It is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its radius, an irrational number that sparked a viral social media response from those who saw it written in the sky by a quintet of Grumman Tigers over Austin, Texas.
Mainstream media picked up the story of the pi in the sky, and a Florida aerial advertising firm built by Patrick Walsh was suddenly thrust into a most-welcome spotlight, a “firestorm of press,” Walsh recalled, that was “so intense it crashed our company’s website eight times throughout the 24-hour period” following the pi-writing.
Walsh, a commerical pilot with about 3,200 hours—most of that in Piper Super Cubs—founded AirSign in 2008, and has forged partnership with Skytypers, an aerial advertising company that supplied the aircraft, patented skywriting system, and pilots to create, on March 13 (a day early due to weather), the vision of California artist Ben Davis, also known as ISHKY; Davis is known for massive public installations of which “Pi In The Sky” is probably the largest, if also the least permanent. While pi itself is believed to be a number with infinite digits (calculated by computers to 12 trillion digits so far), the digits written 10,000 feet above the city (which was not coincidentally hosting the South by Southwest music festival) lasted only a few minutes before the wind began to tear them apart—just long enough for thousands to snap cellphone pictures and feed those images into the collective consciousness.
For Walsh, that was plenty of time to get a message out that would capture attention far beyond Austin’s limits. He has built his aerial advertising company into an international operation, with more than 90 aircraft either directly owned by the company or flown by affiliated operators who are vetted and trained by Walsh and his staff. AirSign, through its partnership with Skytypers, markets its unique ability to compose detailed messages using a computer-driven smoke system that coordinates the output from each aircraft in the formation, creating letters and numbers in similar fashion to a dot matrix printer.
Skytypers operate two sets of aircraft, flying SNJs in the east and Grumman Tigers on the West Coast. (The East Coast squadron is sponsored by Geico, and was covered in detail in the February 2013 issue of AOPA Pilot.)
The Austin mission, launched at 6:28 p.m. (pi times two, or tau) on March 13 (a day before Pi Day itself, moved up to avoid overcast skies the following day) required a bit more planning than usual, and particular attention to detail. The message, visible for miles, included a Twitter hashtag and the first 527 digits of the legendary number, Walsh said, and it took hours to program that message. Even though few observers would be likely to spot an error, the team spent hours checking and re-checking the sequence to make sure it was correct.
“Accuracy is really important,” Walsh said.
While it was certainly a marketing coup, one that Walsh hopes will lead to more business writing messages in the sky for advertisers, it was also at heart a piece of art meant to inspire, he said, using a number known around the world.
“It’s a message of endless potential, and you know, achieving those dreams, reaching beyond your normal capabilities,” Walsh said. “The response was unbelievable … all over, it touched people.”