It was two hours until the airshow would begin. Spectators were pouring into little Sussex Airport in the lush green hills of northwestern New Jersey, creating a festive atmosphere and a growing air of anticipation.
As the audience gathered, one of the performers stood leaning against his red Oracle Challenger, based on the Pitts S-2 Special. Fans came over to shake his hand and ask for an autograph. Many had seen his performance before and had marveled at his "Harrier" routine, in which he makes the Challenger perform like a helicopter as it slides slowly down the runway only a few feet in the air with its nose high.
It may be hard to believe, but this legendary performer who has thrilled hundreds of thousands with his aerial feats was a terrified cat during his early flight training.
"I was scared to death of stalls and spins," said Sean D. Tucker. "I was so scared I froze at the controls."
He was determined, however, to conquer that fear. "I took an aerobatic course to try to overcome it," he said. "When I rolled upside down the first time and came upright, I fell in love with aerobatics.
"I flew in my first airshow in 1976. I wasn't that good a pilot, but I thought I was. I didn't listen to a lot of older guys who said I was pushing the envelope too hard."
An incident in 1979 illustrated how right those older guys were. During practice, Tucker was forced to bail out of his Challenger. "I had the center of gravity so far off I couldn't recover from an inverted flat spin. I had to jump out.
"In those days, it was very hard to release the seat belt when there was weight against it. I struggled with it as we fell, and I was down to about 750 feet by the time I got out. As I was falling, I heard a crash and my parachute opened. I didn't have a fully developed canopy until I was about 100 feet above the ground, but I landed safely."
After that, he said, "I needed to grow up. I teach airshow pilots now, but I mandate that they go into competition before I fly with them, because it gives them a lot of discipline. It makes you a much safer pilot, a much more responsible pilot, a much more technically skilled pilot. If you want to be an airshow pilot, you need to be a competition pilot first."