Pilot and reporter: Their dance in the sky
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Editor's note: Newsday reporter Tania Lopez had a thrilling taste of this weekend's air show, flying over the Atlantic with famed stunt pilot Sean D. Tucker. He calls it dancing in the sky.
To veteran stunt pilot Sean D. Tucker, flying is an art form that requires humility, because to him it's spiritual.
"We all fly in our dreams, even if you don't remember it," he said. "For me, I have been so in love with this notion called flight ever since I've been a little boy."
Tucker, 60, of Monterey, Calif., said it took "many, many years" to get to his level as an airborne daredevil -- surviving his early, dangerous tendencies to show off.
He's logged more than 24,000 hours in flight and performed in more than 2,000 live shows. His numerous accolades include being named one of 25 "Living Legends of Flight" by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Tucker and his bright-red Oracle Challenger III biplane are scheduled to perform from 1:45 to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday during this weekend's Bethpage Air Show at Jones Beach, featuring the Navy's Blue Angels.
Tucker, many say, has invented breathtaking moves that have yet to be duplicated.
"I consider it an art form because it moves and provokes people, and it's a dance," he said. "I'm still pressing my own personal boundaries, and what a statement that is to be able to live your life, live your passion and still learn at my age."
He's an adventurer at heart. When he's not in the air, he's skiing, cave diving and mountain climbing. Earlier this year, he scaled Mount Kilimanjaro.
The Challenger, which he helped develop, boasts 400-plus horsepower and can reach speeds up to 300 mph -- or 100 mph backward. During the off-season, the plane is dismantled and given a thorough safety inspection. The wings, fashioned from spruce and hand-stitched fabric, are rebuilt each season.
Tucker, who flies for Team Oracle, took a Newsday reporter along for a "dance" Thursday in a two-seat, single-wing stunt plane.
First, he waited for the clouds to part, creating what he called "holes in the sky." Raindrops trickled down the windows of the Oracle Extra 300L as it left Republic Airport and set out for the Atlantic.
Over the dark-green water, Tucker rolled the plane and began flying upside-down. Schools of fish and other marine life could be seen through the water.
From above, the barrier islands seemed small, the houses not as grand. Everything seemed geometric, including the aerobatic maneuvers Tucker performed.
The pilot executed graceful barrel rolls through the clouds. Minutes later, without warning, he put his plane through high-speed, stomach-turning aileron rolls, corkscrewing through the sky.
Afterward, he talked about how flying puts him on a different level of awareness.
"Your spirituality and awareness of who we are as souls is at a heightened level when you fly," he said.
"I actually, humbly, to this day, know that this is a privilege, what I get to do."