There are biologists who study the Cluster N region of migratory birds and researchers who develop shape-shifting, plastic 4D implants. And then there are mechanics and technicians who design parts to keep 75-year old warbirds known as SNJs migrating to airshows across the country.
Three of those SNJ specialists are based at the GEICO Skytyper’s home airfield in Farmingdale, New York. When Maintenance Chief Keith Urso, Line Operations Chief Frank Atria and engine specialist Luis Marroquin aren’t traveling with the pilots to airshows they are keeping the vintage planes in better-than-new condition.
This season, for example, the team replaced the fleet’s original incandescent navigation and landing lights with LEDs for energy savings and efficiency.
“We do whatever it takes to keep these planes safe and operational as long as possible,” Urso says. “It’s part of keeping history alive.”
The work starts each winter, long before the airshow season gets underway, when the planes that trained the pilots of WWII and the Korean War get exactingly thorough inspections. Urso, Atria and Marroquin check every gear, nut and bolt for corrosion. Where it gets tricky is when parts need replacing. The SNJs were built between 1940 and 1941 by North American Aviation and no-one manufactures them anymore.
Each member of the team has years of experience working on other military and civilian aircraft. Marroquin even spent eleven years repairing P3 engines in the U.S. Navy. But nothing compares to the old-school technology inside the SNJ trainers. So they tap other skill sets too, like those involved in rebuilding antique cars and building model airplanes.
“We have to come up with ways to fix the SNJ and develop alternatives when the parts are no longer available,” Urso says. “The FAA has to approve each fix and some of our work has become SOP for FAA protocol on SNJs.”
Another reason the FAA maintenance inspectors rely on the judgment and experience of the GEICO team is more literary than mechanical. The manuals written for the original SNJs use terminology and descriptions from a bygone era and often make assumptions unfamiliar to contemporary aviation technicians.
“We have maintenance manuals where the information isn’t laid out step by step like it is now,” Atria explains. “They took it for granted back then that you knew the intermediary steps. So the instructions might just read ‘pull starter off and replace’.”
Urso’s career in maintenance management spanned almost 15 years on state-of-the-art private charter jets and corporate aircraft fleets. He switched to vintage World War II SNJ warbirds when he joined the GEICO Skytypers team in 2012 and says the age of the planes was actually one of the job’s biggest draws.
“It’s like translating another language,” he says. “For example in the old SNJ manuals the torque value for propellers was written as 180-lb man on a 6-foot pole. By the 1950s they changed that wording to pounds-per-foot.”
Atria was still a student at Wilson Tech’s Aviation Maintenance Program eight years ago, when he walked over to the GST hanger across the runway at Republic Airport.
“Some friends and I walked over to check out these cool old planes after class one day and I was so fascinated I asked the head of operations at the time if he needed any help. I started working part time for the Skytypers as a mechanic’s helper before I finished school.”
Eight seasons with the GEICO Skytypers later, the Deer Park, N.Y. native is an expert in a warbird twice as old as he is.
“My uncle was a mechanic in World War II and worked on bombers over in England. So he fostered my interest in airplanes. Every birthday he bought me model airplane kits, kind of like what I do now with my daughter.”
Atria, Urso and Marroquin consider it an honor to work on planes that are such an important part of U.S. military and aviation history. For the past two years they’ve hosted plane-side lessons on SNJ mechanics for high school aviation students from Long Island and other stops along the airshow circuit.
“Without people taking care of these planes, and without the fans who support the team, this little bit of history would disappear.”