Ban, or Banner?

Aerial advertising flights fight for survival in the wake of terrorist attacks

December 1, 2002

The New Jersey sky was uncommonly clear for a late-summer morning as Matt Applegate, just off the ground at Allaire Airport, brought the Piper PA-18 Super Cub around to hook his banner. Like many aerial signs he pulled, this was no bare-ribbed strip of letters. It was a soaring billboard 50 feet high and half again as long, one of a variety of super-size flying advertisements pioneered by the outfit Applegate flies for, Aerial Sign Company Inc. "UN FOR TAIWAN," the banner read. Applegate would be flying it up New York's East River past the United Nations every day for the next week. On this crystalline morning he could see Manhattan some 25 miles to the north. But nothing in the 9,000 hours he'd spent pulling banners prepared him for the sight before him.

"I saw smoke going up from the city," Applegate says. "You could just see a giant black plume. When I saw that amount of smoke up there, it looked like a war zone."

Applegate landed and called flight service. A briefer told him that the World Trade Center had been attacked.

"At that time I was in awe of the act," he recalls. "It wasn't until much later that we were worried about our business."

The banner-towing business: The term sounds contradictory for a side of aviation that seems more redolent of tanning oil than motor oil and closer in spirit to Baywatch than JAG. But with 400-plus banner-towing companies in the United States, ranging from part-time operations to outfits with large fleets, banner towing qualifies as an industry. And nothing has threatened it more than the aftermath of the events Applegate was witness to on September 11, 2001.

The precise origin of banner towing is unknown, but Aerial Sign Company, based in Hollywood, Florida, has been around for most of the industry's history. (Banner refers to any towed message, signage, or display; aerial advertising includes skywriting, which Aerial Sign Company also performs.) Arnold Butler, who ran an FBO in Manchester, New Hampshire, founded the company in 1945. His son James "Jimmy" Butler recalls family beach vacations that followed his father's banner-towing routes. Jimmy helped to ready and retrieve the flying signs. His father Arnold brought the family and the banner business to Hollywood in 1953, and Jimmy came aboard full time after graduating from high school. Today he's president and CEO of the world's oldest and largest aerial advertising company.

Yet for someone whose livelihood is based on airplanes and who's accumulated 17,000 hours of flight time, Butler has an unusual view of his occupation. "This is an advertising business, not an aviation business," he says in his office at the company headquarters at North Perry Airport. To underscore the point, he's brought out his media kit, filled with charts and graphs, to show potential advertisers the value of putting a sign into the sky in terms they understand: audience demographics, reach and frequency, recall, cost per thousand.

But anyone who visits the Aerial Sign Company flight line might disagree with Butler's assessment of the nature of his business. The company owns about 40 Piper Cubs and variants — J-3s, J-5s, PA-12s, and PA-18As — constituting what may be the most-flown and highly modified fleet of these aircraft in the world. Several of the airframes have more than 50,000 hours. All sport various combinations of the more than 30 approved modifications the company has developed to boost performance and reduce operating costs: full-span vortex generators; extended wings; leading-edge cuffs; engines of up to 260 horsepower; and a gurney flap, a thin strip of metal affixed perpendicularly to the trailing edge of the wings that Butler calls "one of the most fantastic aerodynamic devices that has been placed on airplanes." The modifications are restricted to use on the company's fleet and all the aircraft are operated in the Experimental category.

But the aerodynamics and aesthetics of what flies behind the planes seem to excite Butler the most. His father began improvising banner designs in the company's early years; he'd sew up a silhouette of a horse, for example, to put on a racetrack's banner. Butler expanded the envelope, developing giant two-dimensional signs of more than 10,000 square feet, then pioneering huge flying fabric sculptures: a motorcycle whose wheels spin as it tools through the air; a slot machine with a handle that moves back and forth as it gambols by; a 40-foot-long beer can. Bigger and better signs are ever on his mind.

