May 8, 2012
One of the airshow teams performing precision aerobatics this season can also be hired to do typing. Want to get your message across in letters as tall as the Empire State Building and stretching across eight miles of sky? Call The Geico Skytypers. Currently, they’re the only flying team offering skytyping services. According to team spokesperson, Allie Schotanus, the average cost of a sky ad is $1,500.
The Skytypers fly North American SNJs, the Navy’s version of the T-6 Texan combat trainer. To type a message, five aircraft fly abreast about 250 feet apart, each one signaled to release puffs of smoke at a pre-programmed spot. The lead aircraft carries a computer programmed to send radio signals to the other aircraft in the formation; the radio signal commands the smoke release. The “top” and “bottom” aircraft (numbers 3 and 5) are single seaters; their back seats were replaced by larger smoke oil tanks than those carried by the other SNJs because those two have more typing to do in the formation of the letters.
No surprise that a computer does the typing; what is surprising is that the system of radio commands was invented in the 1940s. At that time, the radio signals triggered switches in a control board carried in each aircraft, according to a 1949 issue of Popular Science. Each board had 200 switches that created the dot-matrix messages. One of the founders of the current skytyping teams inherited a 1964 patent on the digital version of the system and formed the group in 1979.
You can see the team perform their aerobatic routine at 10 airshows this season. And if history is a guide, you may also see a very big marriage proposal or two.
Here’s what skytyping looks like from the ground: