Playing follow the leader in sunny skies over Long Island, three World War II-era ex-military planes came daringly close to one another before breaking off, leaving white smoke trials in their wake.
The daredevil pilots flying this trio of propeller-powered SNJs—the U.S. Navy version of the T-6 Texan, a trainer plane dubbed “the pilot maker” that tops out at 208 mph—were practicing their routine in advance of the 13th annual Bethpage Air Show at Jones Beach, one of the biggest events on LI, this Memorial Day weekend.
“They don’t make ‘em like they used to,” said pilot Chris Orr, who took this reporter along for the ride Thursday. “These planes are 76 years old and they’re working all the time, hard. And they make almost every show.”
Orr, a member of a squadron known as the Geico Skytypers, gave some tips unlike any heard by commercial airline flight attendants before taking off. In the unlikely event that something goes wrong but somehow I didn’t hear the pilot yell “bailout” three times, another sign to jump out of the plane is that the pilot is no longer strapped into the seat directly in front of the passenger seat, THE only other seat in the plane. And when bailing out, jump directly at the wing—the wind speeds ensure jumpers won’t actually hit the wing.
Thankfully, we didn’t have to heed that advice. Aside from performing in air shows, clients also hire Orr’s team to write customized smoke messages in the sky. And since the company is based at Republic Airport in East Farmingdale—they’re some of the few local performers in the Jones Beach air show—it’s like their homecoming.
Leading the show this year is the Blue Angels, the elite squadron of F/A-18 Hornets that woo crowds with their signature diamond-formation trickery. Jets joining them include the F-35 Lightning II, a 5th Generation fighter, the Royal Canadian Air Force Snowbirds, and the Breitling Jet Team, a civilian aerobatics team. That’s in addition to demonstrations by civilian stunt pilots such as Sean Tucker, John Klatt and others, as well as flyovers by the American Air Power Museum’s warbirds and the U.S. Army Parachute Team.
As usual, crowds came early to the airport to watch the pilots practice. Such fandom is not uncommon on an island with a rich aviation history—including Charles Lindbergh’s record-breaking trans-Atlantic flight from Roosevelt Field, former local Grumman manufacturing plants building the Apollo Lunar Module that put men on the moon, and many other firsts.
Although he’s flying vintage aircraft these days, Orr is no stranger to the advanced fighter jets sharing the stage at Jones Beach. He flew F-14s for the U.S. Navy before joining the Air National Guard. He also flew C-130s on combat missions to rescue U.S. Special Forces units from hostile places, although he can’t discuss details.
Since retiring from the military, his new mission is showing off his skills in these 600-horsepower, 29-foot wingspan, flying relics of a bygone era. Catch the show Saturday and Sunday!