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Air show legend will retire solo career after next season

Turning, twisting, looping and circling above the Earth, sky turned to ground and back to sky quickly.

Feeling six times the force of gravity pushing down on my head, torso and legs, my body strained against the pull.

I was a passenger on this flight, but air show performer Sean D. Tucker, once voted by the Smithsonian as one of 25 Living Legends in Aviation, was the driver in the backseat. I was glad he was driving Thursday on the flight of a lifetime.

Sitting in the front seat, I saw the Miami Valley in a new technicolor 360-degree view in a two-seat Oracle Extra 300 L and witnessed what the world acrobatic champion does in his office in the sky.

The Dayton-Cincinnati region will see the legendary performer at the Vectren Dayton Air Show this weekend at Dayton International Airport. There, Tucker flies the single-seat, 400-horsepower Oracle Challenger III biplane to the edge.

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Magician in the sky

A magician in the air, Tucker calls what he does illusion. But it takes piloting skill few master.

“This is all choreographed,” he said. “This is a dangerous business as it is. I’m a risk manager so I want to have the illusion of being out of control. I want to have the illusion I’m a whack job but in reality, I’m a highly trained professional.

“… Everything on this level of flying is pretty difficult because you’re in the ballistic, gyroscopic, tumbling, twirling mode and to have it come off correctly every single time takes a lot of tactile feel and touch and there’s been no performance that’s ever been perfect but there’s been many that’s been excellent,” he said.

The veteran aviator turned 65 years old this year and has flown the air show circuit for four decades, racking up 26,000 hours of flying time. He said he will retire from solo flying after the 2018 air show season, but hopes to find a sponsor to launch a formation flying team as his next chapter in aviation takes center stage.

“I’m not quitting,” he said. “I still love flying, but my guts telling me, you know, this airplane (Oracle Challenger III) is going to the Smithsonian. What an honor.

“We want,” he added with a laugh, “to keep her safe.”

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Piqua ‘field of dreams’

Dayton is perennially one of the 18 show sites in North America he hits in a year. “I really consider Dayton my second home,” the Salinas, Calif., resident said. “It’s for sure my first air show home.”

The honorary member of both the Air Force Thunderbirds and Navy Blue Angels practices his aerobatic routine three times a day.

When he’s in the Midwest, he flies to Piqua to practice 25 to 30 days in a show season. Hartzell Propeller, located in Piqua, supplies the propeller on his stunt plane.

“I call it the field of dreams out there because it’s so beautiful,” he said. “You’re in the cornfields and soybean fields in this little community and the community comes out and watches me fly.”

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He has relied on that practice in real world emergencies. In 2006, he bailed out of a plane with a mechanical problem over Louisiana. He was briefly tangled up on the back side of the aircraft before he was able to parachute to safety, The Associated Press reported at the time. The plane crashed in a field.

“I had to bail out of my flying machine 11 years ago and that’s a pretty traumatic experience to do that,” he said. “Then you have to ask yourself the question, ‘Do I have the nerve to get back in the airplane?’ And if you don’t have the nerve to get back in the airplane and be an airshow performer, you have to quit. And so, if I didn’t have the nerve I wouldn’t get back in this airplane.”

Two decades ago, he founded an aerobatic flight school in California.

‘Pushed my boundaries’

He started flying when he was 17 and earned his pilot’s license at 21. His first flight instructors installed “a huge fear of flying in me. Gave me no confidence whatsoever after I got my pilot’s license. I would panic at the controls, I would panic in a stall, I would panic in a steep turn.

“Well, that’s a pretty dangerous mindset if you’re going to be in the sky because when you panic and you have such an incredible fear of something and it overpowers you, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

His solution: Learn aerobatics. He started in 1973.

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“Three years later, I flew my first airshow because I fell in love with what I was so afraid of and I conquered that fear and I pushed my boundaries,” he said. “…I’m still learning the art form, I’m still engaged and it’s still hard. I have to face my fears, I still keep pushing my boundaries and this really keeps me alive.”

Tucker is in his fourth year as chairman of the Young Eagles program, which has flown more than two million children on their first free flight since 1992. He also started the Bob Hoover Academy, an alternative education high school with a focus on science, technology, engineering, the arts and math in his hometown of Salinas.

The academy is named after his former mentor and “almost father(-like) figure,” the legendary air show performer Bob Hoover, who flew with Tucker in earlier days. Hoover died in October.

“I got a lot of advice from him,” he said. “We had a lot of laughs. We had a really great time together.”

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