Meet the GEICO SkyTypers
The 2012 Florida Airshow Seasons Kicks Off In Ft. Lauderdale.
Of all the family-friendly events one can choose to participate in throughout the warmer months of the year, almost none is more popular than air shows. An estimated 20 million spectators will attend air shows throughout the country this year, a number that is second only to crowds attending big league baseball games. The chance to enjoy the sights, sounds, great weather (hopefully), and time away from home with the family is a no-brainer for most, and with the 2012 air show season now underway show organizers expect to see record breaking crowds this year.
One of the headlining teams who perform in select venues along the east coast are the GEICO Skytypers, and when they invited me down to sunny Ft Lauderdale Florida to spend a day with them as they prepared for their first show of the 2012 season I jumped at the opportunity. After all, it's not everyday I get to take a hop in a WWII era warbird with some of the finest pilots in the air show biz.
Based out of Farmingdale, NY, the GEICO Skytypers primarily serve two purposes - "skytyping" and air show performances. The team uses several WWII era SNJ-2 aircraft to "type" dot matrix style messages in the sky. The messages are enormous, typically as tall as the Empire State Building and up to 8 miles long, visible enough to be seen from as far as 15 miles in all directions (nearly 400 square miles). The skytyping is done with 5 airplanes flying in an abreast formation, with a custom programmed computer used in the lead aircraft to signal the other aircraft to release puffs of environmentally friendly smoke to spell out their message in the sky.
The team's aircraft of choice, affectionately referred to as the "pilot maker" by crew members in WWII, is the SNJ-2; a varied version of the original SNJ, also known as the T-6 Texan. These aircraft served as trainers in WWII, serving as classrooms in the air for most of the Allied pilots. The SNJ-2 model the team flies is now a very rare sight, as only 11 or 12 are known to still exist today, and the Skytypers own six of them.
"These are wonderful aircraft to fly, and the opportunity to do it together as a team is really cool," said Steve Kapur, the #8 pilot and marketing officer for the team. "We get to show them off and we get to meet some really neat people, whether it's young kids or veterans that actually trained in these aircraft. They really come out and get a tear in their eye and tell us stories about when they were training in these aircraft and share some of the crazy things that they did."
The team's first performance of the year over Ft Lauderdale Beach was the start of a busy, and demanding, 8-week schedule. "We have eight shows in a row, I probably won't be home for a few months," said Ken Johansen, #2 pilot and and one of a few on the team with a military aviation background (Ken graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1989 and went on to fly various military aircraft and commercial airliners). "It's going to be a long time but my son said Dad go have fun.
The day of our flight the weather was perfect, blue skies all around, a few patchy white clouds, light winds, and the waters in south Florida shined a beautiful aqua-blue color similar to something out of a postcard. After spending some time meeting the team and walking the flight line taking static shots of the aircraft, it was time for our pre-flight briefing. The team is committed to constantly improving performance while always making pilot and aircraft safety of top priority. Nothing is overlooked in the briefing, even for our 30 minute flight the briefing was much more thorough than I had initially thought it would be. Nothing was overlooked, not even their parking spots.
After the 10-minute briefing, it was time to suit up for the flight. As a photojournalist, getting the shot is what makes or breaks my day, and the team made every accommodation to present me with the best photo opportunities during our flight. "We're going to head out over the beach and the air show box to show you what the box looks like and take some great photos of the four ships with the city of Ft Lauderdale in the background," said Ken before boarding the aircraft. "Then we'll come back in a diamond formation and do an air show break maneuver before landing to show you how we end each show."
My pilot was Tom Daly, the team's #6 opposing solo. Tom is a former Long Island NY police helicopter pilot who performed everything from search and rescue operations to serious undercover investigations in his 33 years of service before retiring in 2006. Tom was also a first responder to the tragic events that took place at the World Trade Center on 9/11, and his decorated history over time earned him two Congressional Awards, an FAA Award for Heroism, and the Aviation and Space Writers Award, among many others.
"I was a civilian pilot most of my life and got involved with the air show business as well, and paralleled that with my helicopter flying," said Tom as we prepared for the flight. "I enjoyed the helicopter stuff, the search and rescue, and getting to help people along the way. You hear so many things about law enforcement but there is a brighter side to being able to help a few people here and there."
After getting getting myself settled into the backseat of the #5 aircraft, Tom started the engine and we started our trek from the tarmac to the runway in a single file line of four aircraft. After performing one last check we took off in pairs. We climbed to an altitude of about 1,200 feet and cruised east to Ft Lauderdale beach, at which point we banked left in a diamond formation and dropped to an altitude of 500 feet, screaming by the beach at 160mph. Every now and then Tom got on the radio to ask what I wanted them to do for photos, I would tell him, and they would immediately make it happen.
Flying wingtip to wingtip is a pure adrenaline rush, and along with the view it really leaves you speechless how good these guys really are at what they do. I made sure to take my eye off the viewfinder every now and then to take in the experience without a camera in the way.
After cruising north, in and out of various formations, we turned right out over the ocean for another low pass southbound over the beach and through the air show box. South of Ft Lauderdale we made a hard right and climbed to about 1,200 feet again and headed back over the city towards Opa Locka Airport. We formed up into a diamond formation and performed their signature 'finale' maneuver, with each aircraft pulling vertical with smoke on one-by-one to pull away from the formation over the runway before landing.
The experience makes one appreciate even more the performances they, and other air show pilots, put on week after week. The focus needed to pull off their routines and do it in a way that looks "easy" is tremendous, and the Skytypers have it down to an art. The next time your at an air show, take a moment to put yourself in the pilot's seat and imagine the difficulty of flying wingtip to wingtip, in formation, while pulling some maneuver and maintaining constant communication with your teammates while fighting the forces acting on your body.
The team's next performance is this weekend at the Shaw Air Force Base Air Expo. Visit their website at <a href="/www.GEICOSkytypers.com" target="_blank">www.GEICOSkytypers.com</a> for their complete 2012 show schedule, and don't forget to "like" the them on Facebook at <a href="/ww. facebook.com/GEICOSkytypers" target="_blank">www.facebook.com/GEICOSkytypers</a>. The team has a Youtube channel as well with several exclusive features showcasing the team in a series they call "In Formation". Visit their youtube channel at <a href="/www.youtube.com/user/skytyping" target="_blank">www.youtube.com/user/skytyping</a>.
Big thank you to Brenda Little and the GEICO Skytypers for the opportunity to spend the day with them in Ft Lauderdale to preview their opening act of the 2012 season.
(Mike Killian / Zero-G News)