Ocean City Today

OC Today reporter takes flight with Geico Skytypers

By Katie Tabeling | Jun 22, 2017
Photo by: Katie Tabeling The Navy SNJs release white smoke while flying over Ocean City, as a test for their skywriting abilities a few days before the OC Air Show, held June 17-18.

(June 23, 2017) Even tightly strapped down in a Navy SNJ trainer plane, I could still feel the moment where my feet – and body – left the runaway.

I was in that in-between place between the sky and the pavement, feeling like I was suspended in air for minutes rather than seconds, waiting to start my free fall down.

Instead, pilot and Geico Skytyper member Bob Johansen took me higher and higher in the plane during our flight on June 15. We climbed the clouds above Ocean City as part of a demonstration of what the World War II training aircraft can really do, flying at roughly 200 miles per hour in a 20-minute ride.

Soon, I was jetting across the Atlantic Ocean, making the 10 miles of beach a small ribbon beneath me, dotted with people and umbrellas. To my right, I could see other reporters invited on this flight close by with their pilots in identical aircrafts, each with giddy expressions that probably mirrored my own. We all flew wingtip-to-wingtip in a formation of five, in a once-in-a-lifetime experience for civilians.

Johansen told me not to get freaked out by how close the other planes would be, as it actually was easy for him to pull off.

“The closer you fly, the easier it is,” he said before the flight. “When you’re in position and see airplanes move a little, you want to make a small correction [while flying]. The closer you are, the quicker you see the movement, and thus the smaller correction you can make.”

There were a lot of unexpected turns in our flight, like watching quick bursts of white smoke spout from my neighboring planes, which fogged up my canopy. I’d realize later that they were practicing drawing the American flag or marriage proposals for the OC Air Show that weekend.

The biggest shock for me was when Johansen made a wide loop, circling back to OXB, which left me a little green in the passenger cockpit. Thinking I should let him know, I flipped on the radio communication link only to find out that it didn’t work.

When we were grounded, I found out that it wasn’t just me. Johansen’s radio wasn’t working either – and he’d flown the act deaf.

“I’m really sorry about that,” Johansen said like it was a minor inconvenience. “I couldn’t communicate with the other pilots, but we made out OK. We always rehearse the act several times before we go up.”

It turned out that the cable link to the headphones was loose, so it was an easy fix. Johansen added that during our flight he also used hand signals to communicate with other pilots, which was fitting for the WWII-era plane. That practice started in wartime so no enemy pilots could listen in on the radio.

“These are the planes that they trained the Air Force fighters for World War II,” he said. “The call came out of this airplane before they flew in the Mustangs [fighter-bombers] and B-25s [twin-engine bombers] for the war.

“The SNJ is very simple, compared to what you see nowadays, with the computers. Of course, we know nothing can go wrong with computers,” Johansen deadpanned.

Asking around the Geico Skytyper team, it was no surprise that Johansen, who’s been a team member since 1977, kept his cool during an atypical rehearsal. He flew in service of the Navy from 1961-66, flying a Grumman S2 “Tracker” antisubmarine aircraft from aircraft carriers.

Johansen also had the nickname “The Last Centurion,” since he was one of the last men in the Navy to be trained how to land on an aircraft carrier.

Listening to Johansen tell how he got up in the air, it sounds like he came from humble beginnings.

“With a lot of things in life, it’s a lot of dumb luck,” he said. “When I was a kid, I enjoyed aircrafts. When people were playing baseball, I’d be in the outfield, and miss a ball watching an airplane go over.”

After taking a job following high school, he found himself working alongside an Army Air Corps pilot. He asked Johansen if he wanted to go up in the air sometime, and that was the start of a long career in the air.

Johansen got his license in 1958. After he graduated from Kalamazoo College, he signed up with the Navy. When his service was completed, he started flying with a commercial airline, flying out of New York on international and domestic routes for decades.

For Johansen, part of the joy in flying with the Geico Skytyper team is the simplicity of the aircraft.

“The airplane is a very honest airplane … no computer controls, no nothin’,” he said. “You treat her right, and she’ll treat you right.”

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