Decorated Stunt Pilot Gives At-Risk Students the Runway to Succeed
By Kelley Lefmann | Photos by Manny Espinoza
As a veteran stunt pilot, flight instructor, and aeronautical celebrity, Sean Tucker has spent decades reaching new heights in his career. The former college dropout has soared beyond expectations, with over 1,200 performances at 475 airshows. Over 105 million fans have enjoyed Tucker’s rise to greatness over the years, but according to him, it all pales in comparison to his latest endeavor: the Bob Hoover Academy of Aviation.
Named after the late pilot and a dear friend of Tucker’s, the Academy (formerly known as Every Kid Can Fly) is a year-round program enabling 14 at-risk students per year to earn a high school diploma while learning to fly. Tucker and his son, Eric, wanted to improve their community. So, they partnered in 2014 with SAFE, an alternative high school, to offer earned credits toward graduation, and the opportunity to obtain a pilot’s license.
One student was engaged in gang violence and unmotivated to pursue an education. But when given the opportunity to enter the Bob Hoover Academy, he not only received his diploma and college credit (using flight training as part of the STEM program), he corrected his trajectory toward jail and found new hope for his future.
Salinas is a community prone to gangs (when parents, such as migrant workers, are absent long hours, the gang becomes one’s family). “If we help one kid avoid jail, we save the county hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Tucker explains. He also notes that “the goal is not to make pilots; it’s to give kids hope, self-esteem, and a passion for life.” It requires large amounts of discipline. Students must pass regular drug tests to fly, they follow an aggressive year-round course of academic study, and log up to 40 hours per year of flight time.
Tucker hires only the best instructors, rotating them out every six months, to avoid burnout. “Figuring out what you’re supposed to do in life is hard enough,” he says. “I didn’t make it in college . . . but flying gave me self-esteem and a purpose. If I hadn’t found (flying), I would probably be in jail myself!” And if a student opts not to continue flight training but wishes to obtain a diploma, that is perfectly okay. “This is about helping troubled youth learn to make good choices in a safe environment.”
His plan is to go national. Presenting their plan to the Secretary of Education in Washington, D.C. this spring, Tucker and partners will be accompanied by a former graduate (and class Valedictorian), who will address the U.S. Air Force regarding talent recruitment.
As Tucker retires from flying, his plane entering the Smithsonian Museum, his work isn’t done. He recognizes the opportunities he has been given. His legacy soars beyond individual achievements—encouraging others to pursue their own. Launching the Academy is the “most relevant thing I’ve ever done,” Tucker proclaims. “It doesn’t matter how rich or famous you are; you don’t matter until you pay it back.”