Local News

Families, Friends Mourn Loss Of Crash Victim

SEBRING - Delwyn Wayner, brother of the late James H. Weener, 70, who died in a plane crash Saturday, remembered a man who loved to fly and help others. Weener, who was a seasoned pilot, died Saturday morning after a single-engine airplane he flew came apart in mid-flight over Golf Hammock. Authorities in Sebring said Weener and his passenger, James R. Ricker, 46, of Sebring, took off from the Avon Park Executive Airport some time Saturday morning. It is believed that Weener was showing Ricker his Golf Hammock home from the air. Wayner, 74, remembered his younger brother Monday from his Pismo Beach, Calif., home, as he prepared to take a flight to attend his funeral service Wednesday morning.
"He knew more about airplanes than anyone I've ever met," Wayner said. "So, of course this came as a complete shock." Wayner told a reporter at the Holland Sentinel, based in Michigan, that he got a call from his brother's wife, Julie, about three hours after the accident happened. Weener, 70, came to Sebring about four years ago as a snowbird and because he has worked in Africa in the missionary field, he was known to the Sudan Interior Missions organization. The organization, called SIM for short, has a retirement village in Sebring. Weener worked there helping out as a maintenance worker at the park in the winters. He and his wife, Julie, got their own place there last year. "He was always busy," said Wayner. "He spent his life serving and helping other people." Although Wayner said he is three-and-a-half years older than Weener, Weener always called himself the big brother. "From the time we were kids, he was always as big as I was until we got to high school," Wayner said. "He got bigger. He always said he was my bigger brother, but not older." The Weener name is of Dutch origin and is pronounced Wayner, he said. His kids were kidded about it when they entered school because it was being mispronounced and they changed the spelling, Wayner said, so he made the name change legal. "We were raised in Holland, Mich.," he said. "It was just the two of us boys." He said they stayed very close through the years. "We kept up with each other pretty well," he said. "We talked and e-mailed frequently." His brother played saxophone, he said, and won several awards as well as a scholarship to Michigan State University. He got involved with Campus Crusade for Christ while at MSU and reportedly was forever changed. From there he went on to attend a Bible college, in Chicago, Ill, said Wayner. He never stopped playing his sax. "He was supposed to play at a local church on Sunday," Wayner said. "But it never happened." While he was in school, he got his pilot's license while working for a Piper airplane dealership. "There was a need for bush pilots to take people to their missionary stations, and to fly in supplies," he said. He flew missionary missions in Mexico and in several countries in Africa during the 1950s and 1960s. He also earned his teaching credentials in Washington State, and taught science and math at the high school level in Everett, near Seattle. "When our folks became elderly and had a lot of health problems, he moved to Michigan," said Wayner. "He taught school there as well as driver's training in two different counties. He finished his last session in October. He's also been a flight instructor in Washington, Michigan and Florida, on a part-time basis, he added. "He never owned an airplane," he said. Weener is survived by his widow, Julie, and their three children, Jeff Wayner, Jan Schilke and Joel Wayner, and 12 grandchildren. "It's been a real loss to the whole family," he said. Garth Winsor is the manager of the SIM Retirement Village, which was established in Sebring in 1966. He said he knew Weener a long time and met Ricker at the village. "I met Jim (Weener) in early 1970 in Nigeria when we were both missionaries there," said Winsor. "There were a number of pilots, but he never flew me. Four years ago he started coming to the village to help out with building projects. He was just a very hard worker who could do a lot." Winsor described Weener as a very experienced pilot who was also an instructor and who "flew by the numbers." "I don't believe the crash was a result of anything he did," Winsor said. He knew James Ricker from the village as well. "He worked here for about four years as a grounds-man," said Winsor. "His expertise was horticulture. We attended the same church and shared a love of motorcycles." Weener's passenger, Ricker, was owner and operator of a landscaping firm and reportedly had worked for Fishbrand Tree Farm. Winsor said Weener had taken Ricker up on Saturday to show him his house from the air. He took him up and circled his house several times in Golf Hammock. Ricker had been helping Weener at the village. "It was a courtesy flight," said Winsor. James Ricker is survived by his wife, Linda Ann Ricker; two children, Brittany Ricker and Casey Ricker; parents, Lawrence and Ester Ricker; three brothers Dan, Larry and Michael Ricker; and sister Jeannie McNabb. Members of the Ricker family were not available to speak on Monday. The Weener memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday, at the SIM Chapel, in Sebring. The Ricker memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Thursday, at the Whispering Pines Baptist Church, located at 303 White Pine Drive, in Sebring. The cause of the crash was under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation and Safety Board.

Highlands Today reporter Joe Seelig can be reached at (863) 386-5834 or jseelig@highlandstoday.com