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Dear Readers,

The following interview is a sample from the chapter ďAstral AviatorsĒ in my forthcoming book, StarWords: Inspirational Conversations with Extraordinary Monterey Peninsulans. It was conducted on Oct. 6, 2002:

Stardust Inspiration: Renowned acrobatic flyer, Sean Tucker, lives a life of daring, thrill seeking and pressing the package thatís known mostly to ego-maniacal macho men. Yet he is one of the kindest, most down-to-earth people Iíve interviewed. He maintains a loving family and hangar of friendships. And his spiritual quest is most inspiring. He has reached for the stars and, therein, found a deeply rewarding life. His words ring in my mind: ďIt blows me away how short life is. Our lives are all on the edge, but Iím in touch with it more often. You learn how very precious tomorrow is.Ē Not to mention, his written words to me regarding StarWords: ďGood luck Susan (fly free).Ē

Flier Sean Tucker has the Right Stuff

To be in the presence of Sean Tucker of Salinas, who has won every aerobatic airshow competition in the world, is to brush stardust off your sleeves after being sideswiped by a comet. His energy on the ground is as exponential as it is in the air, where he and his custom biplane enthrall air-show crowds by tumbling end-over-end, flying tail-first, upside down and straight up, blazing colored smoke and fireworks.

His adrenaline-pumping brushes with death keep him so present that, at 50, he may have lived more life than someone twice his age.

ďYouíre dancing, rocking to the music, at one with the sky and plane,Ē he says. ďItís a cool feeling. Youíre in the moment, right now, and time stops. Thatís as close as you can be to being a spirit.Ē

Before each flight, he gets away from all distractions and visualizes the flight. ďI calm my thinking by doing yoga breathing and listening to Enya. In the quiet zone I get energized.Ē

As maniacal as his maneuvers look, he says theyíre planned and rehearsed with such precision that his body becomes one with the plane, his arms the wings.

Hard to believe the man is a klutz on the dance floor.

We meet at his hangar, at Salinas Municipal Airport, where his black BMW 3-Z is parked outside and his screaminí orange flying machine, with ďOracleĒ emblazoned on the side, is parked inside. He grins like a tanned, blonde beach boy and offers me a seat at a flimsy card table.

His energy is infectious.

Q: Why are you so effervescent?
A: In my life, I canít think on a negative level or Iíll die, because of the margins I live on. That would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I visualize winning. It blows me away how short life is. Our lives are all on the edge, but Iím in touch with it more often. You learn how very precious tomorrow is.

Q: Youíve been called a skygod. How do avoid a bloated ego?
A: (Laughs) Iím very proud of my accomplishments. Iím also humble they could be taken away in a heartbeat if I step over the line. This isnít basket weaving 101. I canít afford to have a bad day. Your ego will kill you if you start believing your own press. But you have to have a very high level of self confidence.

Q: Why are you so good at it?
A: Because I work real hard. I was never a gifted aviator. I was gifted for my passion but it didnít come easy. I practice three times a day - minimum - and exercise at the gym at least six times a week (he laughs and flexes his biceps).

Q: Who introduced you to flying?
A: My father was a lawyer/pilot. I had my first plane ride at 14. I remember it was a foggy morning, before dawn, and he had to climb up through clouds. The sun was just coming up and I got it then, about the magic of flight. Iíll never forget that: the vivid colors, the sound of the airplane, brilliant yellow and red hues as the sun came up reflecting off the clouds. Thatís what hooked me. Thereís a peace up there.

Q: Devilís advocate: Air-show spectators secretly wish for a spectacular accident.

A: Whatís so compelling at air-shows is that people live vicariously through you. I try to communicate this freedom and passion you can have for the sky. I feel itís performance art. Iíve seen my friends die at air shows. People turn around and leave. There is that sense of macabre drama that potentially an accident could happen. But I donít think they really want something to happen. Air-show flying is extreme and dangerous. We donít walk away like the Indy 500 racers do.

Q: Your students are seasoned fliers, but what are the fatal foibles of first pilots?
A: Number one is ignorance of their limitations. The perfect example is JFK Jr. I knew him personally. He was ignorant going to Marthaís Vineyard that night with bad weather. He needed more experience with flying instruments.

Q: And John Denver?
A: I knew him too. He was very mature and competent. But it was a new piece of equipment and he didnít have the experience with the fuel management system. It was ignorance again . . . The next (foible) is ego. Ego will absolutely kill you in this business: extending your own personal technical skills to achieve a goal for accolades. One thing about the sky, eventually, it will hold you accountable. Iíve flown over 19,000 hours and Iíve made my mistakes, and learned from them.

Q: How many of your nine lives have you used up?
A: Golly, not many in the last 12 years. It was preceding my marriage that I used up quit a few. I had no death perception. (Laughs) I jumped out of my first air-show airplane in Ď79 and lost a dream (the craft). Then I had to grow up and get a real job, crop-dusting. It was the best thing that happened in my life. I worked with Wayne Handley and perfection was the only word he would use. He was my god. He taught me how to always give 110 percent.

Q: What do you fear?  a) taxes  b) poverty  c) failure
A: Taxes. Iíve learned to pay on time. My definition of failure is abusing the gifts youíve been given. Iím afraid mostly of blowing my successes - both spiritually and technically as an aviator. Iíve been broke before, so thatís easy. Iíve been lucky to get to make a very good living . . . Larry Ellison, heís the CEO of Oracle, my sponsor, says failure is not in his vocabulary and heís one of the richest guys in the world.

Q: How did you perform in ďBaywatchĒ?
A: I flew upside down at 250 mph, 10 feet over the actorsí heads, and they hit the dirt. They werenít supposed to, but every time I flew over them, it was reflex.

Q: The wildest thing youíve ever done aside from flying?
A: In wintertime Iím helicopter-dropped onto a peak in the Canadian Rockies to ski. Thereís powder flying over my shoulders and Iím touching the mountain, flowing . . . Next week Iím going underwater cave diving in Yucatan. A mile underwater sometimes you see Danteís hell. Itís a nightmarish place. Then you go through other passages and youíll see where God lives, with bright stalactites, and the water is crystal clear. My son and I learned to do this together and it changed our lives because we faced the fear and talked about it.

Q: When did you become a man?
A: When I had my first child. Because all of a sudden, until I saw him, I had to do the Ricky Ricardo thing. I had to wait in the waiting room and I was praying while she was having a C-section. Thatís when I really grew up.

Q: You have absolute control in the air, but in what areas of life are you willing to relinquish control?
A: I donít give a darn about money. My wife (Colleen, of 25 years) takes care of all that. I donít care about the kind of clothes I wear or a social agenda. I had to ask Colleen if I could afford to buy my 2002 (BMW) M3.

Q: Have you grabbed the big brass ring or are you still on the merry-go-round?
A: Iím ahold of the ring and still on the merry-go-round. Iím so happy and satisfied with where my life is going. I have so much more to learn. Thoughts of retiring arenít even there.

Universal Update: It had been a few years since Tucker and I interviewed, and I needed a photo for the book. He said sure, he could meet me at his Salinas hangar. How about 5:30 p.m.? He had a class to teach there, after which he would fly to Mammoth Lake to ski, and then return to Salinas for another class. Obviously, he was still going full-tilt boogie . . . He was tanned and trim as ever and gave me a huge hug. Then he dragged his lightweight craft out of the hangar and humored me for several photos. Afterward, he waved me goodbye saying, ďFollow your dream. Follow your dream.Ē



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