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Feature: Precision Guidance

Mary Grady

It’s like a waltz," says 25-year-old Eric Tucker, "like being on a dance floor, looking into your partner’s eyes, while the room spins around you." It is a sunny April morning in Northern California, and Tucker, while he shows me how to strap on my parachute, is describing the sensation we are about to experience. Around us, three other pilots and their passengers have donned their chutes and are proceeding toward their aircraft.

Students of the Tutima Academy of Aviation Safety can learn basic formation flying, but many come for a more challenging regime of rolls, loops, tumbles, and spins. 

Now Tucker is telling me where to place my hands and feet as I climb into the front cockpit of a tiny Pitts biplane. As he settles into the cockpit behind mine, he explains what will happen during our eight minutes of aerobatics. "Once we take off, we follow the lead airplane. Whatever it does, we do. It’s just a constant process of making tiny corrections, five or 10 times a second."

We taxi to the runway, trailed by another Pitts and a sleek Extra monoplane. The lead aircraft is a red biplane flown by Sean Tucker, Eric’s father. One by one, we launch ourselves into the wide California sky.

We settle into formation at about 2,000 feet, and Eric positions our right wingtip about 10 feet from the left wingtip of his father’s biplane. I can see Sean clearly—every nod, turn of the head, and thumbs-up signal. We follow him as we climb into the sky, and then we perform a roll. The maneuver seems effortless as the world spins around us—as though we were on a dance floor, just as Eric had described. But one misstep—one moment of indecision, distraction, or sloppiness—and the dance will be over.

King City, Calif., has a small population (about 12,000), and the sun nearly always shines here, making it an ideal departure point for adventurous pilots who want to rocket upside down a couple thousand feet above the Salinas River Valley.

 

They come to this spot about 150 miles south of San Francisco to attend the Tutima Academy of Aviation Safety, where Sean Tucker, a stunt pilot, and four other instructors teach you how to improve your piloting skills and how to perform aerobatics. Tucker is a legend in the air show world, having won just about every award in his field during his 30-year career. "My father first took me in a plane when I was 13," Sean says. "It was an epiphany. I fell in love with the sky." But when he began to learn how to fly at age 17, he encountered a problem: "I had a huge, incapacitating fear—I didn’t feel safe in the airplane." Then he tried aerobatics, hoping it would give him a greater sense of control, and he became hooked. He now flies at about 25 air shows each year, before a combined audience of roughly 10 million people.

For years he ran a flight school as a sideline. His Sean D. Tucker School of Aerobatic Flight began to grow in 2000, when he teamed with instructor Ken Erickson. In 2004, Eric Tucker joined the staff. Bill Stein, a veteran of the Red Baron Squadron, an air show team that flies vintage Stearman biplanes, signed on to teach formation flying. Ben Freelove, one of Sean’s graduates, was recruited to teach aerobatics.

In 1996, the German watchmaking company Tutima, known for its pilots’ chronographs (see "Martial Movements," below), began sponsoring Tucker’s appearances at air shows, and last year the firm became a partner in the flight school, which was renamed the Tutima Academy of Aviation Safety. According to Gustavo Calzadilla, president and chief executive officer of Tutima USA, the company’s promotion of safe flying makes perfect sense. "The name Tutima derives from the Latin tutus, meaning ‘safe and protected,’ " he explains. But then he adds, "More importantly, Sean’s flying mesmerizes me!"

In April, to mark the academy’s one-year anniversary, Tucker spruced up the facility, polished all the airplanes, and staged a world-class weekend of flying.

Each student of the academy works one-on-one with an instructor at his or her own pace. Many attend to learn formation flying, so that they can fly with friends or pilot their vintage airplanes at events such as air shows and fly-ins. For a basic course, which costs about $6,000, you train for six days or so, taking a few days’ break in the middle of the program.

Others come to Tutima for an introduction to aerobatics. The beginning course, which costs about $3,700, comprises 10 hours of flight time over five days. You practice coordination exercises, rolls, loops, spins, tumbles, and inverted flight (flying upside down). Katie Pribyl, who flies a single-engine Cessna 182 as part of her job as communications director for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association in Washington, D.C., customized her course. "I wanted training in recovering from an emergency," she says, "but I also wanted a taste of aerobatics and formation flying. Why not try a bit of everything Sean has to offer?"

