TAMPA — As a formation of World War II trainers cruised 1,000 feet over Tampa Bay, a 60-year-pilot flew one of the single-engine propeller planes so close to another that their wings overlapped by three feet.
The tight maneuver is old hat to Steve Salmirs of Newport News, Va.
"I practiced this back in 1983 when I was stationed at MacDill Air Force Base," said Salmirs, a pilot with the Geico Skytypers Airshow Team.
Between practice runs by the jet-powered Navy Blue Angels, Salmirs and three other pilots took off from MacDill for a practice run in their quartet of SNJ-2 planes to prepare for this weekend’s Tampa Bay AirFest 18.
The old aircraft were built to help World War II pilots transition pilots from basic trainer aircraft to war-fighters and today are an air show favorite.
"This is a great way to honor the pilots of WWII," Salmirs said.
As the planes taxied down the runway, a flight of A-10 Thunderbolt II close-support jets, affectionately known as Wart Hogs, came in to land ahead. Along with F-22 Raptors and the Blue Angels in their F/A-18 Hornets, the A-10s are among the military aircraft now in service that will perform at AirFest.
"That is so cool," Salmirs said as A-10s with their distinctive 30 mm nose cannon touched down.
Flying so close to other aircraft was a skill Salmirs picked up when he was stationed at MacDill, flying a different kind of plane — F-16 Fighting Falcon jets.
Salmirs was part of a reserve training unit at MacDill. A cohort of about 15 pilots, they performed a mission similar to the one flown by the men who originally piloted the SNJ-2s.
"We were learning to fly the F-16s as a weapon," he said.
The work included long days full of simulated dog fights and bombing runs over the Avon Park Air Force Range in Highlands County.
Off hours, he recalled, were often spent enjoying adult beverages at The Don Cesar Hotel in St. Pete Beach.
"I loved my time here," Salmirs said.
Now known by the call-sign SkyKing — he not only flies but plans out the Skytypers’ show — he was known as Animal in the Air Force, he said, after a night of hanging upside down from a moose at a Las Vegas bar when he was stationed at Nellis Air Force Base.
This year marks the first new Skytypers show in five years.
"We added a few things, took a few things away, saw things we wanted to do," he said before taking off for the practice flight over Peter O. Knight Airport, around downtown Tampa and Hillsborough Bay before concluding with a maneuver called a "Delta Pitch to Land."
Each aircraft in formation pitches up to a 30-degree angle, and then pitches back down again.
"We pulled 3.5 gs doing that," Salmirs said, 3.5 times the force of normal gravity. "That was fun, wasn’t it?"
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman
>If you go>
>Tampa Bay AirFest, Saturday and Sunday>
Admission is free.
Schedule the same both days, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Opening ceremonies 11 a.m.
Navy Blue Angels flight demonstration team, 3 p.m.
Bring water bottles for fill-up stations
HART runs special routes to the base every 15 minutes from Britton Plaza, 3944 S Dale Mabry Highway.
Complete schedule at www.macdill.af.mil and click link at right