Story & Aerial Photos by Mark Shaffer
Ground Photos by Susan Shaffer
I’m sitting in the back seat of a 75 year-old World War Two trainer preparing to take off from the Marine Corps Air Station with several other media thrill-seekers for a bit of wing-tip-to-wing-tip aerial derring do with the precision pilots of the GEICO Skytypers. We’ve all signed the requisite disclaimers, suited up and been briefed on the safety protocols. Skytyper Steve Kapur helps with my parachute and life vest and runs me through the procedures in the unlikely event we have to jump or ditch. “So what do you do if you hear Bail! Bail! Bail!?, he asks. Well, realistically I’d lean toward sheer panic.
I will admit, a forty-pound parachute makes a big difference when attempting the already awkward cockpit entry. Exiting the plane at speed in a crisis would most certainly define one’s nerve and deepest theological beliefs.
Just about every Allied pilot who flew in the Second World War strapped into a North American Aviation designed SNJ. The GEICO Skytypers fly the SNJ-2 version – a bit shorter and equipped with a larger fuel tank for more flight time. The aircraft hauls its 5500 pound bulk into the sky behind a 600 horsepower Pratt and Whitney 9 cylinder radial engine.
I’m flying backseat in the number 1 plane piloted by Larry Arken, Commanding Officer and Flight Lead. The cockpit is open and when Larry fires up those 600 horses the roar sets my adrenaline pumping. The radio crackles. “Let’s go have some fun,” he says. Just another day at the office.
We’re flying between practice sessions for air show headliners, The Blue Angels, who’ve been running through their routine right overhead. As we roll out to the runway we taxi past Fat Albert, the Angels’ C-130T Hercules support plane and then the gleaming blue F18 Hornets. Some of the Angels watch as we go by. I’m hit with an odd time warp sensation at the gulf of technology between us. And then we are airborne, the other planes literally right off our wingtip, the intricate puzzle of the Sea Islands beneath us. It all goes by too quickly.
Later, we meet our friend Sy for a drink downtown to share the images and the experience. As a young Naval Airman in the early 1950’s, Sy flew backseat in the Navy version of the same plane, towing a target over the Gulf of Mexico while novice fighter pilots unloaded live ammo on it. Even though the target was at a pretty safe distance, Sy tells us that watching the tracer rounds rip across the sky behind him “was a bit disconcerting.” I can only imagine.
A very special thanks to MCAS Media Relations, Larry Arken, Steve Kapur, the pilots and crew of the GEICO Skytypers and Brenda Little and Teresa Bruce of BBIG Marketing.
Check out our flight video at lowcountryweekly.com and our photo album on the Lowcountry Weekly Facebook page.
Learn more about the GEICO Skytypers and see them in action at geicoskytypers.com