Danger as a spectacle has long been a past time of human culture. Death-defying stunts have graced stages of theatres and circus tents for centuries. Never has there been a more awe-inspiring sight, however, than the dramatic aerobatics of stunt pilots and wing walkers. On Saturday, June 22nd, wing walker Jane Wicker and her pilot Charlie Schwenker died in a fiery crash during a performance at the Dayton Vectren Air Show in Vandalia, Ohio.
Wicker, who had been involved with aerobatics for more than a quarter-century, was sitting on the wing of the inverted plane as it dove, nose-first, into the ground and exploded. The aftermath of the crash left a burning wreck, two people dead and hundreds of spectators horrified.
News of the accident quickly spread around the country, landing on the lead story of every print, broadcast and online media outlet from the New York Daily News to the Huffington Post. Preliminary investigations of the cause of the crash from the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are as yet inconclusive.
The very next day, high wire performer Nik Wallenda spent his evening engaged in a heart-stopping, quarter-mile tightrope walk across a 1,500 foot deep section of the Grand Canyon. As a record number of viewers tuned in to the Discovery Channel to watch, they were treated to more than a half hour of listening to Wallenda continually pray or thank God and praising Jesus with nearly every successful step. One might wonder if they would think he’s crazy too.
From escape artist Harry Houdini to motorcycle stunt rider Robert “Evil” Knievel, daredevils have long attracted crowds of spectators and generated millions upon millions of dollars for their promoters over the years. While Houdini eventually died of a ruptured appendix, he was nearly killed several times by his own hand as a result of escape attempts gone wrong. Many of his compatriots, like Wicker, were not so lucky; which begs the question, is the spectacle worth the risk? Apparently it is because the public keeps going to see them, like sadistic voyeurs almost hoping to see something go horribly wrong.
Local government, concerned about the staggering level of liability involved, does everything it can to discourage people from attempting these kinds of stunts by requiring miles of paperwork and expensive permits before allowing these kinds of activities on public lands. Some simply don’t allow it to happen at all.
Wallenda’s high wire walk, for example, didn’t actually cross over the Grand Canyon, but the gorge of the Little Colorado River Navajo Tribal Park. His 1,400 foot steel cable was actually suspended over land of the Navajo Nation, near Cameron, Arizona.
Could these daredevils have what Freud called a “death wish,” a desire, often deeply repressed, for self-destruction, accompanied by feelings of depression, hopelessness, and self-reproach? That might be said of Houdini, given his almost obsessive interest in death and the afterlife. But for most everyone else in this line of work, it’s about attention and a desire to push the envelope – that need for the adrenaline rush associated with doing what no one else is brave enough to do (or stupid enough, depending on your point of view).
In the end, there would be no market for these kinds of acts if the public wasn’t thoroughly fascinated by them. As for the performers themselves, it’s probably best to take into account Jane Wicker’s own words.
“Why do I do this? 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,” Wicker once wrote. The day before the crash she told WDTN TV2, “I’m never nervous or scared because I know if I do everything as I usually do everything’s going to be fine.”
For those left behind, there is a great sense of loss when these daring entertainers pass doing what they love. But they will be remembered for their spirit and the smiles on the face of those who sat in awe of their skill and passion to defy the very fabric of nature.