Who has the best job in the world? I recently spent some time with an elite group whose members have a strong claim to that title. They are some of the best in the world at what they do. What they do is great fun, very cool, and it saves lives. They’re the instructors at the Tutima Academy for Aviation Safety. Let’s go flying.
What’s the connection between the wild tricks aerobatic pilots do at air shows, and pilots of all kinds – corporate, commercial and private – making split-second, life-saving decisions in dangerous situations? The connection is training – more precisely aerobatic training. If a pilot has aerobatic training, he or she is much less likely to panic when they find themselves in what pilots refer to as “unusual attitudes.” As one of the Tutima Academy instructors said, “The time for a pilot to have his or her first experience flying upside down is not at 500 feet with their family in the plane.” Every pilot can benefit from aerobatic training, and this is the place to get it. Probably the best place in the world.
Sean D. Tucker – A Force of Nature
The driving force behind the Tutima Academy is world-renowned aerobatic pilot Sean D. Tucker. Sean is one of those larger-than-life, live-it-to-the-limit guys. When he isn’t perfecting (or further perfecting) his aerobatic skills, he’s engaged in two other pastimes for supermen: heli-skiing and cave diving.
After spending a few days with Sean, I can testify that his batteries never run down. He is Chuck Yeager, Jean-Claude Killy, Jacques Cousteau and the Energizer Bunny rolled into one. His iPhone videos would make a compelling reality show. Here are just of few of Sean’s numerous aerobatic accolades and accomplishments:
• The only civilian performer ever to be allowed to fly close formation with the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds, and he is an honorary Thunderbird, Blue Angel and Snowbird.
• Named one of the 25 “Living Legends of Flight” by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
• U.S. National Advanced Aerobatic Champion
• World Airshow Federation Champion
• International Council of Airshows Hall of Fame Inductee
• Undefeated Champion of the Championship Airshow Pilots Association Challenge
Sean has flown more than 1000 performances at more than 425 airshows, in front of more than 80 million fans. This year alone, almost 10 million people will see him perform. He practices his airshow routine three times a day. He is simply amazing.
Sean’s relationship with Tutima goes back to 1996. As Tutima USA President Gustavo Calzadilla recalls “Back then we were sponsoring him and his aerobatic team as he performed his amazing ‘skydance’ for millions of fans every year. His passion and energy for aviation is real and very contagious.”
Sean launched an eponymous aerobatic school in 1997. In 2000, seasoned aerobatic instructor and mechanic Ken Erickson joined the operation. Ken previously worked with airshow legend Wayne Handley. Ken has more than 10,000 hours in sailplanes and powered aircraft. He also holds an airframe and powerplant mechanic’s rating with inspection authorization. He has flown in both aerobatic competition and airshows.
During our visit, Ken was my instructor, and I had the pleasure of sharing a conversation with him over dinner. He is the paradigm of quiet confidence. I can only say it was an honor to meet him, and to ride along with him as he danced through the sky.
After a flight Ken looks humble, and I have a huge grin that would not go away.
In 2002, the school moved to more spacious facilities in King City, along California’s central coast. The location offers 360 days of flyable VFR weather per year, and during our visit we enjoyed beautiful, calm conditions.
The Tutima Academy of Aviation Safety is Born
Calzadilla picks up the story. “Around 2005, with the rapid growth in private and fractional aircraft ownership, we came together with the purpose of improving the skills of pilots by creating a Safety Academy. The Tutima Academy of Aviation Safety was born in 2006 with Sean D. Tucker as its leader.” The Academy offers the highest level of precision flight training available. See the Academy’s official website for more information about the programs offered.
Speaking about the relationship, Sean says “I’ve been involved with Tutima for more than 15 years, and they‘ve been my partner in aeronautics for that long because they saw my passion for flying, they saw how much I love what I do. In 2006 we opened the Tutima Academy and I just love this place. Number one, we get to save lives, and number two, we get to share the magic of flight – we get to teach people how to dance in the sky.”
As you might expect, Sean has surrounded himself with world-class instructors. Ben Freelove moved to California in 2001 to pursue his love of flying. Ben has logged over 6,500 hours in more than forty different types of aircraft. He’s a member of the USA Advanced Aerobics team. I’ve included video links at the end of the article.
The team’s newest member is Chelsea Engberg. Chelsea started flying while in college in 2002. Since then she has become a certified flight instructor and an aerobatic pilot. After receiving the Red Barons Memorial Scholarship in 2006, Chelsea began training at the Tutima Academy, and she’s still there.
