"Scribe in the sky."
That was the headline of a story I wrote nearly a decade ago, when I first got the chance to be at the controls of a single-propeller airplane.
This time, I took a back seat, soaking in the view of the Philadelphia skyline and trying to keep my arms in the open cockpit of a vintage SNJ-2 – the trainer plane that taught most WWII pilots how to fly.
These planes have been preserved since they were piloted by the “Greatest Generation,” and have since been re-purposed as Skytypers – aerobatic, low-level airplanes that create aerial smoke messages in the sky. They’ve recently been sponsored by insurer GEICO.
I was reporting Thursday on the Skytypers promoting their upcoming Power in the Pines Air Show on Saturday and Sunday at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst south of Trenton, New Jersey.
The Skytypers haven’t been to McGuire in about three years, and Bob Johansen, who has been with the team from the very beginning, said the Skytypers are enjoying a bit of a homecoming.
“Most of us are former military, so it’s kind of like Old Home Week,” he told me.
“We’re kind of the hometown boys.”
There were three SNJ-2 planes in the sky Thursday. If you were driving on I-95 or floating somewhere on the Delaware River, you probably saw us. A GoPro recorded my whole 25-minute in-flight experience.
We flew at low altitude, wingtip-to-wingtip, in close formation. I overheard we were, at one point, as close as three feet apart while in the air.
Johansen flew for "the airlines" for 33 years before he joined up with the Skytypers. He then got his son, Kenny, on board.
Call sign, “Ragnar,” Kenny Johansen has flown for American Airlines and others, and before long, his father told him to go out and get his tailwheel endorsement, which means – for the sake of layman’s terms – let's call it one you steer with your feet.
As a Skytyper, Kenny, along with up to six other planes, fly in what’s called line abreast formation. They fly anywhere between 50 and 1,500 feet off the ground, and then “skytype” in a single line, about two wingspans apart. Each plane is retrofitted to type giant messages in the sky, with the lead plane sending computer signals to each of the other aircraft, generating synchronized smoke letters 1,000-feet tall.
“We put these letters out that are about the size of the Empire State Building and we type at about 9,500 feet, and it can be seen for about 25 square miles,” said Johansen, who added the Skytypers are one of two squadrons in the country that do what they do.
“GEICO lets us fly up and down the Eastern Seaboard and show off these magnificent airplanes and what we do.”
This weekend, the U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds air demonstration squadron will also be performing.
The GEICO Skytypers are based in Farmingdale, New York, where the 75-year old planes are maintained by a full-time staff of mechanics who travel with the pilots to every air show.
This weekend’s air show is free and open to the public. Got a need for speed and bitten by the aviation bug like me? Go and see them.