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EAA AirVenture Oshkosh RSS FeedBehind the scenes with Team Oracle
Story and photos by Katie Wainfan
 
Sean Tucker doing the “dirt dance” before his performance.
Kristy McAlistar and Brian Norris in the Extra.
The team helps Sean get ready for his flight.
Sean Tucker 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 weather.

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 synchronized.

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 briefing.

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 order.

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 schedule.

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 mishaps.”

Pre-show practice
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 week ahead.

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 difficulty.

Although rare, he may cut a piece from his usual performance if that part just isn’t working that day.

Showtime!
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 them.

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 shows.

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.”

FUTURE AIRVENTURE DATES: 2014: July 28-Aug. 3; 2015: July 20-26; 2016: July 25-31; 2017: July 24-30
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