Aerobatic pilots are a different breed of human than you and I. This is clear from the moment Sean D. Tucker saunters into the spotless Alliance Airport hangar, all cool confidence and swagger as he flashes a toothy grin and grips my hand in a firm shake. While he's probably old enough to receive a senior discount at Denny's, he exudes a boyish energy that belies his years while his precise movements and purpose hint at plenty of experience. Into this stranger's hands I am placing my life.
Earlier I'd told Ian Nilsen, the Team Oracle member who coordinates my ride and sort of acts as my minder, that while I enjoy roller coasters I'm not so great with dizzying, spinning rides. "That's OK, Sean can adjust the ride so it won't make you sick," he says. "We don't want you to leave with a bad taste in your mouth, figuratively or literally."
Nilsen helps me into a parachute and tells me how to use it, making sure I can repeat the simple but crucial steps back to him. Basically, you open two latches on your seat harness, do whatever it takes to get out of the plane and yank the steel D-ring ripcord.
"Have you ever used yours?" I ask. "No, I've never jumped," he says. "Ask Sean, though, and you'll get a different answer." I don't know whether to be comforted by this or not.
Later, shooting the breeze with maintenance crew members and photographers, someone asks how often people do end up losing their lunch. "Probably one in 20," he says. "With Sean, more like one in seven."
The reason becomes apparent why this is as we taxi down the runway in Oracle One, a single-prop German-built Extra 300L. This is a man who exudes confidence in himself, yes, but he also inspires you to push your own limits. As we get to know each other a bit over the radio headset in between staticky bursts of air-traffic control chatter, I mention that for another story I competed in and ended up winning a corn-dog eating contest.
"Oh, you're an animal," he says. "You're the wild and crazy guy at the paper, huh?" Not exactly, I protest, but he's rolling. "You can handle this. Tell you what, I'm gonna give you a rough ride. You're gonna love it."
I guess I'd rather err on the side of "wild and crazy" during a once-in-a-lifetime chance like this. What's a little airsickness? After all, there's a Ziplock "lunch bag" neatly Velcroed in place right in front of me. I lean my head back and feel something hard behind my head, then realize too late that I'm not wearing a helmet. "I was expecting to wear a helmet," I comment. "It's OK, I've got one on," Tucker says with a laugh. Once again, I don't know whether to be comforted or scared by this until he adds "I've never had anyone bang their head, though."
We take off and, while the flat, treeless drought-parched grass surrounding the Alliance Airport in Fort Worth doesn't make a very picturesque sight from above, the sight is nonetheless breathtaking.
After a few minutes of heading toward clear airspace, the plane suddenly yet smoothly spirals, sending us arcing upside down and then back down to horizontal. Then, to allow photographer Mike Mezeul to snap more air-to-air shots from a Piper Seneca flying impossibly close to us, we curl upward again until we're upside-down again and hold the pose for what feels like 10 minutes. I'm speechless looking up at the ground through the canopy.
"All right, you ready for the ride?" Tucker asks as we level back to right-side-up. That wasn't the ride?
Oh no, not even close. Over the next few minutes he takes the plane through impossible corkscrews, loops and drops us straight toward the earth, the engine sputtering out at times and catching again. It is terrifying and absolutely the most exhilarating thing I can imagine. I had no idea planes were capable of these kind of maneuvers.
"I'm gonna float you now," he says, and we arch up in a parabolic pattern. I didn't realize it at the time, but I this is what causes the negative Gs that can cause burst blood vessels or detach retinas. We'd agreed to stay "positive," meaning keeping the G forces above zero, but by this point I'm convinced Tucker is a superhuman and have complete trust that we'll survive. Then at one point during an inverted something or other nausea starts creeping in, but I try not to let on. Then as we plummet to the earth, the plane spinning impossibly fast, it's overwhelming. As the plane levels out, I say, "OK, I think that's about my limit." I mean that I don't want to do anything more intense than that, but Tucker thinks I mean I'm done for the day.
"Well, do you want to pull 7 Gs just to say you did it? The worse that can happen is you'll pass out, but you'll wake up like 10 seconds later and be fine."
Somehow in the moment, this seems perfectly rational. "Sure."
Imagine a loop-de-loop on a roller coaster accelerating to 300 mph, except there is no track, you're 3,000 feet rather than a few hundred feet above ground, and God is wringing every organ in your body. To my surprise, my vision doesn't gray out or tunnel the way I expect. I'm remembering advice Mezeul gave me: Keep breathing and have fun. Thankfully, it's only later that I find out untrained people typically black out at 5.
Then for some reason, Tucker decides to hand over the controls to me even then 95 percent of my blood is in my feet, an unexpected surprise. Nilsen had earlier asked if I played videogames, then seemed skeptical about whether I could be trusted with the controls when I said, "On occasion." The stick is incredibly responsive. Just nudging it over an inch results in a quick barrel roll. It is addictive and remarkably intuitive. We barrel roll again and Tucker decides it's time to call it a day.
We land and I'm soaked in sweat, focusing hard to keep my breakfast down, thankful that I'd skipped lunch before our 3 p.m. ride. I look at the dials in the plane, which leave indicator needles at peaks, and see that we actually hit 8 Gs and went as low as -2.5. Though the air up there was chilly, I'm soaked in sweat.
Incredibly, the Oracle Bi-Plane in which Tucker performs his aerial stunts for air show crowds is even more capable. "The Extra is like a Ferrari, but Sean's is like a purpose-built Formula One racer," Nilsen tells me. "They're both very high-performance vehicles, but the biplane is one-of-a-kind."
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Unfortunately, unless you're an Oracle customer -- the CIO of Yahoo! would follow my ride that day, though Tucker said he wouldn't put him through the wringer the way he had to me -- the only way to experience it is through aeronautical training at Tutima Academy in King City, California. I couldn't have cared less about planes before the ride, but I'm already wondering if I can somehow get a pilot's license and do just that.
Till then, I'll settle for watching from the ground, a much more reasonably priced thrill: After $20 parking, admission to the Alliance Air Show this weekend is free. Other performers include the USAF Thunderbirds, aerobatic races, military demonstrations and more.
More photos by Mike Mezeul after the jump!