Until you get to know Sean D. Tucker, it’s hard to understand why he chooses to make a living by risking his life.
But take a moment to watch what he does. It’s magical.
Watch him fly hundreds of miles an hour and thousands of feet high — twirling, tumbling and twisting his airplane in ways you never thought possible.
Tucker will intentionally stall the aircraft, allowing it to fall lifelessly toward the ground — only to recover gracefully and soar safely upward just in time.
The intensity of watching him perform makes you almost forget to breathe.
Tucker is an aerobatic pilot — among the best in the world. He calls it a form of art.
At age 63, he has more than 24,000 hours in the air. But he still knows it’s important not to take the job for granted — to always remember what’s at stake.
“People bet on me to do it correctly … to inspire them and to thrill them — not to traumatize them,” Tucker told me last week at the AirVenture air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
“If I kill myself in the sky, I take away their dreams. I’ve destroyed everything. So I have to always make sure I don’t abuse the privilege of flight.”
Sometimes, if you catch him in the right mood, Tucker shares a story about a flier who overcame fear, only to let his ego get him in trouble later on. That pilot — it turns out — was Tucker.
Years ago, when he started flying in his home state of California, Tucker was — as he put it — “the most fearful flier you’ve ever seen.”
He panicked while practicing stalls — a basic maneuver every pilot is required to know. “In an airplane, if you panic and freeze at the controls, you’re in big trouble and so are your passengers.”
Frustrated, he asked for help from an aerobatic instructor named Amelia Reid who “took me under her wing,” and went flying with him. “I remember the first time she rolled that airplane. We didn’t fall out of the sky. We didn’t crash. She rolled it again a second time. The third time, she let me do it.”
That experience flipped a switch inside Tucker. “I fell in love with what I was so afraid of. I fell in love with the dance.”
He began to dream of being an aerobatic pilot. He got good enough to fly at air shows. But at age 26, two years after his first performance, Tucker lost his dream.
While trying to break a record for a maneuver called an inverted flat spin, Tucker got stuck and had to bail out of his plane before it crashed.
“I almost died,” he says. “I had abused the privilege of flying. I let my ego get in the way.”
That lesson hit home when he arrived at what was left of his aircraft. “I laid on the ground next to my dead airplane and picked through the wreckage to see where my body would have been.”
The crash came at a bad time. Tucker was totally broke. “I had to start over. I had to put my dream aside. That dream was shattered.”
To make ends meet, Tucker turned to crop dusting. “Suffering through those consequences was the best part of my life,” he says. “It took me eight years to get enough money again to come back.”
He says he learned his lesson and he’s still learning the art form. “And I’m still not perfect.”
Statistically, it’s hard to know exactly how risky it is to be an aerobatic pilot. In general, all types of pilots ranked as the third most dangerous job in America, behind loggers and fishermen, with 50.6 deaths out of 100,000, according to 2013 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Specific federal stats for aerobatic pilots aren’t available. From 2008 to 2013, North American air show deaths numbered 1.5 per year, according to the International Council of Air Shows.
Tucker’s personality is larger than life. He’s full of laughter, playfulness and fun conversation.
But three hours before every performance, that all stops.
During the pilots’ safety briefing before every air show, Tucker gets deadly serious.
The pilots briefing room at Oshkosh is packed full of aerobatic pilots and ground crew. Tucker sits in the front row with his game face on, watching “air boss” Ralph Royce rattle off critical safety and logistical information about their upcoming airshow at Oshkosh’s Wittman Regional Airport.
In the front of the room, Royce points to a big screen showing exactly where show planes are supposed to take off and land. He also highlights important areas to avoid.
“At the south end, we’ve got these houses over here,” Royce says. “Keep a 500-foot minimum away from those houses. Do what you need to do to maneuver around them.”
His final advice to the pilots: “Have a good show, have a safe show and don’t do nothin’ dumb.”
Three hours later, it’s show time.
To clear airspace for the performances, FAA controllers have closed the airport to commercial and general aviation traffic.
Tucker has 12 minutes to do his thing. He climbs into his bright red Oracle Challenger III and takes off. Seconds later, Tucker is thrilling the crowd. The mid-air stalls that scared him as a young man have now become second nature. He is in his element.
One of Tucker’s most dangerous maneuvers involves using his wings to cut ribbons stretched across a runway.
Bringing a little 1920s barnstorming to the performance, the trick calls for Tucker to fly 20 feet off the ground at 200 mph.
To do this, he’ll have to fly sideways.
Tucker flies the airplane on its right side so the plane’s fuselage — not the wings — creates lift and keeps the plane in the air.
The ribbons are attached to poles which are stretched across the runway by volunteers. I’m one of those pole holders. When Tucker roars past me at a distance of about 20 feet, it’s hard not to dive out of the way.
Later, Tucker explains his mindset. “You’ve gotta be perfect. When you’re flying that low to the ground, you have to be so totally calm, so totally convicted of purpose … and it just takes practice.” Tucker says he practices the maneuver at least 100 times before the season’s first show.
“When you’re in the arena, it has to be almost supernatural, because you don’t have time to think about it.”
When he’s not practicing, Tucker serves as chairman of the Experimental Aircraft Association Young Eagles — a program that introduces tweens and teens to flying. Last week, a 13-year-old Oshkosh boy named Wyatt flew with Tucker.
Wyatt exited the aircraft wearing a huge smile. “He did a complete barrel roll,” Tucker says. “My hands weren’t even touching the controls!”
“Life is about pushing your boundaries.” By trying new skills that you’re not yet good at, he says, it keeps you constantly humble and learning.
For Tucker, that new skill is mountain climbing. He and his family just recently returned from a climbing journey in the Alps.
“Really, every single day should be an adventure,” he says. “Every single day you should challenge yourself.”
“If you’re not, you’re wasting a little bit of your life.”