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Tucker’s 'Oracle Challenger III' arrives at Smithsonian

Udvar-Hazy wing reopens; World War II aviation exhibit announced

Airshow performer Sean D. Tucker carefully coaxed the iconic Oracle Challenger III biplane out of a truck and into a Smithsonian National Air and Space restoration hangar May 3 where it will be reassembled to act as a welcoming centerpiece when the "Thomas W. Haas We All Fly" general aviation exhibit opens in 2022.

  • Airshow pilot Sean D. Tucker and Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum specialist Dylan Hammond unload the "Oracle Challenger III" biplane at the Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center aircraft restoration facility in Chantilly, Virginia, May 3. The aircraft will be displayed in the "Thomas W. Haas We All Fly" general aviation exhibit when it opens in 2022. Photo courtesy of Jim Preston, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
  • Smithsonian staff assist aerobatic pilot Sean D. Tucker unloading the iconic "Oracle Challenger III" into the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar at Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center. Photo courtesy of Jim Preston, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
  • The "Oracle Challenger III" was transported nearly 3,000 miles by trailer from California to the Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center restoration hangar in Chantilly, Virginia. Photo courtesy of Jim Preston, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
  • Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum staff assist aerobatic pilot Sean D. Tucker as they unload the "Oracle Challenger III," presented to the museum by David Ellison on behalf of Tucker. Associate Director for Research and Curatorial Affairs Jeremy Kinney, Aeronautics Curator Dorothy Cochrane, Ellison’s assistant Matt Boehme, and Acting Director Chris Browne also were present. Photo courtesy of Mark Avino, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
  • Airshow pilot Sean D. Tucker helps unload a wing from the "Oracle Challenger III" at the Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center restoration hangar. Photo courtesy of Jim Preston, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
  • The "Oracle Challenger III" biplane will be displayed in an inverted position in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s "Thomas W. Haas We All Fly" general aviation exhibit when it opens in 2022. Photo courtesy of Jim Preston, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

The familiar red aircraft made its final journey in preparation for hanging inverted above guests entering the museum’s first GA-specific exhibit in more than 40 years.

Powered by a 400-horsepower Lycoming AEIO-540 engine and maneuvered with eight ailerons, the biplane with Tucker at the controls delighted scores of airshow spectators during countless snap rolls, half-Cubans, and hammerheads.

“It’s the most sophisticated aerobatic airplane out there,” Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Aeronautics Curator Dorothy Cochrane told The Washington Post. “No other plane has eight ailerons that I’m aware of.” The aircraft will act as a beacon for other GA achievements in the facility’s new exhibit space.

The display will celebrate GA and highlight sport, private, business, humanitarian, and utility flight. Plans also call for a Cessna 180 flown around the world by Geraldine "Jerrie" Mock in 1964, the oldest Gates Learjet, and a Cirrus SR22. The exhibition will include engaging videos along with interactive technology that will “explore the valuable impact of general aviation on society and encourage the public to join in,” the facility announced.

Tucker’s airplane was originally announced as the exhibit centerpiece in 2019 with intentions for it to be on display in 2021, but the coronavirus pandemic and other factors delayed the grand entrance. Social distancing measures that eliminated airshows, along with an economic slowdown, severely curtailed Tucker’s livelihood in the midst of his preparations for a new multi-ship airshow routine. The financial pressure on Tucker and his team led to an offer from fellow aerobatic pilot, Skydance Media founder, film producer, and friend David Ellison, who purchased the biplane and donated it to the museum on Tucker’s behalf.

“When you see those kids go into that National Mall during spring break, it is just like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ They’re so alive and vibrant and excited and in awe,” Tucker told the newspaper. “And to have that plane there welcoming them. … I’m not just some guy who wants to talk about the past. I want to talk about the future.” Tucker has a soft spot in his heart for youth and cofounded the Bob Hoover Academy in his Salinas, California, hometown to provide opportunity for at-risk teens to explore science, technology, engineering, and math concepts through aviation.

Udvar-Hazy Center reopens

After months of inactivity, the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, reopened on May 5, in time to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of Alan Shepard becoming the first American in space. The Freedom 7 capsule from that historic mission is on display along with a Blue Angels Boeing F–18. An X–wing prop from the film Star Wars: Episode IX—The Rise of Skywalker is in the restoration hangar being prepped for display in the Washington, D.C., facility in 2022.

Attendees are asked to practice social distancing when inside the building, and there’s a limit to the number of visitors each day. Free, timed entry passes are required in advance. Face coverings for those over the age of 2 are also required, museum staff said. Though the museum store is open, other amenities including the restaurant, IMAX theater, observation tower, and flight simulators are closed as a safety precaution until further notice.

World War II aviation exhibition planned

In February, a $10 million donation from the Kislak Family Foundation supported the creation of a new “World War II in the Air” exhibition. An additional $3 million donation from the Daniels Fund in honor of Bill Daniels will support construction of the gallery, which is scheduled to open in 2022. The World War II aviation exhibit will examine how the revolution in warfare “redefined the promise and peril of military aviation,” the museum announced. The exhibit will also explore the “dramatic changes to flight and culture that continue to reverberate through society today.” The exhibition will feature rare fighter aircraft such as the North American P–51D Mustang, the Eastern Aircraft (Grumman) FM–1 Wildcat, and the Messerschmitt Bf 109 G.

The renovation and expansion are part of the museum’s ongoing transformation of all its galleries at the flagship building in Washington, D.C. To date, more than 350 million people have visited the popular air and space exhibits. The museum effort began in 2018 and will feature the Nemesis air racer, the Turner RT–14 Meteor, and other artifacts in the “Nation of Speed” exhibit.

David Tulis

David Tulis

Associate Editor Web/ePilot
AOPA Associate Editor Web/ePilot David Tulis joined AOPA in 2015 and is a private pilot with single-engine land and sea ratings and a tailwheel endorsement. He is also a certificated remote pilot and co-host of the award-winning AOPA Hangar Talk podcast. David enjoys vintage aircraft and photography.
Topics: Public Benefit Flying, People, Aerobatics

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