GEICO Skytypers ensure memorable tribute at Maryland Fleet Week Baltimore

Pilot Mike Brockey and reporter Anthony C. Hayes walk the GEICO Skytypers flight line at Martin State Airport. (Michael Jordan / BPE)

Baltimore: For most airplane enthusiasts, the chance to fly in a vintage trainer like the North American SNJ-2, only comes along once in a lifetime – if that. Thanks to Maryland-area insurance giant GEICO and the staff of the GEICO Skytypers, this reporter has now had the chance to ride in the hardy WWIi-era trainer not once but twice.

If I go up again, they may ask me to fly the plane.

I’m kidding, of course. But for thousands of WWII and Korean War aviators, flying the SNJ-2 (and it’s land-based sister – the T-6 “Texan”) preceded assignments to front-line aircraft, such as the P-51 Mustang, the F4U Corsair, the B-17 Flying Fortress, and the B-24 Liberator.

GEICO has assembled six of these iconic trainers, equipped them with modern avionics, and regularly showcases them at air shows, such as this weekend’s Maryland Fleet Week & Air Show Baltimore. The company also uses the planes for advertising via state of the art skywriting. The “skytyping” goes a long way to keeping the old birds flying. True romantics have been known to contract the Skytypers for help with popping the question. One bitter guy announced his just executed divorce via a cloudy message in the sky.

The GEICO Skytypers fly the WWII-era North American SNJ-2. (Anthony C. Hayes)

The Baltimore Post-Examiner caught up with the Skytypers twice last year. First at the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum’s WWII Weekend and later for a spin over Annapolis in preparation for the Joint Base Andrews Airshow. It’s unusual to do a third feature story about any group in less than a year. However, having the team here in town presented this reporter with a golden opportunity. It isn’t often you can drive to work and end up doing loops over Middle River.

“You’re gonna have fun,” said team leader Larry Arken. “You’re gonna go on a four-ship ride. If you’ve never been close to another airplane, you’re gonna be in what we call a diamond, so we’re going to have an airplane on the right, the left and one in the slot. You’re gonna go out and sightsee a little bit. You’ll get to maneuver and see some of the maneuverings we do during one of our air shows, as well as the close formation work that we do.

“I think you’ll get an appreciation for the pilot’s concentration with this airplane and just how responsive the airplane is for doing what it does. You’ll be able to look out and open the canopy, which is something you normally can’t do and get some fresh air. It’s just going to be exhilarating and fun, and I think you’ll like it.”

“You’re gonna have fun” said GEICO Skytypers team leader Larry Arken. (Anthony C. Hayes)

An unusual sight on the flight line was a sole SNJ-2 painted in Navy colors. We didn’t ask, but I suspect the airplane is the replacement for the Skytyper plane which was tragically lost earlier this year.

“The blue plane here on the tarmac was purchased from a gentleman of the west coast,” said team member Jim Record. “It used to be a Reno air-racer. It’s painted in Navy colors now, but over the winter it will be repainted in the GEICO Skytyper colors.

“I’m not flying today. Today I will be a stuffer. That means I’ll be stuffing the VIPs into the rear seats of the aircraft, getting them set up with the radios and so forth. If you’re not flying with this outfit, then you’re a stuffer. Actually, I’m not one of the regular demo pilots, but I help ferry the planes around the country.”

Record said he started with the Skytypers in 1992.

“My background was as both a Navy and an airline pilot, but they retired me out once I hit 60. That’s when they had the 60 rule. None of us here are full time. Most of the guys are either airline or retired airline. We do 15 air shows a year, and then we head home.”

After suiting up and listening to a now-familiar pre-flight briefing, I walked across the tarmac to the flight line, where I was greeted by my pilot: Mike Brockey.

“When I was 17, I went to the U.S. Air Force Academy,” said Brockey. “After graduating from there, I flew planes for the Air Force for 20 years – mostly F-15 C’s. After leaving the service, I went into an electrical supply business with my father and brother. But I still fly for the airlines and with the Skytypers on the weekends.”

GEICO Skytypers pilot Mike Brockey. (Anthony C. Hayes)

We asked Brockey how different the F-15 is from his current ride in SNJ-2.

“The F-15 is like driving a Cadillac with a gigantic engine in it. It was very smooth and very quiet, though it could be quite violent at times. Commercially, I fly a 737, but that’s almost not like flying.”

There is a radio hookup between the cockpits of each plane, but for the duration of the flight, I could communicate with Brockey by using an onboard intercom system. Not that it was needed. I was happy to quietly sit in my seat, take pictures and video and enjoy the breathtaking view.

The flight, as advertised, was exhilarating and fairly uneventful – once we finally got off the ground.

While taxying to the runway, the engine hiccuped a few times whenever Brockey revved it up. We returned to our ramp briefly where a mechanic stepped onto the wing and made a minor adjustment to (if I’m not mistaken) one of the engine magnetos. Brockey later told me this is a common tweak on the old-school radial engines.

With my flight complete (see the video below), I had time to watch the next flight take to the sky – and to reflect on the iconic airplanes and the men who flew them almost two generations ago. I had an uncle who flew in a B-17 during WWII. And two of my favorite stories as a reporter are interviews I conducted with centenarian Stephen J. Bolcar, and Jerry Yellin – the now deceased pilot who lead the final mission against the Japanese.

Arken said that whenever the Skytypers do an air show, inevitably an aging veteran will approach them to talk about the planes.

“My father was a pilot during WWII and at the beginning of the Korean conflict. He always told me that back then, they had wooden ships and iron men.

“ I fly for the airlines now, and we have all of this magic equipment that we work with, but back then, they had this airplane. They had a little needle that pointed the direction of the ship. They had to contend with the weather and had no radar and communications to speak of. And they put themselves into harms way all of the time and then had to fly home.

“In my mind, the men of that generation are our heroes, and that is why we are here today. I have a tremendous amount of respect for our military, but I think back then, they just had the will to make things happen.”

Flying into the sunset with the GEICO Skytypers. (Michael Jordan / BPE)

Maryland Fleet Week & Airshow Baltimore continues through Tuesday, October 9. The Skytypers have one more performance, Sunday afternoon at around 1:30. The entire event is free, with good spots to see the air show all around Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, Fells Point, and Ft. McHenry. For more information, visit Maryland Fleet Week Baltimore. And be sure to like the GEICO Skytypers Facebook page.