Queens Native Built Skytyping Into Unique Promotional Platform

On July 4, 1986, Mort Arken and his squadron of six SNJ-2 aircraft led an airmada comprised of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, the French aerobatic jet team, and dozens other aircraft. With tens of millions watching and President Ronald Reagan in attendance, the airmada flew over the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor commemorating the centennial and re-opening of one of the world’s most recognizable monuments.

Just as he led that star-studded airmada into the history books, Mort led the Skytypers for 35 years from a personal dream to a dynamic business model that today features his World War II aircraft providing millions with messages in the sky each year.

A fascinating individual who touched many both young and old, Mort passed away on December 10, 2007. But his legacy as a leader and the tradition he created of skytyping continues to soar.

The Beginnings

Mort was born in Whitestone, NY in Queens on June 20, 1924. He grew up in Queens where he remembered as a teenager seeing the Pan Am Clippers take off for transatlantic flights from North Beach Airport. (Fittingly and for decades, Mort’s offices were in the marine air terminal near the main terminal for the North Beach Airport – the airport the Clippers used as a home base.)

Inspired to help the United States in World War II, Mort enlisted in the U.S. Navy on his own at age 17. Mort soon found himself on the USS Enterprise as it arrived into Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1941 – one day after the attack that brought the U.S. into World War II. He would spend a total of 16 years in the U.S. Navy followed by another 10 years in the U.S. Army.

“He was an extreme American patriot,” said son Larry Arken, Deputy Squadron Commander/Flight Lead for the GEICO Skytypers. “I would tease him because he wouldn’t read the regular newspapers. He would only read the Navy Times.”

While in the service, Mort developed skills that would provide the foundation for a lifetime of skytyping – showmanship and piloting war-bird aircraft. In the Navy, Mort became a bandmaster leading both big bands and marching bands. He later served as the bandmaster for Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, NY and for Arthur Godfrey’s variety show.

“He had a very big musical background and hence, was always a showman,” said Larry Arken. “He never had any trouble getting in front of people, talking to people or singing on a bandstand.”

In the Army, Mort learned how to pilot “taildraggers” and eventually logged a tremendous amount of piloting hours. The combination of show biz and an affinity for piloting provided the inspiration for a soon to be devotion to skytyping.

Out of the service and working at Flushing Airport, Mort discovered several SNJ-2 airplanes from World War II sitting idle one afternoon. Fascinated by the discovery, Mort tracked down the aircraft’s owners Andy Stinis (the inventor of skytyping) and his son Greg. Immediately, Mort became intrigued by skytyping and quickly recognized there was an enormous amount of untapped marketing potential.

After spending a few years as a skytyping pilot, Mort purchased the aircraft from Stinis and quickly accelerated the growth of skytyping through performances at airshows, barnstorming, promotion and sponsorships.

A Master Salesman, Marketer and Promoter

After several minor sponsorships, Mort netted his first major sponsorship for the Skytypers in the late 1970s with the arrival of Miller Brewing Company. Miller repainted the aircraft and designed new, branded uniforms for the pilots. The “Miller Squadron” laid the groundwork for a sponsorship formula that would continue to grow for many years to come.

“Mort was an absolutely extraordinary salesman,” said Larry Arken.

Sponsors for the airshow program would later include such household brands as Ford, Nicorette/NicoDerm and current sponsor GEICO Insurance. Hundreds other corporations have sponsored Skytyping aerial advertising programs.

Mort was a major part of the Skytypers’ partnership with GEICO dating back many years. A long relationship with the Skytypers doing aerial messaging for GEICO eventually turned into airshow sponsorship.

“He was an intuitive, smart marketer, and the consummate salesman,” said Steve Kapur, Pilot/Marketing Officer for the GEICO Skytypers. “These days, people go to school and don’t learn half of what he had in his gut.”

Mort’s promotion of skytyping was a 24-hours per day, seven days per week passion. He was notorious for always wearing his skytyping uniform.

“He was quite the personality – he lived and breathed skytyping,” said Larry Arken. “He was Mr. Skytyper. He always wore the uniform. He was the personality of the Skytypers – he was as much a personality as anything else. People hired him because they loved who he was.”

“Mort dressed the part and he acted the part,” said Kapur. “When you talk of building brand equity or building an image whether it’s for a product or for public personality, he knew the public image he wanted to project for the team. He also knew what would help build interest in the group. He didn’t just develop that, he lived it.”

