|Sean Tucker doing
the “dirt dance” before his performance.
and Brian Norris in the Extra.
|The team helps Sean
get ready for his flight.
performs at AirVenture.
Thousands of air show visitors are
thrilled every year by the performances of the legendary Sean D. Tucker.
While it is clear that such skill takes
years of practice, many don’t realize the hours of behind-the-scenes
work required for eight minutes in front of the AirVenture audience.
Following Tucker’s Team Oracle
throughout the day allowed us to see the extent of the preparation work
that goes on during a day at AirVenture.
Early Morning Missions
At 8 a.m. the Jack Mark Hangar next to EAA’s Weeks Hangar is
filled with every aerobatic plane imaginable. The bright red Challenger
III biplane is sitting in the corner.
Ian Nilsen of Team Oracle monitors the
A 900-foot overcast doesn’t bode well
for a flight scheduled to happen this morning.
Outside sits a Piper Seneca and an Extra
300. Clay Stone and Sean O’Leary are putting smoke oil in the Extra.
Clay, a high school sophomore, volunteers
with the team during AirVenture. Sean travels from Ireland for the
summers. “They call me Seamus,” he says, “because you can’t have
two ‘Seans’ on the team.”
Brian Norris shows Kristy McAlistar, her
dad Paul, and their friend Steve, around the biplane.
Each day a similar mission shapes up and
they are the lucky ones scheduled to fly this morning.
Wednesday marked Brian’s 20th
anniversary of working with Sean Tucker.
He says that on his first day, Sean
handed him a bottle, a rag and said, “Nice to meet you.”
Now, Tucker trusts Brian to fly the new
Challenger III across the country. It is clear that he, and the rest of
the team, know every single inch of the gleaming red machine.
While Kristy is getting situated in a
parachute, Clay is gingerly brushing off the plane and then cleaning off
any spots with a spray bottle and the tip of a cloth.
Kristy and Brian climb into the Extra
while the rest of us clip into the back of the Seneca, set to fly camera
ship with the baggage door removed.
Ian, who is flying the Seneca, tells air
traffic control that they are a formation of two and the planes depart—perfectly
Later, as the wheels hit the green dot on
landing at the mission’s completion, Ian declares, “I love my job.”
Briefing the show…
The morning flight prefaces more preparatory work until it’s time
to attend the safety briefing required of performers.
In the Charlie Hillard Air Operations
Center the air show performers gather each day about noon for the pilot’s
Since Tucker is at a charity event, Brian
is attending it for him.
They hand out the schedule for the air
show and Jim Mynning, head of air show ops, brings the briefing to
Announcements are made, and introductions
given. Jim directs the attention to a clock keeping time down to the
second. Time, he reminds them, is critical, and everything must stay on
There is a weather brief; as part of the
safety brief the pyrotechnic team warns not to “step on anything that
doesn’t grow;” and pilots are reminded of the regulations to keep
the audience and performers safe.
The goal: a “safe air show and zero
After the performers’ briefing there is some down time for the
team; but even then, Team Oracle cannot truly relax.
They are always talking to people,
telling them about the plane, meeting other teams, and planning for the
At 3:20 p.m., Tucker calls saying he’s
on his way and asks them to get the plane warmed.
Seamus sets a small fire extinguisher
next to the plane, which feels somewhat disconcerting to the observer.
But it’s just a precaution.
“We want to be ready for any
eventuality,” Ian says.
Clyde Greene runs the engine for a few
minutes so it will be at operating temperature when Sean arrives so he
can go straight out and fly his practice.
Sean Tucker gets ready to fly. He straps
on his parachute as well as back and wrist braces—both the result of
flying injuries—and climbs in.
Up until now, he has been a bundle of
energy and extraversion, always moving and talking.
Now, suddenly, that all stops.
He closes his eyes and sits in the
cockpit, oblivious to the activity around him. A moving finger indicates
that he is going through the routine in his head. After a few minutes he
puts on his helmet, waves, and heads out.
During the practice, he flies through the
entire routine, spending extra time focusing on maneuvers that cause him
Although rare, he may cut a piece from
his usual performance if that part just isn’t working that day.
Out in the grass near the performers’ tent, a group of people are
having their hands marked with a 1, 2, or 3.
These lucky volunteers will hold up tall
poles with ribbons on them—ribbons Sean will be flying underneath and
through during his performance.
“You guys are going to have the best seats in the house,” Ian tells
When Sean returns from his practice, Team
Oracle members descend upon the plane, cleaning every part of it,
refueling it, and checking it over for any hint of problems.
Meanwhile, Sean is talking to people,
taking pictures with them, and showing them around the plane.
Greetings done, he goes over to a corner
of the space, with his headphones, and begins what his team calls the
“dirt dance”—marking out the routine on the ground.
Next, he goes over it again as he sits in
his car, waiting.
At 5:20, the pole holders are guided
towards the runway, so they can be ready as soon as it is Sean’s turn
to perform. Sean gets into his plane and tells Brian, who also acts as
the announcer, when to talk to him in the cockpit.
He closes the canopy and slowly taxis
towards the runway. People wave and cheer as he passes.
At 5:44 p.m., the focus of thousands of
people switches to the bright red plane tumbling throughout the sky.
“I try to fly with joy” he says; it
Ian told me that since Sean was off the
field for much of the day; it was not a typical day.
“On the other hand,” he said “there’s
really no such thing as a ‘typical’ day.”