LAKELAND — The vintage airplanes roar past, leaving puffs of white smoke in their wake that become mileslong messages: birthday greetings, event promotions and, yes, car insurance ads.
The Geico Skytypers have shown up at sporting events and car races and above beachgoers since the 1960s. Creating floating billboards for the insurer and other companies pays the bills, but the group of mostly ex-military pilots also performs at a dozen air shows and fly-ins each spring and summer.
Through Sunday they'll be among the squadrons and pilots displaying their aerial skills and specialty planes, including vintage aircraft, at the Sun 'n Fun International Fly-In & Expo in Lakeland. The air show segment, which features the Skytypers, will run daily from 3 to 6 p.m.
"It's the opportunity to fly these particular airplanes with this group of guys that makes it worth it," said pilot Bob Johansen, who lives in Tierra Verde.
The Skytypers are 18 pilots, eight of whom specialize in close-formation flying, which is when their wing tips hover an arm's reach from each other. They fly an almost forgotten aircraft: single-engine, two-seater North American SNJ-2 planes — the type used to train military pilots during World War II. Only 11 of the original planes remain today, and the Skytypers own five of them. They also fly an Army Air Corps T-6 trainer.
Instead of armaments, the planes are outfitted with devices that inject drops of mineral oil that evaporate into puffs of white smoke when introduced to the 500-degree exhaust system.
The messages can run as tall as the Empire State Building (1,250 feet) and stretch for 8 miles depending on the number of words, he said. Figuring the precise moment when to make smoke to form the letters is left to a computer, though the pilots can depress a button on the stick to make smoke manually.
"It has a big engine and it produces a lot of smoke and makes a lot of noise," said Johansen, 73, who flew antisubmarine planes for the Navy in the mid 1960s off the Eastern Seaboard. "It's quite spectacular for what it does."
The six planes fly 50 to 70 feet apart when skytyping but as little as 3 or 4 feet apart, and often with the canopy pulled back for more drama, when flying in formation at air shows.
Steve Kapur, a pilot and the squadron's marketing manager, says the Skytypers will provide a bit of both at Sun 'n Fun — formation flying and message writing, likely a welcome message to the crowds, he said.
Kapur, 58, who lives in Sparta, N.J., about an hour northwest of New York City, is a rarity among the Skytypers. Almost all are former military men, but Kapur received his training as a civilian. He's been flying for nearly 30 years and runs a marketing company on the side.
An uncle who flew commercial jets from London to New York piqued his interest in aviation as a child, he said.
Kapur, who has two grown daughters, started taking lessons at age 30 after a flight with a friend in single-engine Cessna over Chicago. He has been hooked ever since. He joined the Skytypers 14 years ago.
"You get this sense of freedom from flying," he said. "It's hard to describe unless you've experienced it. When you're up there and break through the clouds, it's a perspective not a lot of people get to see."
Johansen is a rarity among the fliers as well. His son, Ken, 47, joined the Skytypers seven years ago, making the two the squadron's only father-son duo. Founder Mort Arken and his son, Larry Arken, flew together until Mort's death three years ago.
Johansen grew up just south of Detroit and learned to fly in a cow pasture when he was 17. He joined the Navy shortly after that, got out in 1966 and moved to Pinellas County from New York in 1991. He joined the Skytypers 36 years ago and is one of the squadron's eight formation pilots.
For Johansen, who has no plans to retire any time soon, flying allows him to unwind. The worries of life evaporate, leaving only the task at hand, he said.
"It helps you to focus, and you better focus, especially when you're in formation," he said. "Some people golf, some people do other things. I fly. When you're up there, it's like being 8 years old and you just have to focus on one thing, flying."
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.