Controlling these soaring sculptures once they're airborne isn't something taught during traditional flight training, and finding qualified tow pilots is an ongoing challenge for all banner-towing companies. At Aerial Sign Company, the job falls to the third generation of Butlers in the business, Jimmy's son, James Jr., better known as Junior.

"We have people here with 200 hours that have just gotten their commercial license, and we have people here with 11,000 hours of tailwheel time," Junior says, in front of a hangar where a fresh recruit (a new commercial pilot) is helping paint a sign promoting a local radio station.

Banner towing is all about flying low and slow, and each banner adds its own aerodynamic quirks to the challenge. Power settings are based on the size of the sign. The banner, flying 100 feet below the towplane, may be in a different air mass than the aircraft, creating more complications. Yet a towplane is virtually unspinable — the banner acts like a giant kite tail, stabilizing the aircraft.

Trainees start out on the ground crew at Aerial Sign Company, putting banners together and helping with pickup and drop-off operations. Most of the trainees' 12 to 15 hours of flight training is spent practicing pickups, on the way to earning a certificate of authorization from the FAA that allows them to tow banners. Maybe perfecting the pickup takes so much practice because it violates much of what pilots have been taught, starting with the rule about not throwing things out of an airplane.

One or more three-pronged grapples are tied to the right wing strut with a slipknot. Each grapple is at the end of a 150-foot nylon line attached to a release mechanism tethered just above the tailwheel. After takeoff and climb, the pilot reaches out, undoes the slipknot, and tosses the grapple away with a sharp kick of right rudder to prevent the hook from striking the empennage. A plane may carry as many as five grapples so it can hook and release a succession of banners during one flight.

On the ground, the banner is attached to a loop of nylon rope strung between a pair of fiberglass rods about 4 feet high and 5 feet apart. Several banners may be laid out, and flags signal the pilot which banner to retrieve. From 200 feet, the pilot dives in a steep strafing run at the fiberglass rods, then at 20 feet above ground level, yanks back on the stick, pulling the airplane in a steep climb. Upon reaching 200 feet, it's forward on the stick to transition to a conventional climb attitude. If the pickup was successful, the grapple has hooked the banner and the sign is already levitating. A good pilot's pickup rate is 90 percent or higher.

"A rookie guy, once he's done with his training, he can do this specific type of flying as good as a guy who has 10,000 hours' flying time," says Junior.

But flying skill is only part of what it takes to be a tow pilot. Self-reliance and a certain rootlessness are also key. Pilots can be on the road for weeks at a time, packing little more than a tool kit, a change of clothes, and a banner. They fly along beaches from California to New York, over New Orleans during Mardi Gras, and around the crowds at Nascar races and other sporting events. Yet the vagabond life of the banner tower, its uniform of shorts and T-shirts and healthy diet of salt air, can be addictive.

"It's hard to get away from it," says Mark Solis, one of the company's senior pilots. He started working on ground operations at Aerial Sign Company when he was 16, before he had a pilot certificate. Now 26, he has more than 5,000 hours of tailwheel time. "A lot of guys say I should have gone to the airlines, but I'm having so much fun."

One thing his pilots are not, Junior says, are rule-breaking cowboys, as a few locals who complain about the towplanes' noise allege. "Most of the guys here are looking to build up a thousand hours and move on. The last thing they're going to do is jeopardize their whole aviation career by going out hot-dogging around, flying low, busting regs, and doing that type of stuff."

Aerial Sign Company's operations are conducted under a longstanding letter of agreement with Hollywood's control tower and Fort Lauderdale approach control, spelling out the procedures, routes, and altitudes its aircraft will use. On a busy weekend the company may launch 40 to 60 banners. During times of peak activity, 100 banners may be launched in three hours. In the airport's tower, controllers are unfazed by the activity. "It's just like any other operation, except they pull a rag around the sky," ATC specialist Charles Buzzard says.

Aerial advertising companies have been pulling far fewer rags around the sky since September 11. As the temporary flight restrictions that grounded all aircraft were gradually relaxed in the weeks and months following the attacks, prohibitions against banner towing remained in effect. Additionally, many operators had airplanes trapped in Enhanced Class B airspace and couldn't reposition them to locations where tow operations were permitted. Work orders had to be canceled. New contracts went unsigned.

