Flying with the GEICO Skytypers
Since 2006, the GEICO Skytypers have been a crowd favorite performing at fifteen air show sites annually. The Long Island, NY based team has thrilled audiences with precise close-formation maneuvers in their six SNJ-2 WWII trainer aircraft as far west as Oshkosh, WI; with most shows taking place east of Chicago, north to Maine and south to Florida. At the recent New York air show where the Skytypers were performing; a young teenager commented to his friend, “These are a bunch of old guys flying really old airplanes.” Those within ear-shot offered no response, seemingly to agree with the youth’s assessment.
Following the Stewart AFB Newburg, NY air show, the GEICO Skytypers moved onto their next show site – NAS Oceana, VA – where four of us were offered a media-photo ride with the team. On Oceana’s ramp, we gathered inside the GEICO air-conditioned travel trailer, which provided a welcome relief from the hot humidity. The trailer resembled a modern office with carpeting, recessed lighting, cabinets, countertops and a wood-paneled briefing room with a long boardroom table, leather desk chairs and modern electronic media devices. The outside rear of the trailer housed a full service, well stocked workbench and machine shop.
Prior to our flight we were required to watch a briefing video narrated by Wing Pilot Skytyper #3 Chris “Soto” Orr. Chris is a former F-14 Tomcat and A-4 Skyhawk aggressor pilot with thirty-five combat missions flown over Iraq. In detail Chris explained to us certain characteristics of the SNJ-2, some do’s and don’ts, how to strap into the plane’s seat and parachute, and most importantly, how to survive a bail-out situation which included the proper way to exit the plane and deploy the chute and our inflatable vest.
Following the briefing we were outfitted in brown flight suits, colorful glossy helmets, and assigned to an individual aircraft. We would be flying as a four-ship formation in seventy-five year old North American Aviation SNJ-2s planes built for training WWII pilots. Moments later we were driven to our awaiting aircraft where we met our pilots. The GEICO Skytypers maintain a cadre of twelve pilots from which they can call. While only two solos fly a show, the team has three upon which they can rely. Similarly, the group includes at least three additional diamond pilots available from which to select the four needed to fly in the formation. Depending on available pilots, six are chosen to be sent to an air show. Those six pilots comprise the performing Show Team for that particular site.
I would be flying in aircraft #4 with solo and back-up slot pilot GEICO Skytyper #11 Kevin “Sinbad” Sinibaldi, who joined the team in 2012. Kevin was based at NAS Oceana, VA from 1986-1994 where he flew A6s for the Navy and currently resides in Virginia Beach. In his spare time he is a volunteer pilot for the Virginia Military Aviation Museum. It was a homecoming of sorts for several Skytyper pilots who are former naval aviators once stationed at Oceana, now living in the Virginia Beach area.
As instructed, I climbed onto the plane’s big wing and stepped into the back seat. I was assisted with strapping in, putting on the helmet and attaching the parachute by Slot Pilot #4 Bob Johansen who has been a Skytyper since 1977. Bob earned his private pilot’s license in 1958 and flew Grumman S-2 “Trackers” for the Navy from 1961 to 1966 at Quonset Point, RI before flying international and domestic commercial airlines out of New York City for thirty-three years. Bob again reviewed with me some of the dos and don’ts, informed me that in case of bailout the canopy must remain open during take-off and landings, shook my hand and ensured me I was in for a fun ride. With Kevin securely piloting from the front seat, over the radio, Team Commander and Flight Leader Larry “Boss” Arken began to instruct the other three pilots on the procedural steps of cycling the flight controls. When not working at his fulltime job as a captain for a major commercial airline, Larry flies vintage P-47, F4U and P-5 warbirds for the Air Power Museum in Farmingdale, NY. Larry’s father, Mort Arken, started the Skytypers as an innovative advertising company typing large dot-matrix style messages. Following in his father’s footsteps, Larry saw the potential to build the organization his father created into a world-class business.
With additional safety checks completed, Arken called for the large Pratt & Whitney radial engines to be started and the planes came to life. It was loud and the airframe shook somewhat violently. With taxi instructions given and guidance from the ground crew, the engines were revved to an even higher accelerated decibel, although Kevin and I were still able to communicate over the headset. The ground crew removed the chocks and we were cleared for taxi.
It took a while to travel Oceana’s twelve thousand foot taxiway for a mid-field take-off where we waited for landing and departing traffic. Sitting and waiting provided time to reflect. I wondered how many aviators-in-training must have trained in the SNJ-2 knowing they were preparing to engage an enemy in war. With the exception of modern glass cockpits and upgraded avionics for the front-seat, the GEICO’s six SNJ-2s remain in WWII period condition. Designed in the 1940’s, these planes once served as flying classrooms for thousands of WWII allied pilots and provided the best possible advanced training in all types of tactics before the young pilots moved on to a first-line tactical aircraft. Coincidently, Team Leader Larry Arken’s father was a former naval aviator who flew the SNJ-2 during his time in the military.
