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.
Sean in one of his custom planes, and a framed thank you from the Thunderbirds.
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.”
Tutima USA President Gustavo Calzadilla with an Academy plane.
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’s on the left, and I have a huge grin.
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.
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.”
The Tutima Academy hangar, after most of the planes have been rolled out.
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.
Ben (background) does pre-flight checks with journalist Peter Braun.
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.
Chelsea with the Academy’s hottest plane, which she flies.
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.
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