The best in the business – and the hometown star of California International Airshow - takes the Weekly for a ride.
Thursday, September 20, 2012
Sean D. Tucker doesn’t gamble.
But here he is, arguably the most accomplished stunt pilot in the sky, several thousand feet above the Salinas Valley floor, about to relinquish control of a $450,000 flying machine, at 200-plus mph, to a rookie with the piloting experience of a potted plant.
The Naval Aviation Hall of Famer’s not asking me to steer straight, but to snap a sudden roll to the left. And another. Then a big, slow corkscrew roll and a sky-climbing double loop de loop too.
Seems like a gamble to me. Then again, the same could be said for his deep-cave diving and heli-skiing – and his plane’s sudden front somersault.
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Tucker, 60, is the only civilian performer on the planet to fly in close formation with the Blue Angels and the USAF Thunderbirds. He’ll be the ribbon cutter at this weekend’s California International Airshow Salinas – which soars above the Salinas Municipal Airport Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 22-23 – though instead of scissors he’ll use his custom Oracle Challenger III biplane to slice oversized crimson tape while flying upside down 25 feet off the ground. At some point he’ll probably fly tail-first, straight-down, at 100 mph, before snap rolling into a hovering position pointing straight at the tarmac.
More than half of Tucker’s aerobatic dance moves – including the “centrifuge” sequence of eight end-over-end tumbles and the twirling “double hammerhead” – have never been duplicated by anyone else. The Angels and their multimillion-dollar F-18s come to town early to fly in his planes with him.
His biplane might be as unique as he is, with a wildly light frame, twice as many ailerons (eight) as comparable planes, and a revolutionary tail and customized controls that approximate a remote-control airplane’s more than other stunt craft (and confound other pilots).
“Sean wants to recreate what remote control airplanes are capable of,” says his operations chief Brian Norris.
“At first I inspired remote control plane guys,” Tucker says. “Now they inspire me.”
Airshow Executive Director Bruce Adams is familiar with the results.
“What impresses me most is his willingness to take airplanes to the edge of their engineering,” Adams says. “He knows The Challenger III inside out and what it’s capable of.”
“It’s possible because of his skill and dedication, but some of this wouldn’t be possible without the airplane,” Norris adds. “It’s a good teamwork – like the full-on forward somersault. The crowd just kinda freaks out. Even non-pilots, when they see it, know that shouldn’t be possible, and there’s this collective gasp from 100,000 people.”
The combination of steering and engineering – the third Challenger is 20-percent lighter and 20-percent more powerful than the first – make Team Oracle a truly unprecedented operation. But there’s a third element that Tucker insists is more important than both.
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Some pilots who joust with the kind of G-force Tucker does wear what’s called a “G suit” to constrict the blood flow in the body. That prevents blood from rushing to the feet and blacking out a pilot, or rushing to the head and detaching retinas, busting blood vessels and causing embolisms.
Not Tucker. A 50-pound jacket wouldn’t make sense on a plane they workshop down to the ounce, anyway – “This level of flying,” he says, “it’s not appropriate” – so instead it’s an unending training regimen of cardio, core-work weights and altitude hiking, plus 90 flights a month. “You have to be comfortable in the extreme conditions of the flight,” he says. And manage a delicate flight stick while it feels like the skin is crawling off your face.
Most of that practice time comes in his FAA-permitted private airspace in South County’s King City, where his Tutima Academy of Aviation Safety draws aspiring stunt performers from around the world.
It’s that work that steels his frame against the Gs, the risk and the competition. Before he introduces one of his never-before moves to the public – “some of them are so unique they don’t even have names,” Adams says – he’s practiced it 1,000 times at extreme altitudes that allow him to catch himself in the event of a misfire.
“People love to ask, ‘Why does he practice so much?’” Norris says. “‘He’s already the best in world.’ I say, ‘That’s why he’s the best. Because he practices so much.’”
After he pulls our plane within five feet of the Oracle companion plane that carries Weekly photog Joel Ede so I can read the writing underneath the left wing (“If you can read this and you’re not Sean Tucker, you’re too close”), he elaborates.
“I like pushing boundaries,” he says. “Facing my fears. But talent isn’t nearly enough. You have to work harder.”