The Academy’s $7,500 executive pilot program is designed for fliers such as Pribyl who use small planes for business and personal travel. In those circumstances, you tend to fly with the aircraft’s nose pointed straight ahead and the wings level, but turbulence can flip an airplane or jolt it into a spin. Standard training requires only that pilots recognize the approach of a spin and prevent it, which might leave you wondering how you would respond if your plane did indeed spin. The executive pilot course allows you to practice these disorienting situations until you can recover quickly from them.

Richard Vance, a retired CEO who lives in Louisville, Ky., learned to fly last year and took Tutima’s executive course in February with instructor Ben Freelove. "The first few spins are an adrenaline rush," Vance says. "But by the time you’ve done 20 or 25, everything slows down, and you can really see what’s going on and think and react." During the training, Freelove demonstrated an overly tight, incorrectly controlled turn during an approach to a runway. "You don’t get buffeting, you don’t get a warning—you just snap into a spin," says Vance. "I learned to never risk getting into that situation close to the ground. You can always make the approach again."

In the executive course, you first fly about five hours in an aerobatic airplane to practice basic maneuvers, and then you switch to a Columbia 400. One afternoon during the April weekend, under a clear blue sky, Eric Tucker took me into the air in this speedy, sophisticated plane.

Inside the Columbia, which has roomy leather seats, a joystick sits comfortably in my right hand, and the wide windows frame the hills a few thousand feet below us. "We’re going to roll it now," Eric says casually, and the wing to my right, which was level with the horizon, lifts toward the top of the sky. Then it points straight up. The ground passes over our heads, and we swing upright. The maneuver takes just a few seconds. "Now you do it," he says. I push the joystick all the way to the left, and we roll again. It is an exciting experience, yet not frightening, because I never lose control of the aircraft.

Then Eric demonstrates a spin. The Columbia’s nose points toward the ground; we twist around once; he recovers smoothly; and we return to the straight and level. A spin is dangerous because the plane loses altitude quickly, but Eric shows that it is easy to rectify the problem—when you respond properly.

"We teach in the Columbia because it’s the kind of aircraft our students tend to fly," Eric says after we have returned to the hangar. "It requires more force to control than an aerobatic craft like the Extra or the Pitts, so it provides a more realistic experience for upset recovery. During training, I put the airplane into all kinds of unusual situations, then let the students figure out what to do. When they find it easy to recover, that’s when they graduate."

Certainly, my short flight did not suffice to make rolling and spinning seem easy. But it confirmed Sean Tucker’s conviction that his school saves lives. "I love to see pilots conquer their fear," he says. "To be a better pilot, you have to respect the sky. You have to be humble. And that’s a good way to live."

Tutima Academy of Aviation Safety
831.385.6575, www.tutimaacademy.com

Martial Movements
While many of its rivals were compelled by the Nazi government to produce war matériel such as timed bomb fuses during World War II, Tutima, which emerged in the German watchmaking center of Glashütte in the 1920s, was allowed to continue making only watches. In 1941, the second full year of the war, the company produced the Tutima Fliegerchronograph for the Luftwaffe, and most German pilots soon adopted it.

After Russian bombers wreaked havoc on Glashütte in 1945, Tutima shuttered its manufacturing operation. But in the 1950s it resumed making pilots’ watches, from a facility in Ganderkesee in what was then West Germany. Some of these devices, such as the $3,300 Fliegerchronograph 1941 (shown at right), which was introduced in 1994, are close reproductions of the original Luftwaffe watch.

In 1985, Tutima created the NATO Military Air Force Chronograph (from $3,000), a model for both NATO and German air force pilots that is still in use. The chronograph is highly legible, and its clean styling gives it visual appeal, but its durability is even more appealing than its design. The flush-mounted, virtually unbreakable pushers that operate the mechanism and the rugged Lemania 5100 mechanical movement are built, in the words of Tutima CEO Dieter Delecate, "to take abuse, like a Russian machine gun." —James D. Malcolmson

Tutima, 310.378.7852, www.tutima.de

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