Tutima’s sponsorship of the Academy is one of many direct connections between the brand and aviation. About its support for the Academy, Calzadilla says “Tutima’s objective has been to give back to the aviation community by creating a unique training platform which safes lives. As a manufacturer of aviation and military chronographs, our watches have been used as instruments of reference and timing for pilots of over 70 years.”
Tutima’s longstanding connections with aeronautics at the highest levels are historical fact, not marketing hype. Tutima produced watches for the German Air Force beginning in the 1930s. In 1983, following a months-long competition among several leading watch manufacturers, the German Armed Forces selected the Tutima Military Chronograph as their official watch. In 1985, Tutima became the official supplier to NATO as well.
Our Visit to the Academy
Tutima brought a small group of journalists from the U.S. and Germany to experience the Academy first-hand. We arrived the day before the flying began, so we could get an early start. Day 1 began with a briefing by Sean about what we would experience, followed by basic parachute instruction from Chelsea. I paid close attention to the parachute training, hoping the information would prove to be of no use.
The Academy’s training aircraft include an Extra 300L, the premier aerobatic, sport and professional aircraft on the market today. The 300L is the only certified unlimited-category aerobatic aircraft approved to plus/minus 10gs. That’s more than fighter jets pull. I was told that during certification, the 300L was actually tested to 26gs and it did not break.
I was in a Pitts Special S-2B, which felt like the Lotus Elise of the skies. Tiny inputs generate instant response. Ken told me the Pitts makes a great aerobatic training platform. “The best thing about it is that it does exactly what you tell it. The worst thing about it is that it does exactly what you tell it.” If there are any flaws in your technique, the Pitts will find them, so you can fix them.
During the first flight, the instructor was in control. I sat in the front seat and kept my hands well clear of the control stick. The ride was a hoot. We did barrel rolls, loops, and hammerheads – basic tricks for seasoned pilots, but for mere journalists, they really got the adrenaline flowing.
Landing the Pitts takes some practice, because you don’t have a good view of the runway. Ken related a pilot joke: “A good landing is one you can walk away from. A great landing is one where you can use the airplane again.”
After lunch, the real fun started. Once airborne, we received some basic instruction, then we were given control of the planes. It was intense. The morning flight – as a passenger – was like the world’s best rollercoaster. With the stick in my hand, it was like a rollercoaster that could fly off the tracks at any second.
At the end of Day 1, the planes had to be flown to another airport, and I had a chance to sit next to a large hole in the side of a Piper Seneca where the door was supposed to be. I was tethered to the plane, so if I fell out, I would not fall far (or so I was told). I shot photos while Sean did tricks next to us in the custom plane he flies as leader of the Oracle Flight Team.
The next morning professional aeronautic photographer Jessica Ambats flew up from Santa Monica to snap shots of us doing some formation flying over the central California coast. At the end of the article is a link to some video I shot while riding with Jennifer in the Seneca.
Once we’d been photographed, we had some free time. I’d seen Sean doing some amazing tumbling tricks while he was practicing his routine, and I was eager to experience something like that. Ken obliged and we did a few tricks, including one called a “lomcevak.” Ken told me it’s a Czeck word. I thought maybe it meant “lunch coming up”, but some online research revealed that it means headache or hangover – a reference to how the trick makes the pilot feel. Also it is apparently the only aerobatic maneuver where every surface on the aircraft is completely stalled. All I can say is that whoever came up with the word “discombobulated” probably did it right after doing a lomcevak. I’ve included a link to a video of this maneuver at the end of the article.
Below are two of the many amazing images Jessica captured.
Experiencing the Academy first-hand and meeting the professionals behind it left me with deep respect for the work Tutima, Sean, and the rest of the team do, and with a sense of awe at their skill and the things they can make an airplane do. They don’t defy gravity and physics as much as they use them to their advantage, no matter what the situation. Hats off to Tutima for supporting this amazing group of pilots, and kudos to the pilots for putting their knowledge to work helping make other pilots better.
Click the following links to access resources related to this story.
Tutima Academy of Aviation Safety official website
Tutima Academy Podcast – Episode 1 (8:48 video)
Tutima official website
Lomcevak (14 second video – not a Tutima Academy pilot)
Jessica Ambats shooting the Tutima Academy pilots (4:53 video)
Sean D. Tucker’s Airshow (10:22 video)
Sean Tucker Aerobatics (2:44 video)
Sean in the Oracle Challenger (2:29 video)
Tutima: Partner in Aeronautics (5:21 video)
Here is a sampling of student testimonials and other resources relating to the Tutima Academy:
USA Aerobatic Team (4:04 video)
Horizontal Rain – A Day with the Tutima Academy