Sean D. Tucker, "I Sure Am Happy To Be Here"
Airshow legend Sean Tucker gathered a roomful of reporters at Sun n Fun yesterday morning to hear the riveting first-hand story of his harrowing emergency over Louisiana on Tuesday. An ounce of empathy turned some moments raw as Tucker described to a press corps of pilots the decision that would doom the "most magical piece of equipment that I've ever gotten to fly in my life." The equipment was the highly modified and customized Challenger Biplane that for Tucker has clearly become so much more than that, performing as his partner over many seasons. "I didn't want to give her up," Tucker said. Facing decisions sequentially, it would occur to him later that the aircraft might not be the only one taking its last flight. Tucker was at just 100 feet off the ground when he knew he had a major problem. He had just taken off for a practice session around 10:30 a.m. when he pulled back -- a 7.5-G pull at 225 mph -- and felt something snap. At first he thought the stick had just broken off. (Scroll down for press conference video. If you've ever flown an airplane, you won't want to miss it.) He was able to regain marginal control with trim, but "the trim just wouldn't keep up with it." He climbed awkwardly to 9,500 feet while troubleshooting with his team on the ground and weighing his options. "This took a long time, about 25 minutes, burning off fuel" ... "That's a long time to be thinking about an emergency situation, a little too long. It was very poignant, it really affected me spirtually."
Pre-Egress, More Bumps In The Road (And On The Head)
Tucker had to weigh not only the risks to himself and his airplane, but to innocent people on the ground should he abandon the aircraft. "The last thing you want to do is save your life and kill somebody in the process." His ground crew acted quickly to direct him toward a soft plowed field nearby, and alerted emergency personnel, who shut down the freeway. He flew as high as 9,500 feet, trying to regain control, looking for options. "I was up and down and up and down and up and down," he said. Flying with air show fuel supply it wasn't long before he was down to his last gallon of gas, Tucker descended to about 8,000 feet and with what may best be described as reluctant resolve, he grabbed the red handles to set the canopy free and ducked. When it didn't fly off on its own, he gave it a quick punch and it returned the favor, giving him a bump that dented his helmet. It was almost time to jump.
One lap belt, off. The second lap belt off. He pushed himself free but a shoulder harness strap had a hard time letting him go. The drag from it twisted Sean's body as he left the cockpit and he found himself momentarily joined up with the tail section, "there are some flying wires under the tail, and I got stuck there." Describing the scene that followed, Tucker almost seemed like he was there again -- falling together with the aircraft through space. There in the press center, he reached out into the air and pushed at the space in front of him, then watched the biplane fall away. After stabilizing himself in freefall all the thinking was almost behind. "This is it!" Tucker said with a smile. It was almost over. It was time to pull the ripcord. "I didn't see the crash," he said. Somewhat constrained in the harness under canopy, he steered down to a safe landing, right near the emergency workers. Later he visited the crash site, miles from where he landed, and brought along to Lakeland a few of the parts he found there ... the shattered ends of the prop, and a ragged foot-square piece of broken airplane. The room was at times filled with laughter. It was just a room full of people, full of nervous energy. Each face filled with an "I can't believe it" awe that left them leaning toward every next word. And the joy of reality -- the good man who'd faced an event so dire is still here to tell the tale.
What's Next For Sean Tucker
So what now? Tucker is here at Sun 'n Fun ready for the debut of his new tour flying the Columbia 400 in a demonstration of upset recovery techniques. Will the aircraft at any time be inverted? We put the question to Tucker's public relations man who replied "oh, yeah" which somehow sounded a lot more like, "well, of course." Tucker also will start practicing in his backup airplane and will be ready to rejoin the airshow schedule in about two months, he said. The delay, he says, will be necessary to rebuild his g-tolerance after being away from his usual mount. And he plans to work with his team to build a new "magical dream machine" that will be even better than the one he lost this week. "We're okay and we're going to keep moving on," he said.
VIDEO: Sean Tucker Describes The Experience
AVweb has video of Sean Tucker's Challenger Biplane crash press conference available, now. You will want to see it for yourself. Please be patient. The file sizes are very large and combined with the volume of AVweb subscribers seeking to view the video, it is possible the AVweb.com web site could become slow to respond at various times throughout the day. It is possible you will have difficulty viewing the video at various times throughout the day. If you encounter any problems, please read the story, above, and try again, later ... in the afternoon. You may need to pause the player and wait for the file to load before attempting to play it. The video is listed below in two segments. We join Tucker's story soon after he's left the runway and has realized he is flying a broken airplane...