By Mark Kolanowski of NYCAviation.
The evening before media day at the Rhode Island Airshow was progressing like any other: Dinner was being cooked, camera batteries were charging, lenses were out awaiting cleaning and a blower was at the ready to clear pesky dust spots off sensors in anticipation for the photo opportunities in the morning. An unexpected phone call greatly raised the anticipation level for the show, as the public affairs representative for the Geico Skytypers asked if I would be interested in joining the team for a media/photo flight the following morning. An unexpected cancellation meant that the opportunity of a lifetime had just came up with my name on it, and provided I could watch a safety video that evening and promise to not wear high heels or flip flops, I’d be taking to the skies the following morning in a historic warbird.
Fast forward about 15 hours and I met up with the Skytypers team at their NASCAR style hauler near the hot ramp at Quonset Point. The impressive trailer follows the team around the country for airshow season and contains spaces for spare parts, a shop for repairs, a flight equipment room and a briefing area outfitted with all the conveniences one would need. Prior to the flight, each rider was outfitted with a flight suit, helmet and the necessary evacuation equipment including an inflatable life jacket and parachute. In addition, slot pilot Chris Orr provided a briefing regarding strap in, radio/intercom procedures and evacuation procedures ending with the distribution of airsickness bags. While the Skytypers are not in the business of making their passengers sick, it has been known to happen and its better safe than sorry!
After being prepared for the flight, it was time to step to the planes. After a short walk, I was alongside the SNJ-2 with a cowling adorned with the large white number 2 flown by Chris “CT” Thomas in the right wing position in the formation.
After putting on the safety gear, it was time to begin the boarding process as they say in the airline industry. As advised in the briefing and in the safety video, there is no graceful way to climb into the back of an SNJ-2, which involves a big step up to the wing, then a step up to a small foot peg on the fuselage, followed by a step into the cockpit and a 180 degree turn to plop into the seat. After getting strapped in and comfortable, it was time to put on a helmet and start the GoPro while CT strapped in.
The World War II-era Navy trainer is based on the North American T-6 Texan, and features a beefed up airframe, rounded rudder and, in its original configuration, a tailhook. The Skytypers operate six of the 1940s vintage aircraft, each outfitted with a custom smoke system that puts out very thick smoke trails and is connected to a computer that activates the smoke system to form letters when skytyping in a line abreast formation. During the summer, the Skytypers are well known in the New York area, as they print phrases made up of dot-matrix style letters over half a mile tall. In addition to the smoke system, the front cockpit of each aircraft is updated with a panel you’d expect to see in a high end homebuilt or modern general aviation aircraft rather than a 70+ year old radial engine powered military advanced trainer, with a glass PFD from Aspen Avionics and Garmin 430 GPS system.
After a few turns of the prop, the 9 cylinder Pratt & Whitney R-1340-AN-1 rumbled to life in sync with the other three aircraft, filling the ramp with the beautiful sound of vintage radial engines. At the completion of preflight checks, the flight leader called for taxi clearance from the tower and the four planes participating in the flight taxied out and performed a run-up. As the pilots spun up the engines, the propwash began to buffet the rear cockpit giving a taste of what was to come.