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Beacon Journal reporter sheds tears at 1,000 feet above Lake Erie aboard Geico Skytypers vintage aircraft

Akron Beacon Journal logo Akron Beacon Journal 8/30/2019 By Craig Webb, Akron Beacon Journal
a plane flying in the air: The GEICO Skytypers Air Show Team performs at Burke Lakefront Airport on Thursday in Cleveland.   [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal/Ohio.com] © Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal/Ohio.com/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS The GEICO Skytypers Air Show Team performs at Burke Lakefront Airport on Thursday in Cleveland. [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal/Ohio.com]

It all looks pretty easy with your size 10 shoes firmly planted on the ground.

And, truth be told, I was more nervous about hoisting my gangly body up onto the wing of the vintage aircraft than actually flying in a tight formation over Cleveland. Well ... Maybe ...

My head was already in the clouds after the safety debriefing before joining the GEICO Skytypers Air Show Team's squadron of World War II planes in town for the Cleveland National Air Show this Labor Day weekend.

a person holding a sign: Beacon Journal reporter Craig Webb grimaces as he gets help with his parachute from pilot Chris "Soto" Orr of the GEICO Skytypers Air Show Team.   [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal/Ohio.com] © Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal/Ohio.com/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS Beacon Journal reporter Craig Webb grimaces as he gets help with his parachute from pilot Chris "Soto" Orr of the GEICO Skytypers Air Show Team. [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal/Ohio.com]

I had to sign and initial four pages of legal gobbledygook that I believe said any mishap during the flight was likely my fault, and I agreed to low-cost car insurance and 10 years of DirectTV and a timeshare in Central Florida.

It was the safety briefing that gave me real pause.

You have to realize, I'm a guy who struggles with the directions on how to make microwave popcorn. So, when I heard the phrase "in the unlikely event of an emergency" over and over and then a series of instructions like unbuckle this, unlatch this, detach this, pull this then crawl onto the wing of a plane plummeting to Earth, I knew this story might not end well.

a fighter jet flying through a blue sky: The GEICO Skytypers Air Show Team performs a breakaway during a flight at the Cleveland National Airshow at Burke Lakefront Airport on Thursday in Cleveland.   [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal/Ohio.com] © Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal/Ohio.com/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS The GEICO Skytypers Air Show Team performs a breakaway during a flight at the Cleveland National Airshow at Burke Lakefront Airport on Thursday in Cleveland. [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal/Ohio.com]

Egads.

Mind you, this is the same wing I struggled to climb onto while the plane was parked on the tarmac at Burke Lakefront Airport.

"Don't worry," my pilot assured me.

Geico pilot Chris Orr, who looked like he'd just walked in from a Hollywood movie set, tried to calm me down by saying he would first try to find a nice soft place for us to land like the middle of Lake Erie should the "unlikely event of an emergency" happen.

He just reminded me, should we "land" in the lake, to unbuckle this, unlatch this, detach this, pull this, then crawl onto the wing of the plane and make sure to ditch the parachute and not the life jacket so I don't sink to the bottom along with the future attraction for divers in Lake Erie.

With all the unpleasantries of the "unlikely event" behind us, it was time to take off.

Most of the team's aircraft are 1940s vintage advance trainers for Navy pilots back in the day.

My plane — No. 6 — was actually used by the Air Force and dates to the 1950s.

Orr said it handles the same and pretty much looks the same, aside from some technical differences that soared over my head like the legalese of the waivers I had just signed.

I'm not sure why I was surprised, because this is, after all, a precision flying team — but it is a bit unsettling to rumble down the runaway all at once.

We were wingtip to wingtip as I watched beloved Mother Earth race by and eventually out of sight.

Like most of the pilots, Orr is former military, and he says flying the plane is like riding a Harley.

"You know how to ride a motorcycle?" he asked.

Um ... No.

Dramatic pause.

"Just don't touch anything," he instructed as I looked over a series of levers and buttons in front of me in the backseat of the two-seat aircraft.

This was not a problem, as the only thing I grabbed was my helmet as my head rattled around in the back of the tight cockpit as we made sharp maneuvers through a series of tight formations.

The planes fly just a few feet from one another.

I was close enough to count the whiskers on the chins of the other pilots and they were close enough to see the tears stream down the cheeks of a grown man as I mouthed, "Help me."

Orr said maintaining the formation is the responsibility of each pilot as the planes scream across the sky at 150 miles per hour.

He said there is a white strip on each of the plane's wingtips and a blue one on the fuselage so the pilots — like Orr — can make sure they are lined up in the right spot.

Orr was spot on, having honed his skills flying an F-14 Navy Tomcat for 11 years, an A-4 Skyhawk for three years and a giant C-130 Hercules giant transport aircraft to finish out his career.

When he's not taking media types like me off the proverbial edge with the Geico team, he is a pilot for JetBlue based in New York City.

This is the team's first visit to Cleveland in nearly a decade, and they will perform Saturday and Sunday at the airshow along Cleveland's lakefront.

Aside from the tight formations, they also use plumes of smoke emitted from each aircraft to write messages in the sky for fans to read below.

This is all controlled by a nifty computer in Plane No. 1 that controls the smoke dispersed by each plane.

Typically the phrases say something like ... "GEICO GEICO GEICO" or "15 percent lower rates," but they can also call an audible and spell out something like "SOS Crier in Plane No. 6" in a 1,000-foot tall message that can be seen for 15 miles in any direction.

Craig Webb, who may or may not be still stuck in the backseat of the aircraft trying to remember whether to unbuckle or unlatch to get out, can be reached at cwebb@thebeaconjournal.com.

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©2019 the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)

Visit the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio) at www.ohio.com

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