The World-Famous GEICO Skytypers Air Show Team will roar into Jacksonville later this month to wow crowds with an entirely new flight demonstration at the 2018 NAS Jacksonville Air Show (October 27-28). The squadron of World War II aircraft will participate in a full weekend of jaw-dropping exhibitions showcasing both civilian and military aviators. The US Navy’s famous Blue Angels provide the grand finale, but the entire weekend is jam-packed with talented teams and champion pilots from across the country.
For Flight Lead Larry Arken, skytyping is the family business and something he’s been doing his entire life. His father, retired Naval Aviator Mort Arken, established Skytypers as an innovative advertising company utilizing a dot-matrix system to style messages across the skies of large metropolitan areas or events. The Skytypers started participating in airshows in the 1980s. Today, the team does far more flight demonstrations than skytyping, though they will showcase some of their skytyping skills before their air show performance if the weather cooperates.
“Skywriting is done with one aircraft, skytyping is done with five,” Arken explains, “It’s kind of like the world’s largest dot-matrix printer.” While it takes one plane quite some time to skywrite a single letter, skytyping is performed by five planes flying in tight, line-abreast formation. A computer system in the lead aircraft sends commands to the other planes via radio signals, coordinating the release of white smoke puffs to create dot-matrix style letters. In two minutes, the team can “type” 20-25 characters. Each letter stands as tall as the Empire State Building and messages stretch across 2-5 miles. The finished product can be seen from 15 miles away.
What makes the GEICO Skytypers Air Show Team even more unique is the fact they do this while flying World War II aircraft. The North American SNJ-2, or “Pilot Maker,” was the training aircraft for many Allied pilots during WWII. It served as the transition between basic trainers and first-line tactical aircraft. “They were the advanced fighter trainers of the WWII era,” Arken says, “Pilots that went on to fly frontline fighters like the Mustang, the Corsair, the Thunderbolt, and the B-18, the B-29s, they all flew this airplane in flight school as an advanced fighter trainer. They did gunnery in it. They did acrobatics in it. They had to be successful flying this before they moved on to the other fleet types in WWII.” Of the 61 produced SNJ-2 models, only 11 remain in the world and the Skytypers own 6 of them.
“A few guys on the team have been around since the 1980s, but the team continues to add in a new talent as people retire or other things come up,” says the GEICO Skytypers’ Chief Public Affairs Officer Brenda Little, “We utilize 11-12 pilots in order to fly a 5 or 6 plane show. Most of the pilots on our team have full-time jobs, families, and personal lives. Most of our pilots are commercial airline pilots. We have a couple that are retired. A lot of the team was trained in the military. We have a lot of Navy pilots, a couple of Air Force guys, and we’ve got a solo Marine. We have a lot of elite aviators on the team.”
The NAS Jacksonville Air Show will feature 5 members of the GEICO Skytypers Air Show Team in 5 planes: Larry “Boss” Arken, Chris “CT” Thomas, Chris “SOTO” Orr, Steve “Animal” Salmirs, and Tom Daly.
Larry “Boss” Arken fondly remembers flying over the skies of Long Island and the Northeast coast with his father as a young man. He began piloting his own aircraft at 16 and was flying the SNJ-2 by the time he was 19. He’s been flying ever since and is a professional airline pilot today. About 20 years ago, Mort Arken handed the reigns over to his son and Larry Arken has been Flight Lead and business owner ever since. When not flying for a commercial airline or skytyping, the Long Island-based pilot flies vintage P-47, F4U, and P-51 warbirds for the Air Power Museum in Farmingdale, NY. He has more than 25,000 flight hours and holds certifications for seven large jets.
Chris “CT” Thomas is a captain and check airman for a major commercial airline. He became a performing member of the GEICO Skytypers Air Show Team in 2017 and has over 18,000 hours of flight time on more than 90 different types of planes. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two daughters.
Chris “Soto” Orr is a retired Navy F-14 Tomcat pilot who has been flying for over 25 years. He’s also flown the A-4 Skyhawk and C-130 Hercules. Today, Orr is a captain for a major airline and lives on Long Island with his wife and two children.
Steve “Animal” Salmirs is a retired Air Force F-16 pilot. Today, he’s a commercial airline pilot and has been a member of the GEICO Skytypers Air Show Team since 1996. Salmirs flies as one of the Lead Solo pilots and is instrumental in designing, writing, and instructing the air show demonstrations each year. He lives in Babylon, NY, and Scottsdale, AZ, with his wife and daughter.
Tom Daly retired from the police department and served as Dean of the College of Aviation and later Dean of Students at Dowling College. He is a member of the advisory councils for the Cradle of Aviation Museum, Western Suffolk BOCES Aviation Program, and the Islip-MacArthur Airport. He lives on Long Island with his wife and four children.
The Geico Skytypers Air Show Team performs at 15 air shows annually and the NAS Jacksonville Air Show is their season finale. Even after years of performing flight demonstrations, Arken’s passion has not faded. “I love the team camaraderie. I love showing these aircraft off to people. This aircraft has got wonderful nostalgia. It’s just a fun aircraft to fly. People love to hear the roar of these engines. They have a magical sound to them,” Arken says, “To me, it’s personally extremely rewarding.”
The rest of the team shares his enthusiasm. “There’s pilots and there’s aviators,” Arken continues, “Pilots fly airplanes, but aviators love aviation. They just love everything about it. I think my guys are aviators. My guys love to fly airplanes. They fly for the airlines. They fly for me. They have their own airplanes. They’ll fly other people’s airplanes. They have this unique passion for aviation where they just love to fly.”
Vintage aircraft are near and dear to Arken’s heart and he hopes to keep the memory of the WWII generation alive by showcasing warbirds from the era. “I think that really was the Greatest Generation,” Arken says, “We’ve lost most of this generation because they’re in their 90s and most of them are passing away. So it’s nice to be able to continue that generation’s legacy and to show off some of the things they had back in the day. We consider it an honor to demonstrate the amazing abilities of these vintage warbirds on behalf of our sponsor, GEICO, while sharing some rarely seen aviation history with air show crowds. Now more than 75 years old, the SNJ-2 is a testament to the engineering genius of the Greatest Generation. These aircraft are a dream to fly.”
The team is excited to be back in Jacksonville again. There will be plenty of dynamic maneuvers in their new demonstration. Music and narration add to the experience, educating audiences as the team demonstrates military maneuvers from WWII to the present day. Arken encourages NE Floridians to come on out to see the show and appreciates the warm welcome the team receives in the Sunshine State. “We do 3 or 4 shows in Florida and we’ve always found the Floridians who come out to see us are always so wonderful to us and make us feel like we’re home,” he says.
“Come out and see the show,” Arken encourages, “There’s some wonderful performers. I mean, you’ve got the US Navy Blue Angels. You’ve got Patty Wagstaff. You’ve got top aerobatic performers. And you have us. If you’ve seen us before, you’re going to see something very different from what you’ve seen in the past. Some of the maneuvers we do with these planes are very impressive. And if you haven’t seen us before, you’ll really enjoy seeing how we can take a WWII airplane and do some of the maneuvers that we do with it. I think that it’ll be very enjoyable. Come on out and see a wonderful air show.”
With a show-stopping lineup of some of the best aviators in the country, the NAS Jacksonville Air Show promises a weekend to remember. Gates open at 9 am on Saturday and Sunday (October 27-28) and shows begin at 10 am. The GEICO Skytypers Air Show Team generally flies in the afternoon, with the Blue Angels rounding out day at 3 PM. Click here for a full Air Show Schedule. The event is free and open to the public.