Never Again Online: A blustery day in Ponce

April 1, 2009

It was late May, 1970, a blustery day in Poncé, Puerto Rico, normally a no-fly day, at least for the kind of flying I was considering. But what the heck, I was an experienced twenty-seven-year-old pilot with a grand total of 180 hours of flight time and this flight would complete the last hour of a ten-hour contract for the local Volkswagen dealer. It had been about a year since I had established my aerial advertising business for extra income and for fun. I had flown approximately 60 hours, towing banners for various local businesses behind my fully aerobatic Champion 150.

I had recently received a promotion in my regular job which required moving from Puerto Rico to Central America, so I sold my banner towing business two weeks prior to a pilot from Mayaguez. He was being taught how to fly the Champion 150. Since he was still learning, we had agreed that I would complete an aerial advertising contract with the local Volkswagen Dealer.

Without getting too detailed, let me explain how it was done back then. The banner consisted of twenty to forty nylon cloth rectangles, each five to seven feet tall by thirty inches wide, joined to create a message. We used an aluminum pole, weighted with lead in its base to keep the banner upright during flight. The banner with a 150 foot lead rope was laid out along the runway. The lead rope was looped between two 12 foot poles for pickup.

The procedure was takeoff and then fly low over the extended banner to catch the lead rope with a grappling hook that extended from the tail of the plane on a fifteen foot nylon rope. As soon as the plane passed the lead rope loop, I had to convert speed into altitude with a very steep climb, thus raising the banner rather abruptly so that it would not snag on obstacles. I could not actually see or feel the hook catch the lead rope and could only tell that it had been caught by a reduced climb out and maneuverability due to the drag. Since the banner was pure drag and weight, in flight it would extend from thirty to forty feet below the aircraft. At the end of the flight, I would fly the plane low over the drop zone, pull a release cable, which allowed the grappling hook and the banner to drop to the ground. I would then do a go-around and land the aircraft.

Well, on this blustery day with strong crosswind gusts, I had made two failed attempts to pick up the banner. I decided to fly lower this third time and hopefully assure a pickup. Just as I neared the poles, a strong crosswind gust struck and I dipped the wing to keep the aircraft straight with the poles. As soon as I passed the poles I quickly pulled the stick back for altitude. The initial climb felt normal except my maneuverability. I noticed that I could turn easier than usual during a tow. I figured that I had missed again. I pushed the rudder and looked back to see the banner trailing along just like it should, but something felt strange. I continued my climb to altitude, keeping the aircraft barely above stall speed, which was the normal way of flying it. Once at altitude and trimmed, I began to test the strange feel of the aircraft. I looked around to discover what might be different. After checking inside, I looked outside and finally discovered the problem: I had snagged the loop with my right main landing gear instead of the hook. Uh-Oh!

Otherwise, everything seemed normal. In fact the plane handled better than it did when the banner was extended from the tail. The real problem was not in flying the plane with the banner thus attached, but in landing it. Too frequently upon retrieving the banner at the end of a flight, I had found the weighted pole lodged deeply in the soil. Remembering that it extended way below the aircraft, I realized that it would snag before the plane even got close to the runway .

I notified the tower of my predicament and requested that they try to contact the two other banner towing pilots in the community to tell them of my problem. They were far more experienced than me, and I was certain that they would have a solution to my dilemma. Meantime, I would fly the contract since I needed to burn off fuel anyway. I flew the one hour contract plus a little, and estimated 30 minutes of fuel remaining (I could pretty well measure the fuel in my Champion, since I could look from my seat right through a window into the side of each wing tank).

Ready for landing, I again asked the tower if they had been able to contact either of the two experienced banner towing pilots. They replied that they were able to talk to one of them. I asked, “Sooooo?” The controller said he was unable to offer any advice. I insisted, “Well, what did he say?” The controller reluctantly answered, “He said that he had never known any pilot foolish enough to snag a banner with his wheel.”

I was a new pilot with a problem considerably bigger than my experience. I realized that there was no hope of shedding the banner, and no ideas from anyone on how to deal with my problem. I had to deal with it. I had been praying, but really I had been praying that someone would tell me how to do it. Now I just prayed to know how to do it. I immediately was inspired to make a unique landing approach and use the banner to control the plane instead of the plane controlling the banner. I saw the fire trucks and emergency equipment alongside the runway as I flew over the airport for the last time. The tower informed me that the wind had changed and was light and in line with the runway, which was a miracle in itself. I did feel nervous, but in control.

I brought the Champion straight in and high. Once over the end of the runway, I dove the plane at the runway, leaving the banner above me, and in effect, dangling the plane from the banner. I flared very close to the runway, and as soon as my wheels touched, I applied the brakes. I was almost stopped with the brakes when the lead pole struck the runway and completed my stop with a ground loop. No flip, no screeching metal, just sirens!

I shut it down and sat there quietly for a moment, thanking God as the emergency vehicles raced towards me with their sirens wailing. I merely gave the emergency crew a practice run that day. After gathering the banner equipment, I parked and said good bye to the little Champion. That was my last flight in the Champion, and my last banner tow.

Lynn Justice and his wife Bonita live in Guatemala. Lynn has more than 3,000 hours flying experience. They own a Cessna Turbo Skymaster and use it to travel expansively in the United States and Central and South America.