He hungers for the physical feats – “I’m always pushing my body. It’s too hard a job to go with the status quo” – but aches for the cerebral tests that demand precision and absolute observance of safety guidelines too.
“I love stuff that challenges me, that’s a technical challenge,” he says.
He mentions the avid heli-skiing, his new love for mountaineering (he just did Kilimanjaro) and the freshwater SCUBA diving in caves that demanded two-and-a-half months of training and took him as deep as a mile and a half from a light source in Cenotes, Mexico.
When he asks me to take the stick – one so responsive I’m told to use just three fingers – his words through the headset are this: “The wings become your arms. Allow her to let you fly. You’re just deflecting air.”
His enthusiasm is as clear as the South County skies above his ranch as we loop up, up, up, hang upside down and swoop back. “I can teach the touch,” he says. “I can’t teach the passion.”
Soon Tucker takes me to a speed where I weigh nine times more than normal. It’s at those nine Gs that my eyeballs feel like mini medicine balls – and might drain out the bottom of their sockets.
I can’t help but think that while he may not be a gambler, it’s a good bet that he’ll show Salinas crowds something they haven’t experienced.
“One of our things we always hear after the show is, ‘I’ve never seen a plane do that,’” Norris says. “In fact’ they say, ‘I didn’t know it was possible.’”
Back in the cockpit, Tucker’s laugh frequently fills the sky.
“Just enjoy the ride,” he says. “This is what my world looks like.”
The California International Airshow Salinasflies Saturday-Sunday, Sept. 22-23, at Salinas Municipal Airport, 30 Mortensen Ave., Salinas. Tickets in advance are $60/flight deck, $25/grandstand seat, $15/adult, $10/child and $5 more at the gate. 1-888-854-SHOW, www.salinasairshow.com.
Other Airshow Stars Shooting Through The Sky. The California International Airshow hasn’t raised $8 million for Central Coast charities with planes alone. A fleet of relentless volunteers, board members and ground-based entertainment – like fire-breathing, car-eating Robosaurus and this year’s monster truck action starring King Krunch, El Matador and Detour – play mighty roles as well. But the most stirring shows are still hung from the heavens, like this year’s multiple-aircraft tribute to P-51 Mustang-flying airshow pioneer Bob Hoover, one of Chuck Yeager’s oldest amigos and one-time back-up pilot. Here are other acts to look forward (and up) to, starting with the internationally-acclaimed headliners:
• USAF Thunderbirds • The first supersonic aerial demo team to ever lift off can be deployed in combat, but their diamond, delta, stinger, arrowhead and echelon formations, which bring the Air Force’s F-16 Fighting Falcons within 18 inches – while moving as fast as 500 mph – are deployed for peacetime crowds that, to date, total nearly 400 million. Look for the “bomb burst” signature stunt, where four jets peel off in separate directions while another zooms straight up, tumbling through a bunch of aileron rolls, and the knife-edge pass that can spook the calmest onlooker with its insanely small margin for error.
• Jacquie Warda • The flight pattern of Warda’s life is as striking as her low-altitude gyroscopic airplane tumbling: She didn’t enter aerobatics, a male-dominated arena, until after she turned 50. The same adjective can be applied to her stunts – including the torque roll and the spiraling tower – and her staffing: She flies, cleans and maintains the plane by herself.
• Canadian Forces CF-18 • The Royal Canadian Air Force’s CF-18s, cousins of the American McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet, will have crowds swooning with their dramatic horizon-crossing patterns – if crowds can successfully track the blindingly quick blurs. Perhaps the most dramatic maneuver comes as the CF-18s skyrocket straight up, often disappearing in the clouds, then hang a U and scream back toward Earth. Moves that likely inspired a recent Facebook post next to a glowing picture of one of the jets at sunset: “Sleep tight sweetheart,” it reads, “you’ll kiss the sky tomorrow.”
• Kent Pietsch • This guy’s a real Pietsch. (His last name’s pronounced like the stone fruit.) In his yellow 1942 Interstate Cadet – which comes covered in Jelly Belly jellybean decals – he flies a clown-of-the-skies sequence, surviving the mid-air loss of an aileron wing flap and a powerless landing from 6,000 feet.