Local man, fallen wing-walker had shared passions

Posted: June 29, 2013

The Winchester Star

Wing-walker Jane Wick performs in this undated photo. Wicker and her pilot Charlie Schwenker were killed instantly when their plane crashed on June 22 at the Vectren Dayton Air Show.
Aerial performer Jane Wicker poses for a portrait near her plane with her fiance Rock Skowbo, who lives in Frederick County.

WINCHESTER — Last Saturday’s crash at an air show in Ohio took the lives of two Virginians famous in the aerobatic flying circuit, and ended a veteran Frederick County pilot’s dreams of a life with the woman he was planning to marry.

Wing-walker Jane Wicker and her pilot Charlie Schwenker were killed instantly when their plane crashed on June 22 at the Vectren Dayton Air Show.

Wicker’s fiance Rock Skowbo lives west of Stephens City. He said the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash.

“They don’t know why the airplane crashed,” he said on Thursday, sitting in his home, where Wicker had partially moved in. “The airplane seemed to be flying fine. Usually, even after the investigation, [it’s determined that] it’s usually a chain of errors.”

Contributing factors could include something mechanical, something related to the pilot, meteorological conditions, even a bird strike, or a combination of errors and threats, said Skowbo, a father of three.

“We’ve done these [shows] hundreds of times and it’s never been a problem,” he said.

Meeting cute

The plane in the crash, Aurora, led to Wicker’s first meeting with Skowbo, a 48-year-old commercial airline pilot, flight instructor and flight mechanic.

Wicker, who would have turned 46 today, obtained the plane in June 2010, Skowbo said. The couple, both divorced, met a few days later at the Flying Circus Airshow in Bealeton.

Skowbo noticed the tall blonde standing by the red and yellow 450-horsepower Stearman.

“I kind of jokingly said, ‘Is this your plane?’” he recalled. “I’m thinking there’s no girl out there who has [a] plane like this.”

Wicker, the mother of two teenage sons with a home near Manassas, coolly told him the plane was hers. Intrigued, Skowbo found her on Facebook and sent her a message.

“We just immediately hit it off and started going out,” he said. “We’ve been inseparable ever since. Everything we do is aviation-related. Aviation’s in our blood. It’s what we love and what we do.”

Giddily in love — “People just got sick and tired of seeing us holding hands and kissing on each other’” — the pair became engaged on 12/12/12 at an air-show convention in Las Vegas.

They planned to have a wing-walking wedding in 2014.

“We were both going to take off in the airplane; the minister was actually going to be flying the airplane,” Skowbo said.

The couple — Skowbo has made a wing-walk himself — planned to start on separate wings and meet at the stanchion in the middle.

“Then we were going to perform the ceremony [and] we were going to have a big air-show party and after-party,” Skowbo said.

Aviator and athlete

Wicker had been walking on airplane wings for more than 20 years.

After receiving her pilot’s license, she was given an aerobatic ride at the Flying Circus in 1989.

“After that, she was hooked on the whole air-show thing,” Skowbo said.

In 1990, she answered a Flying Circus classified ad for a wing-walker, according to Wicker’s website, wingwalk.org.

“One hundred percent” into wing-walking, Wicker considered herself an athlete, Skowbo said.

He said about 10 people worldwide are wing-walking today.

When Wicker clambered out of the seat onto the plane’s wing, she did so without being fastened to the craft, he said. She wore a safety harness with metal loops that she could hook onto different parts of the plane.

“If you’re careful and you follow proper steps, then it’s a very safe thing to do,” Skowbo said. “Jane used to always say it’s more dangerous to drive to and from the airport than wing-walking. She had a set routine that she did each and every time. That’s what made it safe.”

With many rules and checks in place to keep spectators safe, air shows haven’t seen any fans killed since the 1950s, according to Skowbo, who noted the difference between air shows and air races.

Oakton resident Schwenker, 64, was a well-known and respected aerobatic pilot, he said. Like Wicker, who was a budget analyst for a Federal Aviation Administration contractor, Schwenker had another, more grounded job. He was an engineer.

Fearless to the end

Extremely strong-willed, and perhaps “a little bit overconfident,” Wicker would be a handful, Skowbo thought.

Previous boyfriends, who weren’t involved in flying, could be intimidated by her, but not Skowbo. “She was just absolutely in love with me, and I was with her.”

Wicker knew the risks involved in her sport, Skowbo said. He was with her at the prestigious air show in Dayton last week.

“She was not scared one single bit, and a second before she was dead, she was waving at the crowd,” he said of the fatal crash. “Literally, at one second she was waving at the crowd as if nothing was wrong at all. By the time she realized what was going on, it was over.

“Unfortunately, I was standing right there and I ran right up to [the crash] and saw her there. And she was just laying on the grass, very peaceful.”

Skowbo said he could not see any visible injuries to Wicker, and that she simply looked as though she was lying in a grassy meadow. “It was like she was taking a nap.”

The crowd was left “dumbfounded” by the crash.

“I was in my own little world, honestly,” Skowbo said. “When the airplane hit, the sound turned off. I was just in disbelief. I was just literally thinking that it was a dream and I was going to wake up.

“Then I realized it wasn’t a dream, and it was real. I was going to go up there and see my baby.”

Skowbo said Wicker was an inspiration, especially to women. Not only did she own her own plane and business, in addition to wing-walking, but she was also “doing it while she’s a mom taking care of her kids.”

Immediately before the crash, the air-show announcer was broadcast saying, “Jane Wicker, sitting on top of the world.”

Skowbo said he posted a picture online of himself and Wicker, and wrote, “Saturday you’re sitting on top of the world, and today you’re on top of the universe.”

Throw a party for my funeral

Skowbo said his fiancee loved media interviews, signing autographs and working at events with children.

She also volunteered to fly shelter dogs in need of adoption.

Wicker wouldn’t want people to feel sad about her death, Skowbo said. “She always said she wanted to have a big air-show party [for her funeral].”

And that’s what it will be, said Skowbo, who did not offer further details. He said she would want him to stay involved with air shows.

“She basically would want people to remember her life and to be an inspiration to others, [to remember] what she did and accomplished, her strong will,” said Skowbo, who is open to wing-walking again.

Wicker, Skowbo and Schwenker kept planes, including Aurora, at the Front Royal-Warren County Airport, said airport manager Reginald Cassagnol. Schwenker flew with the Flying Air Show at the airport’s annual show.

Cassagnol said he was just getting to know Wicker, who had used one of the airport’s hangers for two years.

“[She was] very vibrant, full of personality,” he said. “She was a trip. Charlie was always happy to show up, and he had this little laugh and his [mustache] and we loved him.”

Wicker “got new wings,” Cassagnol said.

“It’s just sad. She practiced last week over the airport. Rock [Skowbo] flew. Some folks got to see it. That was the last time we got to see her on the wing.”

Memorial contributions can be made to the International Council of Air Shows Foundation, 750 Miller Drive SE, Suite F-3, Leesburg, Va. 20175. For more information about the foundation, visit icasfoundation.org.

Rock Skowbo also suggested memorial donations to Pilots N Paws, 4651 Howe Road, Landrum, S.C. 29356. For more information, visit pilotsnpaws.org.

— Contact Sally Voth at