"We were knocked out of the 2002 advertising budgets for many companies because we couldn't guarantee we would be able to operate," Jimmy says. "We had no idea this could be so economically devastating."

Concerned about the industry's survival, last fall some three dozen aerial advertising companies joined together to create the industry's first trade group, the Aerial Advertising Association (AAA).

"All of these people have distinctive personalities," AAA attorney Julian Hayes, a pilot and former air traffic controller, says of the notoriously independent-minded operators, "but we've been able to pull together a diverse group. This seemed to be a necessary step."

Temporary prohibitions against flying over many sporting events remain in effect, although aerial advertisers can obtain a waiver authorization by applying to TSA and submitting to federal criminal background checks. But the FAA can rescind the waivers at any time. The AAA has filed a suit with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, asking for a review of the FAA's prohibitions, calling them "arbitrary" and "capricious."

"We're saying [to the FAA] you can show us nothing indicating that there was any threat, yet you restrict us and don't allow us to conduct daily business while allowing others, like crop dusters, where threats have been made [to operate]," says Hayes.

Citing the pending litigation, the FAA declined to comment on the issue.

Moreover, the NFL and NCAA are lobbying the FAA and TSA to prohibit all motorized aircraft from flying within three miles of its stadiums. The NFL and NCAA are also supporting legislation banning stadium overflight for six months or one year, and requiring rulemaking to rescind TFRs or issue waivers. Such bans could put many banner-towing companies, particularly those in the Midwest, out of business. The sports franchises claim it's a matter of security, but banner towers say it's about money.

"We believe very strongly it's an economic issue," Hayes says. "Since the aerial advertising is not providing revenue to the stadiums, the stadiums don't want them there."

No hearing date for the AAA's suit or for decisions on the NFL and NCAA lobbying efforts have been set yet. With the future of their industry at stake, a victory in either case would constitute a banner day for aerial advertising.

James Wynbrandt is an aviation writer living in New York City. He owns a Mooney 252.

Who's in Charge of Airspace?

Since the issuance of the stadium temporary flight restriction (TFR) through a notam on September 20, 2001, AOPA has battled professional and collegiate sporting interests to ensure that control of the national airspace system remains with the FAA and Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Citing security concerns, sporting interests have been pressing the FAA, TSA, and Congress to prohibit flights over and around stadiums.

When first issued, the stadium TFR prohibited flights over "major open-air assemblies of people," but failed to provide a specific definition of what constitutes such an open-air assembly. AOPA's initial goal was to eliminate, or at the very least clarify, the TFR. In September of this year, AOPA persuaded the TSA and FAA to issue clarifications to the stadium TFR. The TFR now prohibits flight within three miles and 3,000 feet agl of all NFL, MLB, NCAA Division 1 football games and major motor speedway events with seating capacities of 30,000 or more from one hour prior to one hour after the event — thereby eliminating much of the confusion regarding the applicability of the TFR.

AOPA is also advocating for the rights of operators to obtain waivers to operate within TFR airspace surrounding sporting venues. In response to a TSA decision to rescind stadium TFR waivers earlier this year, AOPA worked with the Aerial Advertising Association and banner towers from throughout the country to negotiate their return to the skies around professional and collegiate sporting venues. Countering legislative initiatives backed by sporting interests, AOPA continues to fight House and Senate bills aimed at eliminating all flight operations over stadiums, and bills threatening to withhold appropriations funds from agencies that issue waivers to the stadium TFR.

Although this issue seems to center around banner-towing operations, its implications will directly affect us all. While AOPA fights to ensure banner towers have continued access to the skies over professional and major collegiate sporting venues, our larger goal is to ensure that control of the nation's airspace remains out of the hands of special interests and under the control of appropriate congressionally appointed federal agencies.

Andy Werking is the associate director of regulatory and certification policy for AOPA.