Skywriting: Who Says a Flying Job Can’t be Fun?

By Robert Mark on June 23rd, 2008

I walked out in the alley on Saturday near my home just north of Chicago and was surprised to see a bunch of kids all staring up at the azure-blue sky to the north. “Hey guys. What’s going on?” I asked. One small boy said nothing and only pointed up to the sky. That’s when I was treated to an aerial display I hadn’t seen in at least 20 years … a skywriter.

andy When I was a kid – yes, long before the 20 years so no smart aleck remarks – skywriting was a part of the integrated mix of marketing messages a company used to blast its message to thousands of people in a moment. I towed banners from a 7KCAB Citabria many years ago, but skywriting looks like way more fun than I ever had dragging rags.

A skywriting message can last up to 10 minutes before it disappears which is considerably more bang for the buck than a 30-second TV spot. Still brevity is a necessity when high-speed, upper-level winds – usually above 10,000 feet – are around, something Andy Stinis knew when he helped create the media for Pepsi Cola in 1931.

Few skywriters still exist today although the Chicago Tribune’s Jon Hilkevitch had a chance to catch up with the pilot of the Chipmunk that produced the work I saw over Chicago the other day (Sorry for the ads, but the Tribune doesn’t do YouTube). Traditional skywriting pilots build the message from in their head as they fly from gut instincts about flying, as well as where to start and stop the smoke (wonder how you erase if you screw this up?). I started to imagine “Jetwhine.com” over major airports everywhere …

skytyping A little more digging showed me that while traditional a short-word airborne message is still a limited market, the demand for digital-like text is growing. It’s called skytyping and is produced with a fleet of airplanes flying in wing-to-wing formation, each turning on the bio-degradable smoke for just a fraction of a second. The result is a message that looks as if it were typed across the sky.

Now which one of you folks under 25 are going to ask what a typewriter was?

Added at the last minute is this look at the the Chipmunk pilot’s – Suzanne Asbury-Oliver – aerial advertising site.

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7 Responses to “Skywriting: Who Says a Flying Job Can’t be Fun?”

  1. Ron Says:

    Yeah, I think skytyping is a lot of fun. I fly with Skytypers’ west coast team, which is based out of Chino (KCNO). Andy Stinis’ son, Greg, runs the operation and flies the #1 aircraft. Still a family operation after all those years. :)

    We usually write messages at 10-12,000 feet AGL and the messages themselves can be several miles long.

    One of the neatest things I’ve done with them is called “smoke surfing”. When we’re enroute and bored, sometimes one of the aircraft will drop back 250′ or so and the airplane in front will turn on their smoke for a few seconds. The smoke gets into the wingtip vortices and starts to curl around. By the time it get a couple hundred feet back, it’s turned into a tunnel of smoke you can fly through.

    I sort of feel bad about doing it now that I know what a barrel of smoke oil costs (nearly $1,000!), but it sure is fun. :)

    –Ron

  2. Robert Mark Says:

    Smoke Surfing! What a life this must be Ron. Are you the guys that use the T-6s?

    OK, so tell the truth. Did you ever make a typo?

  3. Ron Says:

    They used to use SNJ-5s (like a T-6 but with a very large fuel capacity) out here, but the fuel cost was prohibitive, so they are now being used by the east coast Skytypers team (which also does formation airshow stuff). We use Grummans out here nowadays. If I recall correctly, the Skytypers SNJ-5 fleet are the only -5 series airplanes remaining in the world.

    Regarding the typo, that’s a good question. The thing is, I have no idea what the signs say! The guys in the lead aircraft have a laptop computer and they just input whatever they want the message to say. Then, via a wireless network, it tells the smoke system in each airplane when to turn on and off. So unless I ask them what the signs say, it’s a total mystery to me. :) My job is just to fly a tight formation and hold station.

    But I bet somewhere along the line a typo has been made once or twice over the years!

    Skytypers is experimenting with colored smoke for better visibility. On days with high cirrus layers way up the stratosphere, the white clouds mix with white smoke and obscure the signs. The business is very sensitive to weather conditions. High winds can break up the signs too quickly, etc.

  4. Mal Gormley Says:

    Thanks for the reminder about skywriting, which used to fascinate me as a kid living just north of LGA. Many summer weekends used to include that squadron of SNJ’s doing their thing overhead (sans laptops & wireless, I must point out–so how’d they do it then???)

    Colored smoke seems like a no-brainer. Don’t the French AF & the RCAF teams use it?

  5. Candice Chatterton Says:

    Here is something that has Jet appeal and a little more cost affective. Hope you enjoy their website as much as I do. They seem to have something new that they are adding to their website.

  6. Tor Welch Says:

    I am curious as to whether the Anthony “Andy” Stinis who is discussed at length above is the SAME guy as LT Anthony “Andy” Stinis, USNR; who flew “Coronado” transport seaplanes with Navy Transport Squadron TWO (VR-2) during WWII.

    If so, he must be the same hero who safely landed a stricken seaplane on the ocean, in pitch darkness, on 12 Oct 1944. He landed at Lat/Long 30N and 140W; and the 10 man crew and 5 passengers were safely picked up by a Coast Guard picket ship at at that spot in the ocean known as Ocean Station “November”.

    The plane was a PB2Y-5R Ser # 7221

  7. LSTINIS Says:

    RESPONDING TO TOR WELCH MY GRANDFATHER ANTHONY “ANDY” STINIS WAS THE LT USNR WHO LANDED THAT PLANE AND THE SKYWRITER, SKYTYPER. HE RACED MOTORCYCLES PRIOR TO LEARNING HOW TO FLY. WHILE AT A MOTORCYCLE RACE HE WATCHED A PLANE FLY OVER AND THAT WAS IT HE THEN LEARNED HOW TO FLY SELF TAUGHT HIMSELF HOW TO SKYWRITE (THAT IS DOWN BACKWARDS UPSIDE DOWN) AND INVENTED SKYTYPING. HE HAD A GREAT PERSONALITY AND WAS A WONDERFUL GRANDFATHER!!!

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