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Cockpit courage: ‘Get up and live’

Jim Tucker had a promising career ahead of him as a FedEx DC-10 captain. But an attack by a suicidal coworker who attempted to commandeer and crash their FedEx jet in 1994 left him and his fellow crewmembers fighting for their lives.

Tucker described their fight to survive—and his dogged recovery from life-threatening injuries—in an interview on the AOPA Live stage and a forum, “Cockpit Courage,” at AOPA Aviation Summit. After years of physical and cognitive therapy, he returned to the skies as pilot in command thanks in large part to the creation of the light sport category and now flies a Luscombe 8A.

Jim TuckerTucker was flying right seat when the attacker, a martial arts expert wielding a 20-ounce framing hammer and other weapons, assaulted the crew and tried to take down the airplane. Though they each sustained serious injuries, they fought back—hard. Tucker described rolling the airplane 140 degrees on its back, using one hand because his other side was paralyzed, while his fellow crewmembers struggled with the attacker. At one point all three crewmembers left the cockpit to confront the attacker. 

The crew was able to land the airplane, and the hijacker was sentenced to life in prison. But Tucker’s challenges had only just begun. Flying, even amidst the chaos of the attack, came as second nature to him, he explained. What followed was a physical, mental, and emotional challenge.

“They told me when I went home that it was going to be tough, that it was going to be different,” he said. He couldn’t even negotiate stairs at first, he explained, and even though he could remember the Latin root of words he could not remember what they meant. He persevered through tough physical and cognitive therapy with the goal of returning to the air as a professional pilot. When he learned that would not be possible, he was devastated.

In fact, Tucker continued with a remarkable recovery. While he had been “pretty much a stranger to the ground,” he adapted to a new kind of life. And he didn’t give up on flying. He went on to fly an ultralight Airbike and now flies a Luscombe 8A, an aircraft he said is in many ways more satisfying than flying the big jets.

“You can lay down and let life walk all over you or you can get up and live. … I had my faith I had my family, and I was getting better all the time.”

Find out more about Tucker’s compelling story in “ My Salvation.” —AOPA ePublishing staff

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