Extremely passionate for Skytyping, Mort led a building process for the Skytypers that led to bigger sponsors, bigger shows, and bigger opportunities. Mort leveraged his skills as an entertainer to build the team. He demanded a precisely orchestrated show from start to finish from his squadron. All of which was part of the image he was creating for the Skytypers.

“Seemingly little things made a big difference in our presentation. For example, he was adamant about parking the aircraft six in a row,” said Kapur. “You go into some of these smaller airports and they’ll want to stack them 2-2-2 or two groups of three. He demanded to park, wingtip to wingtip six in a row. It dramatically enhanced our presence and accentuated other elements of our act – like starting and stopping our engines in unison.”

Skytyping Success

The final product however – the Skytyping – had to be performed correctly for the show to ultimately be a success. Through Mort’s leadership, the Skytypers had an uncanny talent for successfully accomplishing impressive skytyping displays which require clear skies.

“Wherever we were, he managed to find blue skies behind the clouds somewhere,” said Tom Daly, Opposing Solo Pilot for the GEICO Skytypers. “We would skytype different venues – the U.S Open tennis stadium, Super Bowl, Giants Stadium. He had to line up the customer on the ground, with the writing in the air, and the blue sky behind them. He brought us through the clouds and always seemed to get us where we needed to go.”

Reluctant to accept the advances of aviation technology (Mort would fly without GPS), he would always lead the skytyper squadron with precision.

“He was an old-time stick and rudder pilot and proud of it,” said Daly. “From the Boston Marathon to the New York City Marathon to even a grand opening at a Home Depot, you name it. We would take off. He would get us there.”

Ed Trudeau, a retired air traffic controller and a pilot for 25 years with the Skytypers, recalls his first meeting with Mort.

“I was an air traffic controller for FAA and was flying for FAA checking Kennedy radar at the Flushing Airport” recalls Trudeau. “We landed at Flushing and all these T6s were parked down at the end of the runway. I asked the airport manager at the time – Hey does that guy ever need any pilots?”

“The manager called him, and said ‘he wants to see you.’ So I walked down there, Morty interviewed me. Next thing I know I am flying with him and have been flying with him since 1982.”

In addition to the Statue of Liberty centennial flyover, Trudeau ranks a 1995 cross country tour as one of the Skytypers’ biggest accomplishments.

“We flew all the way to Long Beach, CA and came back with a squadron of 200 airplanes that were commemorating the end of World War II,” said Trudeau. “It was a 27-day tour where we touched an incredible amount of people.”

With thousands of skytyping flights under his belt, it would be impossible to estimate how many people have seen Mort’s skytyping in the air. But clearly, the number would be enormous.

“He is a legend,” said Trudeau. “You could talk to anybody in New York City and I bet you almost everybody has seen Mort flying over the top putting out aerial advertising. Up and down all the beaches on Long Island and New Jersey. We were everywhere.”

On the Ground

Out of the cockpit, Mort was a big personality with a big heart that came out each year when Mort would help facilitate the Kiwanis Kids Day at Laguardia Airport.

“What people don’t realize is that all of these activities were voluntary,” said Trudeau. “He volunteered every year to give back to the community.”

Mort connected with people of all types and of several generations.

“He was genuinely a nice guy, and always had time to talk to people,” said Daly. “As important as he was around the airport, he always found the time to spend a few minutes with you.”

“Mort had four generations of pilots involved in this group and we all got along,” added Kapur. “It didn’t matter what our ages were, the glue that bound the group together was Mort and our love for aviation.”

Behind the scenes with the pilots, Mort relentlessly challenged the group while creating an environment of fun.

“He started every meeting with a joke,” remembered Daly. Sometimes, the pilots would return the favor and get a laugh and a smile out of Mort himself.

“One year on the way to the airport, we stopped to pick up crumb cake for his birthday and then sang happy birthday to him right before we went out skytyping,” said Daly. “He couldn’t believe that we remembered his birthday.”

Tradition Continues

With son Larry now leading the Skytypers, Mort’s legacy and the tradition he created live on.

The Kiwanis Kids days continue each year at the Laguardia Airport. In addition, each December 7 on Pearl Harbor Day, the Skytypers participate in a commemorative event that Mort helped create – the dropping of roses on the Statue of Liberty.

The GEICO Skytypers have become one of the most sought after airshow acts in the nation, while Skytyping is now in demand throughout the world. The Skytypers will continue to provide thousands with messages across clear blue skies just as Mort envisioned.

In memory of Mort Arken, donations can be made to the Kiwanis Club of LaGuardia Airport;
PO Box 690505, E. Elmhurst Station, Flushing NY 11369-9998.