Flying with the vintage WWII stunt team that just buzzed Atlantic City

Pilots line up to join the Geico Skytypers, despite the possibility of crashes.

Standing a little under five and a half feet high, Steve Kapur is small but compact. His fierce stance suggests he’s more than capable of guiding 5,500 pounds of metal in precision turns thousands of feet in the air, then guiding it down in perfect alignment.

That’s what he does as part of the Geico Skytyper Air Show Team, a one-of-a-kind outfit that flies classic World War II planes in precision formation, wowing airshow audiences across the U.S.

At the end of August, the vintage daredevils were stationed in South Jersey, participating in the Atlantic City Air Show with the Thunderbirds, Blue Angels and other elite aviation outfits.

Unlike modern aircraft, there’s no front wheel on the Skytypers’ refurbished antiques. If the wings are just slightly off balance on landing, Kapur said, the nose can take a devastating spiral dive into the runway. Any number of other things can go wrong when you’re dealing with 70-year-old parts — and if something goes awry in the air, it can result in death.

Despite the possibility of crashes, a position with the Skytypers is highly sought after, said squad owner Larry Arken. There’s basically no other pilot job like it.

Along with reporters and photojournalists from the Philadelphia InquirerFox29, the Press of Atlantic CitySNJ Today and other publications, I got a chance to hop on board and experience the whole thing from right behind the cockpit.

During shows, Kapur, Arken and other pilots maneuver their half-dozen North American SNJ-2 aircraft in sync, sometimes leaving less than a sidewalk’s width between their 42-foot-wingspans as they execute eye-popping rolls, loops, spins, snaps and dives.

Ear-popping is another good way to describe the stunts — something you quickly discover if you have the lucky opportunity to play passenger during a practice flight.

The other thing you learn in short order? It takes intense discipline to pull off the entertaining aerial display.

“We run this like a military operation,” Kapur said, “because that’s the safest way to fly.”

From ‘pilot maker’ to stunt plane

Originally built in the early 1940s for training exercises, the SNJ was known as the “pilot maker” for Allied forces during the war.

The planes were eventually deployed into action, and also were used tactically during the Korean War. The model is known by various monikers: the Air Force calls it the T-6 Texan, while the British armed forces refer to it as the Harvard.

A total of about 15,500 of the planes were manufactured, and variants were used to train pilots in nearly three dozen countries around the globe.

The Geico team’s fleet is specially tricked out, with a combination of the latest in modern tech tucked inside its antique features. It’s outfitted with advanced GPS tracking and enlarged 180-gallon tanks, which carry enough fuel to run the 600-horsepower engines for more than four hours.

Most of the Skytyper crew comes from military backgrounds, and are now retired into commercial flight. Several fly for the big airlines as their main job, then switch to the Geico team for a cherished summer gig.

Even with these experienced navigators at the controls, accidents do happen.

In May 2018, as the team was flying from one show to the next, a pilot from Doylestown, Pa.,was killed after his aircraft went into a spiral nosedive that ended in a fiery crash on Long Island, according to various reports. That accident came just over a decade after another Skytyper pilot died when his plane faltered and slammed into a wooded area in Virginia, per the NY Daily News.

‘Unreal’ concentration to pull off the stunts

I rode with Steve Salmira, a Skytyper member for 23 years who boasts about being the best stick-handler in the group. His online bio says colleagues call him “SkyKing.”

In the Air Force he flew F-16s and now he flies commercial jets. Those experiences let him really appreciate the durability and flexibility of the Skytyper restored antiques, he explained.

“We all do it for the love of aviation,” Salmira said about his side hustle. “These historic warbirds are incredibly gentle.”

It didn’t feel so gentle when we executed a vertical up and the g-forces shoved my stars-and-stripes helmet close around my head, but most of the aerobatics were as smooth as a conveyor belt.

The astonishing thing was how close the other planes were. I could see my colleague grinning in the back of the cockpit on our left, and the wingtips seemed ready to graze when we were making hard turns.

Formation flying takes a special kind of brainpower, according to the other Steve. When Kapur first joined the squad around 18 years ago, just a short session would knock the wind from his sails.

“It’s a lot of fun, but [learning was] a mental challenge,” Kapur recalled. “I’d come back from a 30-minute flight and just pass out. The concentration it takes is unreal.”

Made possible by Geico

When he’s not in the air, Kapur acts as marketing director for the team.

Back in the early 2000s, it was his idea to turn the Skytypers into a phenomenon by signing up Geico as the title sponsor. The funding allowed the fleet to transition from it ultilitarian skywriting ad duties into the elite performance unit it is today.

In return for the branding, the insurance giant pays for the pilots and year-round upkeep by a full-time four-person ground crew, thus guaranteeing the team’s continued appearance at shows around the country.

On off weeks at headquarters in New York, or in Florida, where several are stored during the winter, the impressive stunt planes do still get rented out for advertising displays. Having your message printed in the sky over Jones Beach might run $2,000 for one time, according to Arken, whose dad started that business after the war ended.

Morty Arken originally owned 12 of the aircraft, his son said, but sold six of them to an outfit in California that uses them for skywriting and training only. These days, the younger Arken has a waiting list of pilots who want to join his stunt group, despite the known vulnerabilities.

For someone who loves both the art and science of aviation, Arken said, there’s pretty much nothing else in the world like the Geico Skytyper team.