By John Carroll
If you go to the airport and see an airplane doing a moderately steep pull-up after hooking what looks like somebody’s outdoor clothesline, you’ve just witnessed your first banner pickup.
What you see next depends on whether Sam is proposing to Suzy, or one of the local restaurants is offering a lobster and steak special for under twenty bucks.
Do you recoil at the sight of that kind of maneuvering? Then a banner towing career may not be for you. If, on the other hand, this all looks like great sport, you may have the spirit of a banner tow pilot. Your mission is advertising, but the work is pure stick-and-rudder flying. You’ll go bravely about the business of making sure the local dealership sells its yearly quota of new vehicles. That means long days of flying over beaches, stadiums, and other places where the people are and advertising dollars are best spent. All this happens at the kind of slow speeds that won’t rip apart cloth letters or tear a full-size banner.
The letters in a single-line banner are held in place between thin metal rods having parallel straps that are attached by clips to keep the script from collapsing in the wind. Pilots may be called upon occasionally to help make or repair a banner, but a large and busy outfit will hire a ground crew to take care of that—and the task of laying out banners for pickup. Knowing that they were going to execute a quick and dramatic pull-up near the ground, sane pilots would want to carry extra speed to help prevent the possibility of a stall when all that extra weight and drag tries to yank their airplane back to the ground. But high speeds risk the added stress of suddenly ripping all that equipment off the ground.
Tow pilots pit their skill against the forces of darkness. Their lives depend primarily upon having a good “feel” for an aircraft and squeezing every last inch of lift out of a wing. A good banner tow pilot is more in tune with his airplane than the first violinist for the Boston Pops Orchestra is with a Stradivarius. Flying has to be second nature because a lot of things happen simultaneously. The saying that flying is 90 percent boredom and 10 percent sheer terror comes up a lot.
In addition to flying the traffic pattern, a banner pilot has to manage one and possibly more grappling hooks, or lower a reusable capturing boom that extends far below the aircraft landing gear. Both pick-up systems can present a hazard to people on the ground, and even the aircraft itself. Ropes from banners or the grapples have become entangled in control surfaces and gotten hung up or buried in various parts of the fuselage. Pilots have to judge the position of things that they often can’t see and arrange themselves safely in the flow of normal airport traffic while executing difficult maneuvers low to the ground.
Sometimes all this occurs in gusty and windy conditions that would challenge any aviator—but banner tow pilots need to perform all the normal things and then some, such as navigating at just the correct height while flying through two closely spaced poles that string a rope needing to be captured. Fly too low, and the banner rope gets caught in the landing gear. Fly too high, and valuable minutes are wasted while you sequence yourself back into the flow. A banner drop has its own challenges—banners have been known to drape themselves over trees, hangars, and waiting aircraft.
All this might make banner towing sound like a risky business, but there is a huge difference between risky and dangerous. Banner towing isn’t dangerous if you correctly manage the risks and are aware of your environment. All it takes is common sense and some uncommon ability. The work is hard and the hours are long, but the rewards are many. After a season of that much hand-flying, great flying becomes commonplace and your logbook is left many hundreds of hours richer in just a few months. Few jobs offer such a great opportunity to build deep and long-lasting stick-and-rudder skills and the instincts that accompany them.
John Carroll is a former regional airline captain, a banner/glider tow and ferry pilot, and had a short career as an airshow performer.