The greatest showman-pilot of his generation was rendered speechless for several seconds when the bronze visage of his late friend and mentor, R.A. “Bob” Hoover, was placed in his hands. When the words returned, Sean D. Tucker spoke of a conversation with Hoover decades before that changed the way Tucker looked at airshows, and the responsibility carried by those whose mission includes inspiring aviation’s next generation.
Tucker said Hoover, who was arguably the most revered of all pilots and who died in October at age 94, was a “dear, dear friend” and mentor through much of Tucker’s 41-year airshow career. Hoover spoke to Tucker at their first meeting about the essence of an airshow pilot’s mission. It must be driven by a love of flying itself, Tucker recalled being told, “’but more importantly, you got to love the people you’re flying with, and you’re flying for.’” Behind the crowd line at every airshow there are dreamers who may one day become pilots, and help build the aviation community and carry the legacy forward. “’You hurt yourself… you’ll steal their dreams forever.'”
In the years that followed that first conversation at an Oregon airshow, Tucker and Hoover became friends. Another chat with Hoover left an impression on Tucker: On the matter of the ribbon cut, a crowd-pleasing routine that brings wingtips perilously close to the ground, Hoover was not pleased with Tucker’s approach.
“’You keep cutting ‘em that way, you’re going to bust your buttons,’” Tucker recalled his mentor telling him, mimicking Hoover’s folksy Texas twang. “’Just move it up ten feet, you’ll be fine.’”
AOPA President Mark Baker said the selection committee was unanimous in choosing Tucker as the recipient of the 2017 R.A. “Bob” Hoover Trophy, the second pilot to be so honored after Hoover himself. In 2016, Hoover agreed to have his name forever memorialized as a tribute to aviators whose airmanship, leadership, mentorship, and passion for aviation inspires a love of flight in countless others, and to introduce the honorees who would follow in a videotaped message. There was, Baker said, one condition:
“He said the second Hoover Trophy has to go to Sean D. Tucker,” Baker said, noting the committee needed no convincing. “Those were his words.”
Hoover’s own words, recorded for posterity in the last summer of his life, were a focal point of the AOPA-hosted ceremony that was streamed live (and remains posted for viewing) on the AOPA Facebook page.
“The most important thing any aviator can do is to encourage others to want to fly,” Hoover said, among the recorded remarks replayed for an audience both online and attending in person in the historic Terminal A lobby of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia.
AOPA also presented several other awards to lawmakers and individuals who have contributed to the aviation community. The Joseph B. “Doc” Hartranft Jr. Award, named for AOPA’s first president, was presented to Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) for his leadership and support of general aviation in Congress, joining past honorees Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.).
Rokita said AOPA’s connection to American exceptionalism runs deep.
“This belief in America’s unique status manifested itself in Doc Hartranft’s commitment to protecting and advocating for pilots. In 1938, the airlines had no shortage of access to Congress, and Doc saw the threat that could be to general aviation,” Rokita said. “In 1939, he founded this great organization to give us pilots a voice here in Washington and across the nation. For years, Doc was AOPA’s only employee, working tirelessly on our behalf. We can look around now and see that all of his hard work really paid off.”
AOPA presented Freedom to Fly Awards to 71 members of Congress for their dedication to preserving general aviation.
Pat Hartness was honored with the 2017 Laurence P. Sharples Perpetual Award recognizing his years of effort opening Triple Tree Aerodrome and building it into an aviation destination and engine of inspiration. The Sharples Award is given to individuals who do not work in aviation but have nonetheless made extraordinary contributions to GA. Baker also recognized Woody Lesikar for his work at West Houston Airport with an AOPA Presidential Citation.
Tucker accepted his own honor with the same humility that Hoover exemplified.
“I am no Bob Hoover, OK? There’s only one of those guys,” Tucker said. But, he added, “I can be the best Sean Tucker that I could ever be.”
Tucker said combined efforts of AOPA, the Experimental Aircraft Association (Tucker works tirelessly supporting the EAA Young Eagles program), the National Business Aviation Association, and other aviation groups on the regional and local levels, all working to inspire youth and engender a passion for flight, are making a difference, inspiring the youth of today who will be the mentors and leaders of tomorrow.
“This is a true movement that we have,” Tucker said. “We can be the best we can be using Bob as a metaphor to help us do that.”