I Flew Over Atlantic City in a World War II-Era Plane

Before the Atlantic City air show this week, I got to ride along with the GEICO Skytypers. It was an exhilarating experience.

View of the New Jersey beach and Atlantic Ocean from a GEICO Skytypers plane

The view from my plane over the Atlantic Ocean | Photo: Dan McQuade

I can admit, I was terrified.

I knew I would be OK. My pilot was Bob Johansen, a Navy veteran who told me he’d been an aviation enthusiast his whole life and got his pilot’s license as a teenager. He flew for TWA, and began his career with the GEICO Skytypers in 1977. Brenda Little, who does marketing for the Skytypers, told me “Bob is the best pilot on the team.” He won FAA’s highest civilian honor, the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, given to those with a record of 50 years of safe flight.

The plane was about 70 years old. When Johansen helped me strap on my life vest and parachute, he told me I wouldn’t need it. “This thing is like a tank,” he said, tapping the plane’s body. “Any problems, I’d rather take my chances landing in it. Unless the wing falls off or it’s on fire, we won’t be jumping out of it.”

But when we took off in our SNJ-2, first developed in the 1930s and used to train Navy pilots during World War II, I was scared. It’s not that I thought we were going to crash. It’s that I didn’t know what to expect. Once we got over the ocean along Atlantic City, though, the feeling was breathtaking. I got it. The canopy was open. The wind finally gave me some relief from the heat. I looked up at the sky and exhaled. This was incredible.

The GEICO Skytypers were in town for the Atlantic City Airshow, held over the beach Wednesday. An estimated 450,000 people lined boardwalks and beaches from Brigantine to Ocean City to watch planes and helicopters fly by and perform demonstrations. There were also several skydivers.

The GEICO Skytypers do what you’d expect: They fly in elaborate formations — including wingtip-to-wingtip flying — and execute complicated maneuvers to the delight of viewers below. They also release smoke to spell words in the air, and perform these tricks at about 15 shows a year. They had a fly-along with several media members on Monday, which is how I ended up in the plane with Johansen. (His son, Ken, is also a Skytyper.)

Obviously, Johansen didn’t have the same fears during the flight that I did. He says he barely needs to think anymore when flying these planes. “I’ve been flying it since the 1970s,” he said. “I don’t have to fumble around for the controls. I don’t even look down when I’m lowering the gear. It’s muscle memory, I guess.”

It was an honor to fly in a plane that also trained pilots for World War II. It’s impressive the planes are still around and flying today. “They really were built like tanks,” Johansen said of the SNJ-2. “The engine is a very common engine. There were a lot of airplanes that had that engine, so there are a lot of mechanics that know how to maintain that engine — and there are a lot of parts for it.” He added that the Skytypers have a “well-paid” full-time team of three mechanics who make sure the planes keep working. “They know what they’re doing, and if they didn’t I wouldn’t be flying them.”

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