I’ve dedicated my entire adult life to the art form of air-show flying. It’s such an exquisite honor and privilege to strap into a flying machine, have the wings become your arms, and tumble, twist, turn, spin and flip across the sky.
Adweek once pronounced that air shows were the “Indianapolis 500, Top Gun and the Fourth of July, all rolled into one.”
For the last 24 years, I’ve had the opportunity to share the “magic of flight” with and to “light that spark within” more than 120 million spectators across North America. After finishing a performance and taxiing by the kids, moms, pops, grandmas and grandpas, it’s so empowering to witness the incredible joy on their faces. I finally get it. Fantasy of Flight founder Kermit Weeks once said, “Everybody doesn’t like airplanes, but everybody has a fascination for flight.” The freedom of flying taps into their inner core.
The metaphor of flight is very powerful, and it so resonates with the spectator’s soul that they live vicariously through my flying. If I abuse this privilege and let ego take over during a performance and kill myself, I also kill their dreams. That’s not acceptable behavior for a 21st-Century Barnstormer.
Mitigating risk is the single most important element to surviving in this flying business. After a near-fatal bailout below 750 feet AGL from an unrecoverable inverted flat spin due to a pilot-error-induced aft-CG condition, I knew if I was going to have any future at all in the air-show flying business, I needed to be committed 24/7 to the relentless pursuit of excellence and perfection.
My first step was to search out mentors, and I found the world’s best: Bob Hoover, Leo Loudenslager, Charlie Hillard and Wayne Handley. They gave me perspective as to why we fly. That aviation is a jewel that needs to be respected and cherished. That it’s an honor and privilege to touch the controls of a flying machine, and that the privilege can’t be abused.
They taught me how to honestly face my fears, verbally acknowledge them, and once I overcome them, become empowered by what I was afraid of. They taught me how to think and train like a champion. During an air-show season, I’ll practice 450 times in order to fly 120 performances. To be the very best you can possibly be, it’s imperative to be consumed with the notion of “excellence in execution” on every flight.
They taught me that persistence is the key to success in any endeavor, and to be the best of the best is a journey that takes a lifetime. They showed me the difference between spiritual health and physical health. While performing extreme aerobatic flying, pulling +9.5 G’s and pushing -7.3 G’s is an athletic event that requires a high level of fitness. Am I flying for the right reasons? Am I flying with joy? Am I sharing the magic of flight? Or am I just showing off?
My mentors defined “conviction of purpose” as never giving up on your dreams, never giving up on your commitment to excellence, and in an emergency, never giving up on yourself! As a famous air boss once said, “Fly it as far into the wreck as possible.” Isn’t that what Capt. Sully did when he landed, not crashed, onto the Hudson River?
They showed me how to harness my passion and have it become my fuel to excellence. It can best be described by a Tom Robbins quote: “If you take any activity, any art, any discipline, any skill, take it and push it as far as it will go, push it where it has never been before, push it to the wildest edge of edges, then you force it into the realm of magic.”
Every time we aviators fly, we have this great, inspiring opportunity! Flight defines us as human beings. Be inspired. Harness your passion, have it become your fuel. Become a mentor, because you can’t reach your full potential unless you help somebody else reach theirs. Enjoy the journey.
Sean D. Tucker has been flying air shows worldwide since the mid-’70s. In that time, he has flown more than 1,000 performances at more than 425 air shows, in front of more than 80 million fans. In the upcoming season alone, Tucker and Team Oracle will entertain nearly 10 million fans at 25 shows throughout North America. His 400 hp Oracle Challenger III weighs just over 1,200 pounds, and responds to the slightest pressure on the control stick even at 300 mph. To endure the extreme physical demands of each routine, Tucker maintains a rigorous physical-training schedule by working out over 340 days per year, with a routine of jogging and weight lifting on alternating days. Tucker has been awarded numerous aviation industry honors, including being inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.