Jumpseat: The GEICO Skytypers

A six-airplane airline.

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Brian Tague Photography

A little over a year ago a good friend asked if I would consider writing a column about a skytyping/airshow operation. My friend was a former chief pilot at our New York domicile, and through the years the job had given him the opportunity to become acquainted with pilots that had unique backgrounds; one of them was a Super 80 captain who owned a skytyping business. Very cool. But, I'm the airline guy for this magazine. How is that topic going to work into one of my stories?

From the moment that I shook hands with Larry Arken, I realized that I was being afforded a glimpse into one of the most professional airline fleets in the country. The fact that the fleet consisted of six vintage airplanes that had trained World War II fighter pilots who eventually became airline pilots, defining the profession in a budding industry, was an irony in and of itself.

At first glance, one might think that the mischievous grin that the GEICO Skytypers share makes them just a handful of adult kids who have been given the opportunity to have fun with some really neat toys. The lizard embroidered on the back of the dark blue jumpsuit adds a playful contrast to a very crisp, professional presence. But before the lizard ever became part of the organization, a very colorful history led up to that point.

In 1932, Andy Stinis used his 1929 Travel Air to advertise in the sky by using an innovative way of discharging smoke from the airplane to form messages. A small beverage company called Pepsi-Cola was Andy's primary client. Pepsi thought enough of skywriting that for the next 22 years it was used as the corporation's main product promotion method. In 1946, Andy developed a more efficient system that utilized multiple airplanes to provide higher quality messages that were clearer to read and remained legible longer. The new system became the foundation for modern skytyping. And in 1964, computer-generated skytyping was patented.

One year later, Andy's son, Greg, created a West Coast division in California with a fleet of six SNJ-2 airplanes. After 10 years of operation, managing both divisions, he hired Mort Arken to run the East Coast. Mort Arken was a retired military pilot with sales experience and a gift of showmanship. Aerial formation for airshows was integrated into the skytyping, and the client list of high-profile major corporations began to grow.

In the 1970s, Mort's passion for the business compelled him to buy the East Coast division and the six SNJ-2s. His East Coast division has now become known as the GEICO Skytypers, based at Republic Airport in Long Island, New York. With Mort's passing in 2007, his son Larry, an airline pilot of 21 years, has taken over the reins.

As I stood with the Skytypers in front of an SNJ wing, I interrupted the banter with a question: What was it like to work for the boss' son? After all, some of them had been part of the operation since the 1970s. There was a brief pause. One at a time, each pilot offered his praises; Larry had earned his wings. His father had given him no sense of entitlement. Larry had grown up in an aviation environment but had climbed the ladder from high school through civilian pilot training. Where his father had managed and flown with a casual flare, Larry had added a high degree of professionalism into every aspect of the business, right down to how low the zipper of the jumpsuit could be worn.

What about the aviation background of the other pilots? As you might have guessed, most of the team members have a day job that involves moving people at Mach speeds to places like Houston or Paris. Ken Johansen and his retired dad, Bob, both have airline backgrounds. Ken is a Naval Academy graduate and currently a commanding officer for a squadron that flies the military version of a B737-700 in Jacksonville, Florida. Bob also has a Navy background. The father-and-son chemistry was a palatable part of the crew dynamics. A respectful exchange of harassment between the two men offered subtle insight into their relationship.

Dino Peros, another airline captain, was a Marine. Larry and Dino were Aviation High School classmates in New York. Until Dino expressed interest in flying SNJs through another Skytypers crew member, they hadn't crossed paths for a number of years.

One of the nonairline guys is Steve Kapur. His marketing skills have been a tremendous asset to the business. Steve is a civilian-trained general aviation pilot with many other credentials that include formation flying and airshow performer. He often flies the back seat for Larry, playing autopilot while the boss attends to skytyping computer entries.

Finally, Tom Daly is the lone rotor-head of the group. Tom is a retired 33-year veteran of a Long Island police department, having worked as a patrol and rescue pilot. He has received numerous commendations deserving of hero status and was a first responder during the dark hours of Sept. 11, 2001. Tom owns his own airshow company, flying vintage airplanes out of Rhinebeck, New York. I had the privilege of riding with Tom in the back seat of the SNJ. He was relaxed enough to allow me the opportunity to fly. Tom's hair defies gravity. It doesn't move.

The roster includes four additional members. The gentlemen that I have mentioned were the pilots on the day of our meeting. After asking the "why" question, I am confident that they all share one common denominator: They love to fly airplanes. Flying an SNJ for the GEICO Skytypers is the epitome of their passion. And these guys are immersed. My Cherokee Six is a mere station wagon compared with the list of airplanes in the logbooks of some of the GEICO crew. Aeronca Champs, Citabrias, P-51s, Stearmans, P-47s, F4Us, Great Lakes and Fokkers are just some examples.

So … enough about the Skytypers themselves. What about the flying? The team actually has two missions. One mission is to perform at airshows across the country. The other mission is the main revenue producer: skytyping. I joined the team on a skytyping day. Skytyping is done with five airplanes as opposed to the six involved with airshows. The environmentally friendly smoke is controlled by a small Sony laptop computer that is strapped in a kneeboard case on Larry's thigh. A patented program (Larry threatened to kill me if I took a photo) produced the appropriate characters that formed a particular message. A line-of-sight signal similar to Wi-Fi is sent to each airplane to automatically generate the proper discharge of smoke.

The pilots' job is to maintain the standard formation. Simple. Yeah … right. I attempted to participate in that formation. My comfort level was about a half-mile behind the closest airplane, as opposed to the nose-hair viewing distance that Tom so aptly maintained. I will admit that, once Tom explained the technique of lining up a very specific reference mark on the lead airplane no matter the attitude, it made more sense.

The website advertises the character size of the message to be about Empire State Building height. Depending upon the winds aloft, the message can last from three to seven minutes, which is longer than a TV commercial, and it has more impact than a billboard. And the message is seen at great distances by thousands of people.

The drawback is that mostly blue-sky conditions are required. When I flew down from Connecticut to Long Island, the day was spectacular. Unfortunately, the picturesque, puffy white stuff put a damper on the skytyping. After receiving a final pirep from a nearby beach, Larry scrubbed the mission in favor of a short three-ship formation PR trip.

Even though the simple formation wasn't skytyping, Larry briefed the mission as though it had the magnitude of a flight over a war zone. No detail was too small to mention. I wasn't surprised. Operating manuals, recurrent training and uniform protocols were all part of a very professional operation.

As evidence of this pride, Bob Johansen took me aside before the briefing. With a hint of pain in his eyes and his voice, he explained the story of a bad day with the Blue Angels. They had lost one of their own at an airshow and had canceled their performance. The Blue Angels asked the GEICO Skytypers to perform the missing man formation. And when the same tragedy had befallen the GEICO team, the Blue Angels reciprocated. Respect among the airshow circuit is an unseen trophy that has to be earned.

As I thanked Larry and the team for their hospitality, I had no doubt in my mind that the pilots of the six-airplane airline could compare on every professional level with the big fleet counterparts … maybe more.

You can learn more about the GEICO skytypers at geicoskytypers.com.