Photography by Patrick Giusti
Puttering along over California’s Salinas Valley in a 1946 Piper J–3 Cub with the doors removed wasn’t what Tanya Trejo had in mind last year when she bid for a day of aerobatic training with Sean D. Tucker in the AOPA Foundation A Night for Flight online auction. Then again, neither was the Seattle resident expecting a dinner with the Tucker family while being serenaded by a seven-piece mariachi band, nor flights for her husband, Keane Watterson. These were a few extras that surprised Trejo during her aerobatic training session with Tucker in an Extra 300L at the Tutima Academy of Aviation Safety at Mesa Del Rey in King City, California.
Tucker isn’t known for subtlety, and true to his nature, he pulled out all the stops for the auction item winner. The dinner and mariachi band were a coincidence; their performance is not an everyday occurrence at the Tucker household.
“It felt like being on a scooter,” Trejo said of the wind rushing by in the Cub during her flight with Ian Nilsen, a Team Oracle member with Tucker who is in charge of the Cub and sponsor fulfillment. She later compared it to a “safe grandpa car” that one could “jump in and go.”
“The Extra definitely is not,” she said. With a never-exceed speed of 220 knots and 340-degree-per-second roll rate, the Extra 300L is an “elegantly built” aircraft with balanced controls that deliver “a delicious experience,” Tucker said.
This wasn’t Trejo’s first experience flying aerobatics with Tucker. She received a promotional flight with Tucker through sponsor Team Oracle during Seattle’s annual Boeing Air Show at Seafair Weekend in August 2010. Even though Trejo thought her flight with Tucker was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it sparked an interest in aviation. Trejo later signed up for flight training in a Diamond DA20 with flight instructor Chris Smith at Galvin Flying Service at Boeing Field/King County International in Seattle.
“While I wanted to fly as a kid, I never pursued it and at 37 had never been in a small plane. It was life altering. Literally. My flight with Sean last summer inspired me to just go do it and learn how to fly,” Trejo wrote to AOPA soon after her June flight experience. Now she has more than 17 hours of flight training.
When she began training, Trejo asked pilot friend Jim Rooney what she should do as a new student pilot. His response? Join AOPA. After Trejo joined, she learned about AOPA Aviation Summit; travel plans conflicted with the dates of the convention, but Tucker’s flight training experience in the A Night for Flight auction caught her eye.
Tanya Trejo got more than she bargained for after a once-in-a-lifetime flight with Sean D. Tucker (above at right).
“Not one to let a little thing like lack of a pilot’s certificate get in my way—why crawl when you can fly?—I got a little ahead of myself and bid on the auction,” Trejo wrote. Later, she joked that Watterson is a very wise husband—he stopped short of reminding her that she didn’t have her pilot certificate when she told him she was bidding on the auction item.
Starting out between 4,000 and 5,000 feet msl, Tucker and Trejo performed basic aerobatic maneuvers including the loop, ballistic roll (similar to an aileron roll), hammerhead, Cuban 8, and spin. Trejo said that in the context of aerobatic maneuvers, spins “aren’t that crazy.” Tucker judged Trejo’s comfort level before bringing her down to his aerobatic box to “show her that world of mine,” performing more aggressive maneuvers and pulling 4Gs.
“I never felt safer in an airplane than with Sean Tucker,” Trejo said, calling the professional aviator a “great teacher” who reviewed the maneuvers with her on the ground and explained risk management and the importance of always having an out.
Tucker overcame a fear of flying to become a world-renowned aerobatic pilot, so he has a “true reverence for what flying is all about,” he said, and respects his passengers’ emotions so that flying is an enjoyable experience. He connected with Trejo by discussing margins of safety—that the aircraft can be operated safely upside down, in a loop or roll, or twirling. Trejo, an IT professional, regularly uses risk management principles to oversee projects and said she enjoys drawing parallels between piloting and work.
“It was so nice to share it with someone who is just learning,” Tucker said. “I think she learned a lot,” he said, adding that if he inspired her, “I did my job.” That he did. Not just for Trejo but for her husband as well.
Trejo’s husband, Keane Watterson, catches the aviation bug after a surprise flight in a J-3 Cub (above) and Extra 300.
