The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Smithsonian Air and Space Museum lands famed aerobatic plane

Pilot Sean D. Tucker, foreground, flies his Challenger III custom biplane from eastern Long Island toward Manhattan to kick off Memorial Day weekend on May 23, 2014, in New York. (John Minchillo/AP Images for Team Oracle)

Sean D. Tucker is a veteran air show pilot who has spent much of his life between free-fall and flight, hovering between the heavens and the ground below.

But last year, the pandemic sent Tucker, who had just retired from a long career in solo, death-defying performances, into a kind of tailspin. Air shows across the world were canceled, grounding his new formation flying team. A recently signed multimillion-dollar corporate sponsorship evaporated overnight — along with much of his savings. He had to lay off 11 members of his air show team and sell two planes.

It seemed like Tucker could no longer afford to move forward with his plans to donate his aerobatic biplane, the Aviation Specialties Unlimited Challenger III, to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

But last week, after a year-long delay, the plane, previously sponsored by Oracle, made the journey from Salinas, Calif., to Chantilly, Va., where it awaits installation in the “We All Fly” gallery slated to open in fall 2022 at the museum on the National Mall.

As for the setbacks, Tucker said he took them in stride: “All pilots are optimists.”

After a nearly 3,000-mile trailer ride, the crimson biplane will soon be installed upside down at the exhibit’s entrance.

“People are going to see that and go, ‘Wow!’ and come in,” said Dorothy Cochrane, the exhibit’s curator. “That’s the whole point.”

Smithsonian and National Gallery of Art plan May reopenings

The exhibit will be a celebration of general aviation — highlighting sport, private, business, humanitarian and utility flight — and will show visitors how flight powers their lives in ways people don’t often consider, such as the food they eat and the medical services they depend on.

But it is being constructed during what has been one of the most challenging times for the industry. Air shows, business travel, manufacturing and myriad aviation jobs were brought to a sudden halt as images of planes parked at empty airports proliferated across the globe.

“We are now in the midst of the gravest crisis the aerospace industry has ever known,” said Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury in a statement last year.

But despite the pandemic’s changes to aviation, Cochrane hasn’t changed much in the gallery. It will showcase seven aircraft, including the oldest existing Learjet, a 1953 Cessna 180 that Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock flew around the world in 1964, becoming the first woman to do so — and of course, the Challenger III.

The plane’s path to the museum was not an easy one. Even before the pandemic, letting go of the Challenger was something Tucker described as “bittersweet” — it marked the end of his storied career as a solo aerobatics pilot. But it also represented an opportunity for Tucker to continue to inspire young people from the ground.

So when David Ellison, chief executive of Skydance Media, heard that his former mentor was struggling, he purchased the Challenger from Tucker and donated it to the Smithsonian on his behalf.

Tucker, known for his fearlessness behind the throttle, pushed the limits of aerobatic flying in the Challenger III, diving low to cut ribbons at high speeds and soaring high enough to seemingly stall the plane, only to tumble earthward. He performed alongside the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, one of a handful of civilian pilots to earn such an honor.

Tucker was named one of the “living legends” of flight in 2003 by the National Air and Space Museum and enshrined into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2008.

The plane is a feat of engineering. The Challenger III’s wings are equipped with eight ailerons — small, hinged panels on the wing that help control a plane’s roll or tilting motion — instead of the usual two or four, making the plane more maneuverable. Its pistons are drag-racing pistons, like those found in racecars. Its lightweight tube and fabric body and superpowered engine allowed Tucker to whip into tight barrel rolls and back-bending loops, dazzling crowds.

“It’s the most sophisticated aerobatic airplane out there,” Cochrane said. “No other plane has eight ailerons that I’m aware of.”

Parting ways with the Challenger III marks a shift in Tucker’s career. Before the pandemic, the 69-year-old was building a formation flying team in Arkansas. But as air shows were grounded, “everything just stopped,” Cochrane said.

Smithsonian gets a Blue Angels jet

The emergence of the coronavirus vaccine has brought new optimism into the air show world, said Jack Pelton, chief executive of the Experimental Aircraft Association. Shows are starting to crop up across the country.

Tucker shares Pelton’s optimism — hope crackles in his voice. But until he can secure a new sponsor, his team has been left in a holding pattern. It’s still his dream, Tucker said: “It’s only deferred.”

Tucker grew up dreaming of flight. As a child, he would sprint across his parents’ yard in Eagle Rock, Calif., attempting to launch himself into the air. “I’d run down that lawn and just take the leap of faith thinking that I’ll fly away from the Earth,” he said.

He spent his high school days helping his father, an aviation trial lawyer, file case documents that overflowed with images of mangled airplanes and disfigured bodies.

“It was kind of a dichotomy for me, because I was scared of it, but I believed in the freedom it represented,” he said.

Eventually, Tucker got his pilot’s license — but couldn’t shake his fear of flight. That was until he met his mentor, Amelia Reid, who owned an aerobatic flight school in San Jose. Their training started slowly, with simple rolls. When they didn’t crash, Tucker said, “Do it again.”

“She held me by the hand and helped me face my fears of flight,” Tucker said, “and I fell in love with the art form of aerobatics.”

Tucker started a crop-dusting business and began performing in air shows in 1976. When he won the U.S. National Advanced Aerobatic Championships in the late ’80s, sponsorships began streaming in.

Tucker joined Team Oracle in 2001 and jumped in the cockpit of the Challenger III in 2010 — pushing the plane and his body to the knife’s edge, performance after performance, year after year.

But after nearly four decades of pulling G-force and jerking his body through the rigors of a solo routine, Tucker is finding new ways to inspire the next generation of aviators. Beyond his formation team, Tucker has a flight school and provides ground and flight school training for underserved and at-risk teenagers through his foundation, the Bob Hoover Academy.

“You can’t find a better promoter of aviation, a more dynamic person,” Cochrane said. “His personality — it’s just explosive. And it’s contagious.”

Although the Challenger III will no longer take to the skies, it will be seen by visitors from all over under the bright lights and white-glove care of the Smithsonian.

“When you see those kids go into that National Mall during spring break, it is just like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ They’re so alive and vibrant and excited and in awe,” Tucker said. “And to have that plane there welcoming them. … I’m not just some guy who wants to talk about the past. I want to talk about the future.”