[cleeng_content id="448495008" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]Performers killed in Ohio air show crash had wowed crowds at ‘Thunder’
As word spread June 22 that two performers had been killed in a crash and fiery explosion in front of thousands of spectators at the Vectren Air Show near Dayton, Ohio, the news hit especially hard with Nic Diehl.
Diehl, the longtime organizer of Martinsburg’s Thunder Over the Blue Ridge Air Show, had worked for years with both wing-walker Jane Wicker and her pilot, Charlie Schwenker. His plan was to feature the two again the next time Martinsburg hosted an air show.
The crash, under investigation by the FAA, came as Wicker was performing on the wing of the biplane. The 44-year-old Loudoun County, Va. resident was continuing to gain a national reputation as a “wing walker” and even planned to hold her 2014 wedding ceremony in midair, out on a wing of a plane.
Schwenker, a pilot since 1975, had discovered a passion for air show aerobatics in 1990. He often flew a colorful Pitts S-1T, an aircraft designed by Curtis Pitts in the 1940s.
Both Wicker and Schwenker were part of Thunder in 2011 when a deadly crash cut short the two-day event midway through its first day. John “Flash” Mangan, a stunt pilot with the Trojan Horsemen Flight Demonstration Team, perished when his post-World War II plane slammed into the ground at the 167th Airlift Wing base.
Diehl talked this week with Christine Miller Ford of the Spirit about his reaction to the latest air show tragedy and why he’s eager for the Eastern Panhandle to host another Thunder.
FORD: I can only imagine how awful you felt to learn of the deaths of Jane Wicker and Charlie Schwenker. You got to know both when they performed in Martinsburg?
DIEHL: Charlie and Jane were part of our air show family. Charlie had been with us for many years as had Jane. I was heartbroken to hear about their deaths. Charlie was one of the kindest, wisest pilots I knew.
At air shows, other younger aerobatic pilots would ask Charlie for advice and would watch him fly so they could emulate his moves. Jane was a legend in the industry. She had been wing walking for about 20 years and always put on a great show.
They lived their lives to provide joy and entertainment for others. Actors do it, musicians do it, but few do it knowing that each performance could be their last. Performers in the air show industry put their lives on the line each show.
Ford: The 2013 Thunder Over the Blue Ridge scheduled for this spring had to be called off after funding problems arose. What feedback did you hear about the cancellation?
Diehl: Everyone was understanding. The only reason we were going to do a show in 2013 was because the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds were going to headline the show. Due to sequestration, the Thunderbirds were grounded effective April 1 and our show was scheduled for May.
There are many moving parts with an air show and a lot of work goes into planning. We do the event ultimately to raise money for local charities through the United Way of the Eastern Panhandle and without the Thunderbirds to bring in a larger crowd it is a lot of work for not much payout.
Ford: Are you thinking the air show will resume next year? How do you handle even preliminary planning when so much isn’t known?
Diehl: We will likely stand down until at least 2015. We don’t know how long the Thunderbirds are going to be grounded and with so many shows in quick succession over the past few years, we need to give our sponsors a break.
I love the process of organizing these events but it is nice to take a breather every once in a while. Depending on the availability of military aircraft, we may plan a civilian show within the next few years.
Ford: With the 2011 crash at Thunder Over the Blue Ridge and then last month’s accident in Dayton, do you worry the public might shy away from attending future air shows out of fear they could witness a tragedy?
Diehl: Millions of people watch NASCAR knowing that their favorite driver could have an accident and die in that wreck. There are accidents and there are deaths. The same is true with air shows.
It is shocking to witness a tragedy at a car race or an air show. However, part of the attraction, part of the thrill of watching such dangerous events is seeing race car drivers take turns at 200 miles an hour, and watching aerobatic pilots get their airplanes to make moves that don’t seem possible.
Spectators still come out for the thrill of watching these kinds of events and performers keep performing.
Charlie [Schwenker] and Jane [Wicker] knew and understood those dangers. Charlie told me once that when a performer loses their life doing something they love, the best way to honor them is to make sure the show goes on.
That’s a hard pill to swallow, but when we do our next show we will honor Charlie and Jane. And we will miss them, every show we do.