So You Want to Be an Airshow Pilot
First, get a high-paying day job.
- By Phil Scott
- Air & Space magazine, May 2005
(Page 3 of 5)
Tucker has been a big influence on Stewart, as was the late Leo Loudenslager. When he was just a kid, Stewart—who’d been introduced to flying by his grandfather, and had spent his teen years building and flying radio-controlled models—witnessed Loudenslager perform. “It was my first airshow, and the first time I had seen anyone fly a real airplane the way I flew a model airplane,” Stewart recalls. “When I saw Leo fly, I knew I wanted to put myself in a position to someday be able to at least try to fly like that and hopefully give others the feeling he gave me.”
At age 23, Stewart saw Tucker flying at the 1991 Oshkosh, Wisconsin flyin. “He took the out-of-control tumbling maneuvers others would do and turned them into perfectly choreographed maneuvers and did them low,” Stewart says. “He redefined what hardcore airshow aerobatics was about.”
Tucker’s climb to the top wasn’t without a few detours. From his home in the hills between Salinas and Monterey, California, Tucker, 52, tells me by telephone how he began in the business. “When I started I was a total failure,” he says. “I had a lot of passion and not a lot of skill.” He pauses for a beat. “I didn’t have any death perception,” he explains, laughing. (Like Stewart, Tucker has the charm market corralled.) In 1979, Tucker was practicing for his first big show when he got into an unrecoverable inverted flat spin. He bailed out, but his Pitts pancaked into the ground. Tucker refers to the event as “the crash of ’79” and says, “I knew I had to get my act together because I was married, broke, and had no options.” Soon after, he started dusting crops by helicopter; it wasn’t the kind of flying he dreamed of, but it helped pay the bills.
Tucker didn’t return to airshow flying until 1988, and four years later he landed his first monetary sponsor, Randolph Sunglasses. Financially, Tucker is the envy of many in the industry. The sponsorships he has from companies who supply airplane parts and aviation products save him $80,000 a year, and on top of that, he has the (undisclosed) monetary backing of Oracle.
Tucker’s crew consists of two fulltime mechanics, one full-time public relations manager, a hospitality manager to handle Oracle clients, and a business partner who doubles as a quality-assurance guy, coming to every third show to check on the mechanics’ work and to grade Tucker’s flying. “I have a fairly big infrastructure,” says Tucker. “They’re very talented. And when you have the best talent, you have to pay them well—they make more than 99 percent of the airshow pilots in this industry, unfortunately.”
Fortunately, Oracle covers everyone’s salaries (including Tucker’s), plus all travel and operating expenses. In return, Tucker flies 20 high-visibility airshows a year, gives motivational speeches, signs autographs for select groups—whatever the company asks him to do. “They own me lock, stock, and barrel,” he says, laughing. “It is my day job.” The financial comfort Tucker now enjoys has allowed him to pursue another interest: mentoring novice pilots at an aerobatics flight school he runs in King City, California. “My flight school is my passion, but it doesn’t make any money,” says Tucker, who is just shy of breaking even on the costly venture. To help underwrite his school, Tucker also flies at non-Oracle-sponsored airshows, for which he charges a fee of $8,500.
Making it pay. There’s the rub. Jacquie B Warda (the “B” is for “Baby,” as in “Jacquie Baby,” a nickname bestowed by Tucker) has a résumé much like Stewart’s. She flew in aerobatic competitions before getting bitten by the showbiz bug. She’s a brunette, not hard to look at, and rides a Harley-Davidson when at home in Danville, California. She also flies a Pitts. For the 2004 season, her second, she flew eight shows; in 2003, she flew four. She did not get paid for the shows she flew her first season because she didn’t have a commercial pilot’s license, and only commercial-rated pilots can charge for their services. (A private pilot who receives any form of compensation, be it a tank of fuel or even a sandwich, is violating federal aviation regulations.) Last year, she earned $2,000 for most of the shows, and the organizers of one show even paid a whopping $2,500.
Warda, 51, is doing better at this point in her career than Tucker and Stewart did early on, but she’s not exactly swimming in sponsorship money. She is backed by AeroShell, Goodyear Tires, Hooker Harness, and a sportparachute manufacturer, Para-Phernalia, all of whom she won over by the force of her personality. Says Warda: “You’ve heard that fairly big, old adage: ‘It’s who you know, not what you know.’ ” At Reno, Nevada, where she races her Pitts, she got to talking with Gene McNeely, the second quarter of the AeroShell team, and he offered to introduce her to potential sponsors. She met a few big names and they liked her, but they offered only products—no money. “It’s going to be several years before I can make a profit,” she says. “In essence you can’t be in this business if you can’t afford the airplane.” Right now, Warda’s husband, who is the crew chief for her Pitts, is supporting them both by working as a computer programmer. Her day job is to fly the airplane and improve her skill and showmanship in the air.