The Geico Skytypers’ smoky, airborne alphabet could be called the world’s first text messaging, says pilot Steve Kapur.
At the upcoming Wings Over Pittsburgh Open House event, Kapur and his fellow pilots on the Geico Skytypers Air Show Team will fly their six World War II-era SNJ planes up to 10,000 feet, which makes the aircraft practically invisible from the ground. They fly in formation, wing tip to wing tip, across the sky, while a central aircraft programs each plane to spurt out puffs of smoke. These puffs form words in a practice known as skytyping, which produces letters people can see from 15 miles in any direction.
“The skill on our part is flying airplanes in formation,” says Kapur, a civilian pilot who lives in New Jersey. Most of the team’s pilots come from there and New York. “We become like the print head on a dot matrix printer.”
The Wings Over Pittsburgh show — a longtime beloved tradition — last flew in 2011, mostly because of uncertainty over government budgets and funding, says Maj. Charles Baker, open house director. The Air Force Reserve’s 911th Airlift Wing, located adjacent to Pittsburgh International Airport in Moon, has faced closure three times in the past three years.
Planning the event on May 13 and 14 two years ahead of time presented a gamble, but Wings Over Pittsburgh is so valuable to the community and has been missed, Baker says.
“The local area really enjoys this open house,” says Baker, who works as a flight instructor for the C-130 Hercules. “It’s a terrific opportunity to come and get a look at … as a taxpayer, what kind of bang are you getting for your buck?
“When we’re able to do an open house like this, it’s a really big deal,” Baker says. “We spend time with the community we really appreciate being neighbors with.”
Several pilot troupes are performing flying shows at the event, including the U.S. Navy Tac Demo’s Super Hornet Demo Team and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. Aside from the aerial messages, the Skytypers — who use tactical formations used in World War II and the Korean War — also do a lower-altitude air performance with daring tactical maneuvers.
Wings Over Pittsburgh also includes many static attractions and activities on the ground. You can explore vintage military aircraft like a KC-135 Stratotanker, along with WWII-era vehicles, and more. People also can meet pilots and military veterans at tables, and talk to them about what they do. Visitors will find that many of these pilots have Western Pennsylvania roots, says Baker, who is from Robinson.
“A lot of these guys grew up here, and went on to do great things,” he says. “That’s one of the coolest aspects of this open house to me.”
Kapur says the spectators — who camp out on grassy areas with blankets and chairs to watch the air show — will be both delighted and educated. An announcer will explain how maneuvers are used in war, while background music plays.
“It’s a great flying experience — it’s a great experience overall,” says Kapur, marketing officer for the Skytypers team. “The people that we meet at the air shows are terrific.
“I think that, yes, we’re going to entertain you and you’re going to go ‘wow,’ especially when the big jets fly,” he says. “But also, it gives them a respect for what our servicemen and women are doing to defend our freedom and give us the opportunities that we have which are significant in this country.”
Visitors are advised to go to the website, www.pittsburgh.afrc.af.mil/News/Open-House/ , for information about parking and restrictions on items that you can bring. Allow time for thick traffic on the way toward the 911th from the city.
Kellie B. Gormly is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.