In close formation, reporter rides in squadron of vintage war planes

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

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Dayton Daily News business writer Kara Driscoll flew with the GEICO Skytypers in WWII era T-6 Texan airplanes to create messages in the sky.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

For the first time at the 2017 Vectren Dayton Air Show, the award-winning GEICO Skytypers flight squadron will fly through the Miami Valley in a tight formation.

The squadron of six vintage World War II aircraft will perform on Saturday and Sunday — showing off daring, precision maneuvers in the high skies of Dayton. On Thursday, I climbed into the backseat of wing pilot Chris Thomas’ iconic aircraft, which was used as a war training plane more than 70 years ago.

The award-winning Skytypers perform at airshows across the U.S. in vintage SNJ-2 aircraft. In the 1940s, the planes were designed as a transition trainer between basic trainers and first-line tactical aircraft. With every demonstration, the pilots try to honor the military men who flew them so many years ago.

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ExploreThe Geico Skytypers fly in a close formation of six planes in Dayton on Thursday. KARA DRISCOLL/STAFF Staff Writer

“Most of our team members earned their wings in the military and we always pay tribute to the brave combat pilots who originally trained in our aircraft as well as those currently serving in the Armed Forces,” said GEICO Skytypers Commanding Officer Larry Arken.

When I arrived at the Dayton International Airport, the pilots of these blue, white and red vintage planes greeted me with firm handshakes and smiles as they waited for the Federal Aviation Administration officers to clear the planes for flight.

I suited up in a fitted, khaki flight suit, a flotation device and a freshly painted blue helmet. The six planes, marked with numbers near the propellers, sat in a perfect line near the runway. After throwing on a parachute, I climbed onto the wing of the plane, and threw one leg into the cockpit — and then slid down into the cramped seat.

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The aircraft’s unique design elements include: a larger round rudder and a free-castering tail wheel. Each plane weighs 5,500 pounds and utilizes a 600hp Pratt and Whitney R-1340-AN-1, 9 cylinder radial engine.

In just minutes, Thomas maneuvered the aircraft onto the runway, and each plane took off within seconds of each other. With an open cockpit, the wind whipped in our faces — making it more difficult to communicate through our headsets during parts of the flight.

Dayton Daily News business writer Kara Driscoll makes a selphie photo as she files with the GEICO Skytypers on Thursday before the upcoming weekend Vectren Dayton Air Show.
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Dayton Daily News business writer Kara Driscoll makes a selphie photo as she files with the GEICO Skytypers on Thursday before the upcoming weekend Vectren Dayton Air Show.

On all sides of the plane, identical vintage aircraft flew just feet away from us — cruising above and below in a methodical formation practiced many times by the squadron.With blue skies, the team cruised from the airport in Vandalia to downtown Dayton. From the back of this aircraft, the movement seemed effortless — one well-practiced dance by the pilots.

As the six planes weaved in and out of each other, the downtown Dayton skyline stood out in vivid view, with the Great Miami River snaking in and out of buildings. The Montgomery County Fairgrounds and the University of Dayton popped out in contrast of rows of tiny houses.

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Toward the end of the flight, the squadron showed some of the smoke-capability of the aircraft. The planes are retrofitted to type giant messages in the sky. Flying wingtip-to-wingtip in a line-abreast formation, the lead plane sends computer signals to each of four other aircraft, synchronizing smoke releases to generate 1,000-foot-tall messages.

“People on the ground can see our messages from 15 miles away,” said Steve Kapur, the GEICO Skytypers marketing officer. “The messages appear in dot-matrix style, but on a monumental scale and 17 times faster than traditional skywriting.”

The Geico Skytypers show off their moves on Thursday. KARA DRISCOLL/STAFF
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The Geico Skytypers show off their moves on Thursday. KARA DRISCOLL/STAFF

And, each letter is higher than the Empire State Building and can be formed in three to four seconds. Before landing, each plane swung up and out to get out of formation — a little taste of the quick maneuvers they’ll pull for the airshow crowds this week.

The gates for the 2017 Vectren Dayton Air Show will open at 9 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday with performances beginning at 11:30 am.

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