The control tower instructed us to “line-up and wait” on the runway. Once cleared for take-off all aircraft were given final instructions by the team leader in plane #1. Kevin commented to me, “In case of an abort, we will stay on the runway. If there’s a problem once in the air, we will look for a safe place to set down.” A little disconcerting but I knew I was in competent hands and was prepared to follow any instructions given.
All four planes revved their engines to maximum power, released brakes and we were off and rolling down the runway. Feeling buffeting from the wind, we lifted and climbed as if riding a roller coaster to the top. Once at altitude looking up, we drew closer to the bottom of the other three aircraft until we were in our slot position within three feet of their fuselages. In a tight formation; we took the short trip to nearby Virginia Beach where we met with GEICO Skytyper #5- Lead Solo Pilot Steve “Sky King” Salmirs. Steve, who joined the group in 1996, is a former F-16 and T-37 instructor pilot. As pre-briefed, Steve had arrived on time after making the two-hour flight from the GEICO’s home base at Republic Field in Farmingdale, NY.
During their performance, the Skytypers demonstrate the SNJ-2’s capability with a tight formation that displays many of the tactical maneuvers still used by the latest generation of military aviators. There are many times during their routine when they fly close enough that their wings overlap! Our media-photo flight was much more subtle. We made constant smoke on and off formation shifts with each change being made by a call over the radio. The Skytypers use smoke to enhance their show as well as create advertising messages in the sky. Each time the smoke system is turned on, an audible “putt, putt, putt” sound could be heard emanating from the top of the right wing, similar to a very slow rate-of-fire machine gun. Following their first air show sponsors- NICORETTE- the GEICO team was established in 2002 as Skytypers and started doing air shows for GEICO four years later. The Skytypers had been sky typing since the 1970’s. When not doing air shows, the GEICO team’s six SNJ-2 planes are a regular familiar sight typing messages in the sky over New York City and Long Island, NY. They can be seen doing the same at air show sites.
The messages to be typed in the air are built on the ground and played out in the sky. Once at an established altitude, the planes line up in a “line-abreast” formation, separated by thirty-five to forty feet. A laptop computer in plane #1, preloaded with the messages, sends the message information to the other planes via a radio data link. In coordination with the computers predetermined algorithm the smoke is turned off and on automatically, spelling out the messages to be displayed.
Our flight over Virginia Beach took place during a break in the Blue Angels practice and we were required to be back on the ground before they resumed. Just off shore, the five planes flew for about twenty minutes. It must have been a nice show for those on the beach! We departed the beach, flying past the Cape Henry Lighthouse and once over the runway, we executed our final maneuver – a 3G mid-field break to land. Back on the ground we taxied back to our line where we were directed to parking by the team’s maintenance personnel- a crew of three fulltime year-round certified mechanics. On Arken’s command, engines were shut down.
Kevin and Bob helped me unstrap and deplane before they joined the other pilots in front of the planes, where they shook hands and congratulated each other on another successful flight. Similar to the military jet teams, the GEICO pilots with years of experience flying together, have developed a confident familiarity with one another. They consider themselves to be a family and like brothers sometimes do, they may have their disagreements that are soon forgotten. Safety is paramount and the team boasts there has not been a spectator casualty at a U.S. air show in over sixty-five years.
Whether a media ride, air show demonstration or typing assignment, the Skytypers brief before and debrief after each flight. During every show, Safety Officer and Team Spokesperson, GEICO Skytyper #8 Steve “Sting” Kapur, flies in the back of #1. At certain points during the show’s routine Steve will interject pivotal comments. When sky typing, Steve flies plane #1 while Larry operates the computer.
Most of the pilots reside in the NYC area and average in age from forty to sixty plus years old. Prior to each show, they meet at Republic Airport and fly their respective aircraft to the show site. The planes winter in Lakeland, FL. Several Skytypers pilots hold fulltime jobs including airline pilots, engineers, businessmen and school teachers. Not all of the pilots are former military pilots; some earned their wings as civilians. Some have military and aviation family backgrounds and, are themselves former military, commercial airline and rescue pilots. Their stellar resumes include Meritorious Service Medals, Air Medals, Navy Commendation Medals, Navy Achievement Medals, Congressional Awards, FAA Awards for Heroism and a 9/11 First Responder Accommodation. Additionally, there is a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and many have flown a wide variety of high-performance aircraft for the U.S. Navy and Air Force. These are very competent, proven, accomplished professionals!
For the past decade, I have enjoyed watching the GEICO Skytypers perform many times at many air shows. But, after flying with the team and seeing them up close, I acquired a new profound respect for who they are and what they do. They are definitely not “A bunch of old guys flying really old airplanes.”
Authors Note: Thank you Brenda Little (Public Relations) and the GEICO Team with a special thank you to Skytyper #8 Steve “Sting” Kapur for his time and kind efforts. All made this article possible.