane laughingly relayed that once, a bug had hit her cheek, leaving behind a perfect wing pattern splatter.
Her favorite maneuver was inverted sitting. "It's the only time in my act that I get to sit down and it's always a different view. Once, we were near a carnival and I could actually smell the cotton candy." Inverted sitting- you know the one; the plane is flying upside down, and she crawls out onto the wing and sits and waves at the crowd.
As told by Charlie, she's the "best one [wing walker] I know. I feel very comfortable with her out on my wing."
Someone in the back muttered, "You're craaaazy!"
She laughingly replied, "Sanity is boring! I'm living my life and having fun."
I must've had a peculiar look on my face, so she elaborated with a shrug, "Straight level is boring."
Charlie nodded emphatically, then she gestured to him. "He does rolls on take off and they call me crazy."
Their routine included loops, rolls, Cuban Eights, Hammerheads, half rolls, inverted rolls with her sitting on the wing.
Turning to Charlie, I asked if he'd ever wanted to wing walk. An emphatic "no."
Gesturing towards the air show grounds, I asked which of the planes gathered here would he like to take for a joy ride and he grinned hugely, "I wanna fly ‘em all!"
When asked what he enjoys most about his job, he replied, "Just flying. If she shows up in high heels, we can't go up." That elicited a round of laughter from the group, but Jane picked up the gauntlet and explained that she actually needs a specific type of shoe to wing walk. The tread has to be just right - not too thick, so she can feel what she's doing, but not so thin as to take away traction. She walked us over to the wing and she and Charlie explained the width of her path - an extremely small space, lest she step through the wing.
When I told my Dad (former Air Force) I was invited to wing walk he laughed, not believing me. I told my Mom and I quote, "NO NO NO NO [seriously, it was all caps] I forbid it!" You know how well that turned out.
I asked Jane how she told her parents about her decision to wing walk.
"Oh," she chuckled, "I didn't tell my parents until after I first wing walked. I walked in and told them, ‘I just want you to know I'm fine' and showed them the tape. There was a pause, then Dad walked out, not saying a word. Mom kept muttering, ‘oh my, oh my' but then she was proud of me, and would tell all her friends…"
Did her mind ever wander up there? "I do let my mind wander. Until it's time to dive and do loops, then its focus, focus, focus. But there are times when I can relax and enjoy the view."
Charlie and Jane were living examples of how to live your life right. "You gotta love what you do," she insisted while Charlie nodded his agreement. "Life is too short. You have to have fun!"
Perhaps my favorite part of the conversation; "Pssh- I'm not defying death. I'm living my life!"
Author note: I debated furiously with myself whether or not to turn in this story. I do because I truly believe Charlie and Jane would want me to. I thank you for your trust in me. I thank you for the splendid gifts you gave me. My heart bleeds for your families and friends and I wish you sweet, sweet peace. Have fun flying with the angels my friends.
I quote the same good friend whose email began this story: …If only all of us could do the thing we really loved to do, it would be a happier world. While we feel badly for the families, we should be inspired by how Jane and Charlie lived their lives."
Touch the other hand of God for me, guys - Kris