(June 20, 2014) The 10-mile drive from Ocean City’s inlet to the top of the town can be a long one, with more than 100 stoplights and seemingly endless vacation crowds. For the GEICO Skytypers, however, the island doesn’t seem so big from the cockpit of their World War II-era planes during the Ocean City Air Show.
I didn’t think Ocean City looked so big either after climbing up into one of only 11 remaining SNJ-2 aircrafts in the world with the Skytypers before their performance Saturday, June 14. The “sick bag” I stuffed in the left leg pocket of my jumpsuit, though? It didn’t seem quite big enough.
I arrived at the Ocean City Municipal Airport in my cotton leggings and tennis shoes, per GEICO’s safety requirement, and immediately regretted my morning breakfast after seeing the compact design of these seemingly ancient planes and realizing that I would soon be 10,000 feet in the air.
On top of my carefully chosen outfit, a blue GEICO jumpsuit and American flag-themed helmet became my new work uniform. GEICO Public Affairs Officer Brenda Little said she had never seen one of their jumpsuits fit a guest so well, which gave me high hopes for the day.
Right Wing Pilot Ken Johansen, 48, introduced himself as he helped fit my helmet after watching me struggle, which quickly reminded me I had never flown before. Johansen, however, had.
The 23-year pilot fell in love with aviation as a young boy when he climbed into his first plane with his father, Bob Johansen, who is also a member of the Skytypers team. Ken graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1989 and earned his wings two years later. After wanting to “be like dad,” the two were able to spend Father’s Day together in the sky.
With Bob flying in the No. 4 “slot” position, Ken performs in the Skytypers’ formations as the no. 2 “right wing” pilot. However, I flew with Ken on Saturday in the No. 1 plane as he continued to practice for the “lead” position.
I spent about 15 minutes in a safety brief, with Ken illustrating the proper way to crouch, not stand, in my seat before jumping out toward the wing and pulling a small metal ring on my chest to open the heavy parachute on my back. A life vest sat strapped underneath the parachute for further assistance if necessary. This procedure, however, is something Ken said he has thankfully never had to do.
The other four pilots and three passengers dispersed to their assigned planes and it was time to start up the engines. When no one else was around, Ken secretly assured me I could change my mind at any point during the flight. If it “wasn’t my thing,” or if I needed more than one sick bag, he would land his plane.
“I’ll make up some excuse and no one has to know,” he said.
And with that comforting option in mind, I boarded the historic aircraft. These remaining vintage planes have been restored from their heyday in the 1940’s when they were built to help transition pilots from trainer planes to tactical aircrafts.
The Skytypers, founded in 1985 as the only unit in the world to sktype and perform in air shows, use six of the 11 planes and have equipped them with special computers to help create the sky messages. They display plane positions and illustrate at what time each pilot is to release his puff of smoke during skytyping.
Still, not everything about the plane is new. With an open cockpit, Ken requested I keep my window closed for a portion of the flight. He said he didn’t want 74-year-old dust flying up into his face.
The five planes that make up the Skytypers team taxied down the runway in a zig-zag fashion. Ken quickly explained through the headset that the pilots do this to see the road better around the nose and propellers.
“It’s not because I don’t know what I’m doing,” he said.
In just a few minutes Ken was flying about 200 mph at 10,000 feet in the air. I looked out my window at the Sinepuxent Bay and the No. 2 plane appeared along with the three others. Flying only 250 feet away, it felt as if I could reach out and touch them.
Ken said this close, side-by-side flying formation requires ample skill and trust between the pilots to create letters as tall as the Empire State Building. They must be sure not to fly too far apart and mistype the message, but not too close and crash. Even though these shows take a lot of concentration from Ken, he said it’s very rewarding.
“It’s freeing,” he said, “and other people dream of doing what I’m doing so I take a seriously responsibility to always do my best.”
The team spent about 20 minutes in the air creating words that could be seen for 15 miles in any direction. During regular performances, the team works at a speed of one letter every four seconds.
We dipped down, came back up, flew over and under each other, and circled the island in a matter of seconds. I lost count just how many times I heard Ken’s muffled voice through the headset asking if I was OK. The adrenaline allowed me to answer “yes” every time.
Ken then came back on the headset to inform me of a left turn we would soon be making. Because of the muffling wind and unfamiliarity with the sound of aircraft communication, I was left unsure when said turn would take place and just how sharp it would be.
It turned out to be a very sharp turn.
Coming in for the landing, Ken asked once again if I was OK. That time I lied and said yes, becoming very aware of the sick bag I deemed unnecessary back on solid ground.
Every bump and thump on the tarmac was a reminder how inexperienced I am as a flyer. But it also reminded me how experienced Ken is as a pilot after flying jets in the Royal Netherlands Navy from 1996 to 1998.
“In high performance [flying] you pull some G’s, and I’ve always liked it,” he said. “I like roller coasters, too. So, I’m used to the force.”
I took some deep breaths after the plane came to a stop and Ken helped me out of my seat. I had to slide off the wing, he was able to hop down.
“Beautifully done,” he said.
And it was. The team continued to successfully perform for Ocean City for the remainder of the weekend and, originally based in Long Island, the unit will travel on to Wisconsin for the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh at the end of July.
Ken eventually returned home to Northern Pennsylvania, where he lives with his son Luke and wife Louise, while I went my separate way to a restaurant on 94th Street. I normally try to refrain from traveling “so far” north, but my flight with Ken showed me that Ocean City, let alone the world, may not be as large as I originally thought.