Despite having spent a small fortune that will probably never be paid off on flight school, I was very disappointed that I did not land a job as a Boeing 747 captain immediately upon graduation from college. It seems my newly minted Bachelor of Science in Aviation Management, my Associate of Applied Science in Aviation Flight, and my few hundred hours of flight experience meant exactly jack in the real world which, in turn, meant that I needed to find another way to get by until United Airlines realized what it was missing.
Thus, my first “real job” in aviation was towing banners. It was one of the most exciting – and frightening – things I’ve ever done as a pilot, and I was young enough – and desperate enough – to do it for flight time and the price of a trenta caramel macchiato.
I received no flight training for banner towing; my boss went over the procedure with me on the ground. There was no way to do it in the air as the added weight of an instructor combined with the huge amount of drag from the banner once it was picked up would have been… unfortunate.
If you’ve ever wondered how a banner ends up flying circuits over the beach and obstructing your view, you’re in luck, because I’m about to give you the 411.
First, the banner is assembled, letter by letter, and then spread out flat on a grass runway. Two PVC poles – imagine football goal posts – are erected, and a rope which leads from the first letter of the banner is strung like a clothesline between them. The tow-plane is equipped with a pilot operated hitch or clamp on the tail. A rope ending in a grappling hook is secured to the hitch, attached temporarily to the wing strut with masking tape, and finally fed into the cabin through the window.
The pilot takes off, flies a normal traffic pattern as if returning to the runway to land, and tosses the grappling hook out the window before final approach so that it is trailing behind the aircraft. The tow-plane must then pass over the grass airstrip and try to pick up the banner by catching the rope suspended between the two PVC poles with the grappling hook. A failed attempt just meant coming back around for another go.
A successful pick up is immediately apparent. It would feel like a boat dropping anchor in the shallows. The aircraft would lose an alarming amount of airspeed and would be lucky to climb more than 100 feet per minute. Most of my gigs were in the summer, so I had the heat working against me as well, resulting in poorer performance from the plane and engine oil temperatures eking up into the red. I would fly to the designated location at an altitude of only a thousand feet or so above the ground, circle the area for 15 minutes, and then head back to my home field.
Dropping the banner was considerably less harrowing. All it required was a low pass over the grass field and a pull of a lever to open the clamp on the aircraft’s tail. If I was feeling saucy, I could drop the banner and just land straight ahead on the grass field, but that was a lot to be doing after flying around on the edge of a stall for the last hour. It was safer to simply come back around for a normal landing.
Not that I ever thought about how dangerous that job was until now. No wonder my mother never wants to hear any of my flying stories. Well, hopefully you enjoyed this one as much as I enjoyed sharing it.