So how did a National Aviation Hall of Fame inductee embark on a stunt flying career?
He had to beat his fear of flying.
It's truly a unique experience to meet someone who so obviously adores his job. Visiting Dayton for the 2011 Vectren Air Show, Sean D. Tucker positively exudes passion and enthusiasm for stunt flying. Ironically, Mr. Tucker admits that in the beginning he was deathly afraid of stalling out. Believe it or not, his instructors inadvertently helped instill a fear of flying in him. They taught him the basics, but not how to appreciate the intricacies of the plane and how to get the most out of it, or how to recover from a tense situation. Since the stalls made him nervous, he recognized that he had to conquer the fear. It irked him that his instructors couldn't teach him more. A fearful pilot is a dangerous pilot, so he switched instructors. "I didn't have confidence in my abilities," he admitted freely.
"It's a shame. I mean, it was just a shame that the instructors didn't care. How can you teach when you've never been to the dark side? It's not a scary place," he insisted, reaching out to lightly touch my arm "when someone's there to teach you to turn on the light. I finally got an instructor who told me ‘I'm going to teach you something fun.'" Turned out to be recovering from a stall, the very thing that had once so frightened him.
Sean gravitated to the art of aerobatics in 1973 and never looked back. After almost 30 years and over 24,000 hours of flying, he insists he's still learning his craft. He's also a very modest man; he has earned numerous prestigious flying awards and is the only civilian performer to be permitted to fly close formation with the Blue Angels, Thunderbirds, and Snowbirds.
Sean is passionate about sharing the magic of flight. While getting harnessed up to ride in the chase plane, the reporter who flew with Tucker laughingly told us that a different reporter was scheduled to go up, but she chickened out. Later, Sean admitted quietly to me that he was glad he didn't take her up because the last thing he wanted to do is scare people. He sees flying as the ultimate freedom and wants to let others experience the thrill as well.
"My arena is as high as I want to go, as low as I want to go, and as wide as I want to go; I can work 3,000 feet wide or 5,000 feet high, ten feet off the ground upside down at 250 miles an hour. It's great!"
Flying, either normally or in stunt work is a spiritual, thoroughly engrossing thing for Tucker; a metaphor for pushing your boundaries. When asked if, at the time he decided to make this his career, his friends and family supported his decision, he paused for a moment and reluctantly admitted that no, they really didn't. His father wanted Sean to follow in his footsteps and become a lawyer. His voice gentled noticeably; "my wife was the only one who supported me fully."
He reached out and chucked my shoulder. "Of course now, twenty five years later, they all say ‘I helped get him where he is today'", he laughed.
But he had to sacrifice a lot for his chosen career. "If you want to play the game, you have to sacrifice, focus, and retain your passion." For a time, his son flew with him at air shows. Though he now misses having his son as his wingman, Sean is glad that his son found his niche flying for a corporate entity. You have to have a razor sharp commitment to stunt flying, and his son just didn't have the same intensity for the sport; focusing on this art form is incredibly arduous. Sean feels his son is in a safer fit with his current occupation. Besides, a father will always worry about his kids, and it's a difficult thing to divide your focus between your son and your plane during a performance.
"Saves me a lot of worry as a father, but I really miss him as my wingman. I was very, very lucky to have him with me for awhile."
Stunt flying takes a dramatic toll on the body, and Sean exercises six times a week and flies twice daily. He's constantly honing his skills to the utmost height of perfection. Since this is a dangerous sport, you can't afford to have a bad day. He trains like a professional athlete, religiously. The heat is especially debilitating- heat stoke can cause loss of depth perception and cognitive thinking. He stressed that heat exhaustion can stunt your reasoning and mature thinking. Add that to a highly dangerous sport and you have no room for error.
Sean executes a dizzying array of tumbling, climbing, inverted flying that's spectacular to watch. His athleticism, creativity and passion all meld seamlessly to show the love he has for what he's doing and it's obvious that he gives 110% to people in his efforts to share the magic of flight. To him, flying is freedom and I applaud his enthusiasm for life.
"I wanted to do this. I needed to do this. I guess I could always be a greeter at Wal-Mart if I can't fly," he joked. At the next air show, stop and talk to the man who flies the red Oracle stunt plane. You'll find a gregarious, kind man who might show you the way to conquering your fears and living your life with passion. I admire the guy.