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Air and Water Show veteran to perform final Chicago show before solo retirement

Sean Tucker at Gary Airport August 16, 2018 on media day for Chicago Air and Water Show. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

Sean Tucker plans to fly by eight more cities on his road to retirement from a decades-long solo career as an aerobatic pilot. The second of those will be this weekend’s annual Air and Water Show in Chicago, which he calls “America’s best city.”

Tucker, 66, performed in his first air show in 1976 and has for more than 20 years kept fans returning to the Chicago event. In 2003, he was selected by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum as one of 25 “living legends of flight.”

Now, the museum is building a new aviation exhibit, where Tucker’s quintessential red Team Oracle airplane will hang upside-down for 30 years at the entrance.

“That is one of the highest honors an aviator could receive,” Tucker said. Even though it was hard to let go of his Oracle Challenger III, “my gut said, ‘Give it to the Smithsonian, huge honor, and close this chapter in your career and start the next chapter.”

Sean Tucker flies over Chicago on media day for Chicago Air and Water Show. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times
Sean Tucker flies over Chicago on media day for Chicago Air and Water Show. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

That chapter, he hopes, will be to take everything he has learned as a solo performer to lead a team — a way to “combine the elegance and the grace of a team with the drama of a solo performer.”

Tucker’s maneuvers, more than half of which have not been imitated by any other pilot, ooze drama. He reaches speeds of up to 280 miles per hour. He practices each performance 10 times, if only to ensure his body can withstand forces reaching nine times his body weight. His classic “triple ribbon cut” brings the plane a mere 20 feet above the runway, as he cuts through ribbons held by audience members.

Celebrating the 60th year of the Chicago Air and Water Show, Ann Hickey — deputy commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events — said she looks forward to a “fantastic show and, knowing him, some surprises.”


Read our past Chicago Air and Water Show coverage

Video by Ellicia Myles

“Sean is legendary, not only in the air show industry but as an aviator,” said the show’s spokeswoman, Mary May. “Fighter pilots and civilian pilots know who he is and … are in awe of the things that he does in a way that not many can do.”

This year’s free show will take place Aug. 18-19 on North Avenue Beach.

Tucker said that, as usual, the audience will “see a different act than last year because I’ve grown as a person, I’ve grown as an aviator.”

Though giving up a successful solo career has surely been bittersweet, Tucker said he looks forward to working with a team and “sharing the magic of flight with like-minded people.” And even as a team leader, he would have no hesitations about returning to Chicago, “one of my favorite shows of all time,” if invited.

“That would be the biggest honor in the world,” he said. “If they’ll have me, I wanna come back.”