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An Office with a Spinning View

Jason Paur

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Sean and Eric Tucker in the air
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Behind the Scenes with Sean and Eric Tucker

Out in San Francisco this weekend, families will be crowding the downtown waterfront to watch pilots flip, roll and tumble during the annual fleet week air show. Every year, more than 20 million people attend air shows across the country. But not every family is watching from the ground. For one pilot, going into the family business is leading to a very unique father-son relationship.


On a sunny morning in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, 27-year-old Eric Tucker is preparing me to fly in his bright red, two-seat aerobatic airplane. He's an air show pilot, and his plane is designed to flip and roll at over 100 miles an hour. If anything goes wrong, a floating seat cushion isn't going to cut it. But he does provide me with a parachute.

"A lot of people get nervous about wearing a parachute," he tells me. "I get nervous about not wearing a parachute." That's partly because a parachute saved his dad's life. Eric's dad is also an air show pilot.

The engines start, and I'm pushed back in my seat as we accelerate down the runway and climb into Eric's workplace. Soon we're carving through the sky, changing direction in the blink of an eye.

When Eric speaks from his seat, he sounds as calm as if he's sitting on the couch at home. I feel like I'm in a washing machine. The airplane rolls and somersaults end-over-end at the same time. I see a rapid mixture of earth and sky and hope Eric is keeping track of which way is up.

Eric has been working air shows since he was nine. He started by announcing for his father's performances. "I didn't really want Eric to get into the air show business," says Sean Tucker, Eric's dad. He hoped Eric might choose a different way to make a living. It's not just that it's a dangerous business, it's also that Sean Tucker feels an even greater responsibility for his son's safety and livelihood.

But when you're up in the plane with Eric, it's clear there's no place he would rather be.

"How about we just throw in a real big victory roll?" he asks, as we recover from a dive. He sends the plane twirling on a corkscrew path through the air, giving the maneuver a kind of sublime grace. Then he looks back at the smoke trail we've left behind, sounding like a kid doing this for the first time.

"Man, look how that smoke is just hanging. I just want to dive down and do that one thing where we trace the smoke around again."

I brace myself to go through the victory roll all over again. From the ground, the maneuvers look impressive, but from the inside they can feel downright violent. I'm not even getting the worst of it. If Eric did his most difficult moves, I would likely pass out or get injured. The G-forces are that intense, especially when you're pulled out of the seat.

Sean and Eric are used to it. They perform together as part of a formation team with two other pilots. At times they're flying only a few feet apart doing loops and rolls. That's a whole new kind of father-son bonding, according to Eric.

"Like any father and son, we have our times when we butt heads," he says. "But we have this side in the formation team where it's a completely level playing field."

"When Eric and I are in the sky together flying, he's not my son, he's my peer," says Sean Tucker. "I'm counting on him not to hit me, and he's counting on me to perform at a level where I don't take us into the ground."

It's a stressful job, but that's not the way Eric sees it. When he's in the air, he feels liberated, like he's tracing a sculpture in the sky, which he describes as a "three dimensional palette."

"We live our entire human lives on the x-y axis, just a two dimensional plane of the earth," he explains. "What we get to do in an airplane is take it into the z axis where the freedom is just unparalleled."

With that, he pulls back on the stick and we start climbing straight up for one last dance through the air.


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By catherina c

    From Brooklyn, NY, 10/12/2008

    I very much enjoyed this story. I had the chance to see Sean and Eric Tucker fly at an air show this summer.

    I am always happy to come across stories about aviation!

    By jacqui valadao

    From Barnegat, NJ, 10/11/2008

    I am fascinated by small planes and those who fly them....smallest one I was ever in carried ,besides the pilot, a to work huge fisherman plus immense duffle (later found to contain a roulette wheel) and Me...on my way to Naknek in Bristol Bay to work in a cannery mess hall

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