Among the many outstanding aviation acts that performed at the 2018 Naval Air Station (NAS) Jacksonville last week, was a unique group of aviators, the GEICO Skytypers.
I had the privilege of flying with them Oct. 25 two days before the start of the air show.
Arriving at Herlong Airport on Jacksonville’s westside on an overcast day with a threat of rain, I saw five World War II-era SNJ-2 aircraft lined up outside of an airplane hangar.
The planes once served as military trainers for Allied pilots in the war. They now entertain audiences at air shows across the United States.
“While these are air show airplanes, they are working airplanes at the same time,” said Skytypers pilot Tom Daly. “The weekends when we are not doing an air show, we are skytyping.”
Skytyping differs from skywriting in that the letters are formed in a dot pattern by the planes flying side-by-side releasing puffs of smoke. The messages in the sky can be seen for 15 miles.
“We invented skytyping,” said Brenda Little, media contact for the Skytypers. “We used to be an advertising company, and now we are also an air show team.”
The men that fly these vintage planes are mostly military trained, and most are commercial pilots that fly for the Skytypers on the weekends.
“We don’t take flying these World War II airplanes for granted,” said Daly, who has flown with the Skytypers for about 20 years.
“We look at each flight like it is a flight into history and I am thrilled to be part of it.”
More than 15,000 SNJ planes were built in 1940-1941, training pilots in 34 countries.
I also was thrilled to fly with this group of historic planes.
“We are going to fly close formation,” Little told the media riders at the pre-flight brief. “We will literally be wingtip to wingtip. You will see planes all around you. We are all about symmetry and formation. Unless you went through the military service, you probably never flew in a formation flight.”
Flying in formation with four other Skytyper planes was exciting enough, but then Little surprised us with the news that during our flight we would join up with two Blue Angel jets.
I wasn’t sure how a 1940s era single engine plane with a top speed of just over 200 mph could possibly fly with a modern F/A-18 Hornet capable of flying almost twice the speed of sound, but I couldn’t wait to find out.
We took off from Herlong and headed east towards the St. Johns River. Looking to the north, the skyline of downtown Jacksonville could be seen in the distance. During the flight the planes would occasionally emit the white smoke for which the Skytypers are famous.
During the takeoff and the first part of the flight, the canopy over the rear seat I was in was open, making for a loud, windy, but exhilarating flight. The force of the wind felt like it was going to blow my helmet off when I moved my head close to the side of the plane.
About 15 minutes into the flight, NAS Jacksonville came into view and we began to circle the base. Before taking off, I was told by the pilot that, to join up with the Blue Angels, I would have to close my canopy so that the SNJ could get up to its top speed. When the pilot gave me the signal to close the canopy, I knew the Blues were close.
Even though I knew I would see them, it was still a shock to look to my left and see a Blue Angel jet flying beside us. I then looked to my right and there was the second jet. They had come up from behind our plane, so I did not see them until they were almost directly beside us.
For almost 10 minutes the five Skytyper propeller planes and the two Blue Angel jets flew in close formation while we circled the base. I was amazed how close the planes were to each other.
Before long, Blue Angel No. 7 on my right flew under the SNJ I was in and joined Blue Angel No. 6 on my left. They flew with us for couple of more minutes and then veered off, leaving us behind.
The Skytypers headed back to Herlong, and along the way, flew in various formations, including lining up side-by-side as they emitted their white smoke.
The five planes landed at the airport giving myself and the other journalists and civilians who flew with them that day memories that will last a lifetime.