GEICO Skytypers: Tweeting before Twitter was Cool

Only five years ago, a tweet was something most people thought only birds did. Today is the 5th anniversary of Twitter – the social media messaging program that taught the world how to type a message in 140 characters or less. But the GEICO Skytypers had a long head start – they’ve been typing short messages in the sky for 35 years. And if you think it’s hard to keep your messages to 140 characters, try 20 to 25 characters. As in less than one alphabet’s worth of letters or punctuation marks!

“Less is definitely more difficult,” says Larry Arken, Squadron Commander and Team Leader. “So you have to be creative and get to the heart of the message. Normally we do corporate messages and airshow promotion but one time a guy whose girlfriend left him came to us and we skytyped ‘Pooh Bear, come home.’”

GEICO Skytyping a welcome message for the MacDill AFB Airfest

GEICO Skytyping a welcome message for the MacDill AFB Airfest

Larry Arken, checking the skies for the best skytyping location

Larry Arken, checking the skies for the best skytyping location

If you look up 10,000 feet above downtown and South Tampa today you’ll see Larry and his GEICO Skytypers out promoting the return of the MacDill Airfest. Each dot-matrix style letter formed by the six World War II SNJ-2’s is taller than the Empire State Building.

“The size lets people see our messages for 15 miles in any direction, depending on wind conditions,” says Arken. His dad Mort started the team in Farmingdale, New York and the GEICO Skytypers are the only team in the world that does both airshow precision flying demonstrations and skytyping.

If you’re a twitterer, you can check out today and find out what your very first tweet looked like. Probably something brilliant like, “Hello world. This is my first tweet.” No need to be embarrassed. There’s an art to brevity, just ask any newspaper headline writer or advertising copywriter. Or Larry Arken, for that matter.

Arken stopped counting marriage proposal sky “tweets” at twenty, but remembers skytyping at least one divorce message. “I’ve blocked what that one said out of my head. Bad karma.”

Skytyping -- a plane's eye view

Skytyping — a plane’s eye view

There are fewer than a dozen planes of this WWII trainer variant left in the world, and six of the remaining SNJ-2s are updated for the GEICO Skytypers with computerized skytyping technology. The planes have enlarged, 180-gallon fuel tanks which allow the pilots to operate for more than four hours when conducting skytyping missions. Flying at 10,000 feet in a line-abreast formation, the team creates giant messages in the sky visible in any direction for 15 miles.

“Think tweets or text messages, but on a monumental scale,” says Steve Kapur, GEICO Skytyper pilot and team marketing officer. “Each letter is 1,000 feet tall.”

Each skytyped letter takes four seconds to create under flight, which is 17 times faster than the more traditional skywriting method. You can check out a video about how the skytyping works right here on the GEICO Skytypers website. Go to the webisode #3.

Tampa area airshow fans this weekend will get a first-hand glimpse of the air-combat tactics and maneuvers that helped win World War II and the Korean War.

The 75-year-old planes flown by the GEICO Skytypers airshow team demonstrate low-altitude, precision-formation techniques demanded of Allied pilots flying missions everywhere from Korea to Kenya.

“Most of our team earned their wings in the military and this performance pays tribute to the brave pilots of the ‘Greatest Generation,’ ” says Kapur. “We consider it a privilege to fly these warbirds on behalf of GEICO at air shows all across the U.S.”