I could barely believe my eyes.
I had just taken flight in the back seat of a GEICO Skytyper — and glancing behind my left shoulder, I was startled to see how ridiculously close pilot Tom Daly was flying his plane, just off our wingtip.
I could clearly see his sunglasses and the expression on his face.
Thursday morning, I had reported to Merritt Island Airport with FLORIDA TODAY Photographer Craig Bailey to take media flights with the GEICO Skytypers. The aerial team had just arrived in town from Lakeland for this weekend’s Cocoa Beach Air Show.
We got outfitted for our mission. I pulled on a light-khaki zip-up flight suit with GEICO patches sewn on the sleeves; grabbed a black skullcap and blue flight helmet; and strapped on an inflatable life preserver in case of a watery river-ocean landing.
Daly offered helpful advice: Stick your paper barf bag inside the calf-high zippered pocket on the leg of your flight suit. That way, it’ll be easily accessible after you’re strapped into your seat.
Cocoa Beach Air Show: To livestream event amid COVID-19 pandemic, adds F-22 and B-52 bomber
Any jittery nerves I had were calmed after chatting with my pilot, Chris “C.T.” Thomas. The Virginia Beach resident and JetBlue pilot earned his pilot’s license at age 17 — and he has racked up more than 19,000 hours of flight time aboard 100-plus different types of aircraft.
The Skytypers fly the North American Aviation SNJ-2 (also called the T-6 Texan), which was the “flying classroom” that taught most of the Allied pilots who served during World War II, according to a Boeing historical fact sheet.
Thomas strapped on my parachute and helped me clamber into the spartan back seat of Skytyper No. 1, which dates to 1941.
A bank of old-fashioned needle gauges faced me — air speed, altitude, manifold pressure, etc. — along with a control stick and foot pedals. Practically everything was made of gray-painted metal. I stuck two helmet cords into plugs near my right arm, next to the red fire extinguisher, so I could listen to the pilots chat on the radio.
“It’s a very physical airplane to fly. This is loud. It’s rumbly. It’s smoky. It’s a radial engine, which is a pretty unique engine configuration — so they’re always kind of dripping oil,” Thomas described.
“Another nickname for the airplane was ‘Old Growler,’ ” he said.
Thomas warned me that winds rushing past the curved glass canopy can exceed 200 mph. And he described an October 2019 viral video showing the stunned reaction of an unfortunate Jacksonville television cameraman — who got his iPhone sucked out of his hands midflight.
After manually pumping a lever with his left arm to prime the engine, Thomas fired up his Skytyper and the 6½-foot propeller spun to life. That’s when the plane started shaking and vibrating, sending my handwriting jiggling around my notepad for the rest of the flight.
Thomas, who flew as lead pilot, led the Skytypers roaring skyward eastward off the Merritt Island runway.
Occasionally “stacking up like cordwood” in echelon and diamond formations, as he phrased it, the Skytypers swept over Cocoa Village and followed the algae-green Banana River northward to Kennedy Space Center.
This special-access flight featured a broad pass around NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building and views of the 15,000-foot-long Shuttle Landing Facility runway.
Turns out the Skytypers line up in aerial formation by eyeballing small stripes on the wingtips, fuselages and tails as reference points. Head nods and hand signals also help triangulate the pilots, Thomas said.
During air shows, the Skytypers emit white smoke and write dot-matrix-style messages in the sky as tall as the Empire State Building — and up to 8 miles long. These “skytyped” messages can be seen by spectators up to 15 miles away.
Though the vintage warbirds date to WWII, Thomas said the smoke messages are controlled via Bluetooth and laptops.
“We have the latest in avionics. If you were to stick your head in the front cockpit, I’ve got TV screens with synthetic vision and all the latest navigation systems,” Thomas said.
Sunny skies with thin puffs of white cloud prevailed during our half-hour flight, and the Skytypers soared past Titusville, the Blue Origin rocket factory, KSC Visitor Complex, Port Canaveral and Cocoa Beach.
After rattling my vertebrae by veering vertically in an unexpected “pitch-up break,” Thomas banked toward Merritt Island Airport and descended for a smooth landing.
Thomas has been a JetBlue pilot the past 18 years.
“People at work say to me, ‘Hey, don’t you get enough flying at work?’ The only thing I can say is, it’s like being the captain of a ship — and owning a bass boat,” Thomas said.
“They both float. But what I do here has nothing in common with what I do at work. It is absolutely worlds apart.”
Cocoa Beach Air Show
The Cocoa Beach Air Show will also feature the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and F-22 Raptor Demonstration Team. Other military aircraft include a B-1 Lancer stealth bomber, B-52 Stratofortress bomber, A-10C “Warthog” Thunderbolt II, C-17 GlobeMaster III and a Valiant Air Command warbird parade.
Opening ceremonies start Saturday and Sunday at 11:30 a.m., and flight performances take place from noon to 2:30 p.m. The Thunderbirds will headline both shows from 2:30 to 3:15 p.m.
Admission is free along the Cocoa Beach oceanfront, with Lori Wilson Park serving as the geographic “show center.” Aircraft will fly along about 2 miles of shoreline, extending from Westgate Cocoa Beach Pier to Minutemen Causeway.
A camera crew will livestream the event at https://air.show to allow for social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This weekend marks the first GEICO Skytypers air show of 2021.
The aerial squadron will next perform during the Fort Lauderdale Air Show on May 8 and 9, followed by the Bethpage Air Show on May 29 and 30 at Jones Beach State Park, New York.
The 2021 Skytypers schedule includes a third Sunshine State appearance at the Central Florida Space and Air Show on Oct. 16-17 at Orlando Sanford International Airport.