Watterson received two flights in the Cub and an “E ticket” experience with Tucker in the Extra 300L. Tucker gives his passengers a choice of experiences, ranging from a gentle “A ticket” to the peak experience “E ticket.” Watterson opted for a “B” but quickly upgraded.
“He had a blast,” Tucker said of the software development company engineering executive, “He was just screaming.” During the 13-minute flight, the two moved from maneuver to maneuver, pulling 5 Gs and doing things with the aircraft “I didn’t know were possible,” Watterson said of the routine that was “unlike any sensory experience I’ve ever felt before.” The experience of flight in a light general aviation aircraft alone was pretty new. This was only his third time in a small aircraft.
Trejo said she and Watterson want to do aerobatics, but for now, she’s focusing on completing her flight training, and he plans to take lessons someday. “I think we might have hooked him now,” Trejo said.
Watterson confirmed. “I’ve always supported Tanya,” he said, explaining that he supported her efforts to become a pilot and looked forward to flying with her once she earned her certificate. But the flight with Tucker expanded his horizon. “It really has sparked a desire to learn to fly. Now I really want to grab the controls myself.”
“I certainly envy birds now,” Watterson said.
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Sean Tucker's training experience was one of 96 items donated to the AOPA Foundation's inaugural A Night for Flight Auction last year. In total, the online auction and a benefit dinner at AOPA Aviation Summit in November raised $250,000 for the foundation. All of the proceeds from the Tucker experience went to the foundation.
"I've been given so many gifts in aviation, this is my payback," Tucker said of participating in the auction. Being a part of something larger to benefit general aviation and flying with Trejo and Watterson was a "true privilege," he added.
A Night for Flight auction, which the foundation plans to make an annual event, raises money to fund efforts to increase pilot safety, grow the pilot population, educate the public about the value of community airports, and improve the perception of general aviation. "The auction is just one way the foundation raises money to safeguard the future of GA," said AOPA Foundation President Bruce Landsberg. "Not only do bidders get a great deal, they can do a great deal to help save GA."
The funds raised last year helped the foundation reach more than 44,000 pilots through safety seminars and Webinars and provide online safety courses and quizzes that totaled more than 876,000 completions. The foundation helped 14,000 new pilots fly safely last year and helped AOPA preserve GA airports. The auction also boosts GA now. Nearly all of the items in the auction are aviation related, from new aircraft to flight training to destination vacations, allowing winning bidders to support GA while enjoying it at the same time.
AOPA Vice President of Communications Andrew Broom reached out to Tucker, whom he dubbed a "GA ambassador," to participate. "He not only said 'Yes,' but 'Heck yes,'" Broom said. "He gave back in a way that raised a significant amount of money for the foundation's efforts but left a lasting impression on the bidder."
"GA is what's defined me and my life through flight," Tucker said. Because of that, he seeks opportunities, including the A Night for Flight auction, to mentor and reach out to fellow pilots and aviation enthusiasts. "I consider it an honor to share it with others." Tucker is a strong supporter of AOPA and the AOPA Foundation's efforts to protect GA and keep it healthy. "Through flight you can make the world a better place," he said. While he's doing his part, Tucker encourages all pilots to rally behind GA. "If we're gonna get GA starts … it's important that every pilot make an effort to share the magic of flight," he said. "Every single pilot, not just Sean Tucker. We forget sometimes how lucky we are."
Tucker already has donated the flight training experience to the 2011 A Night for Flight auction. "We are indebted to Sean and other aviation celebrities who have so generously donated their time to our cause," Landsberg said. "If you win the bid, imagine the story you can tell to other pilots and to your grandkids!"
Aviators of any experience level, or nonpilots for that matter, can bid for the flight training experience: He tailors flights to the student's comfort level. Even in the early stages of her flight training, Trejo said the experience "helped cement the energy management that my primary flight instructor and I had been talking about. … Our lessons have given me context around stalls, the experience of a spin and gaining some comfort around unusual attitudes. I can't wait to apply my knowledge in a DA20 and think that every pilot could learn something from this training."
Bidding in A Night for Flight runs from August 11 through September 22. The day of aerobatic training with Tucker is sure to be another top draw. There's just one thing to keep in mind before bidding: Mariachi band not included.