Banner towing: a beginner's guide

Banner towning is a challenging and exciting career choice for a pilot. But how do you get started?

By Wayne MansfieldThe ink is barely dry on that new CPL and you are ready and raring to hit the big time. Imagine it: actually being paid to do the thing you love most, flying!

Well you’re not crazy and certainly not alone. A 1929 entry from my grandfather’s logbook reads: "must get commercial licence as soon as possible." So what are the options? Let’s see: flight instructing, sightseeing, charter, freight, and crop spraying. The problem is, you need lots of hours to get the job, and frankly you need time and money to get the hours. Then there is always the thorny issue of insurance for low time pilots.One possibility is banner towing and there are lots of summer jobs, especially in the States. You’ll build at least a couple of hundred hours, plus earn reasonable pay. Some even offer lodging. Typically you get to fly a modified Super Cub with 150 or even 180hp. Some are radically modified, like the also-popular Alaska Bush Plane. Where else could you get to fly such a machine? HOW DO YOU GET THAT SEAT?

The flying ranges from routine to heart pounding. The most interesting part is said to be picking up the banner, which is laid out clear of the active runway and attached to a towline, which has a loop to be snagged by a grappling hook. You start by attaching one end of a 15-foot long rope to the tow release on the tail. On the other end is a steel grapple hook, which usually hangs in the aircraft window or in the open door of a Super Cub. After takeoff, you simply toss the hook out making certain it is clear of the empennage – and carefully check that it is well clear of the rudder horn.After a short circuit, you approach at 85mph in a shallow descent, reduce power, and then make a hard rotation briskly going to full power. Max performance climb to about 200 feet and then a pitch over to increase the momentum again as the banner lifts off the ground. A small letter banner may barely be noticed, but with a billboard, it’s another matter. Some of them measure up to 50 feet in height by 100 feet wide. While you may not feel a sudden shock, as the banner lifts off the ground the airplane will struggle during the climb at very minimum airspeeds. This is especially true when heavy with fuel. Some Super Cub types are modified with up to 61 gallons (235 litres) of fuel, so you have both a huge ‘tail attached to your kite,’ along with an aeroplane that is likely to be over its original design gross weight. Factor in high ambient temps and gusty winds and you will have plenty of work to do in the cockpit. Some people quickly acquire the knack of swinging the grappling hook into the banner towline, but some struggle and never quite get it right. To be honest, it can feel quite odd when you are on short final, aiming for that six-foot-high by fifteen-foot-wide loop in the rope, knowing that in a few moments you’ll be climbing at a steep angle with 3,000 square feet of sailcloth behind you. It is challenging but when accomplished with strict adherence to procedure, you become quite proficient at catching the rope, the first time, every time. Banners are flown where there are lots of people so that means near large cities. In both New York and Los Angeles you’ll pass just offshore the runways of JFK or LAX and need to work Class Bravo airspace like a seasoned pro. Otherwise, the controllers may not let you accomplish your mission. After all, they’ve got a huge workload and you need to be spot on with your R/T skills.

You may go through three or more different controllers without a handoff inside of five miles. Having said that, they are a very skilled group, and can be kind enough when dealing with a newcomer who’s a bit flustered, or unsure that he or she are really meant to be at 300 feet and a mile offshore, passing just beneath a departing ‘heavy’. Besides, it’s good fun to be looking up 500 feet at the belly of a 777 – and not be in for a violation. Letters of agreement specify these routes and once familiar with them, a short message will get you where you need to go. As often as not, you’ll be given a frequency change in advance, and believe me, you’ll learn to love the ATC folks once you’re in the groove. Then you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy the great scenery along the coastal routes; though it is fair to warn you that bikini watching needs moderation with scores of other banner planes passing to and fro along the coastline. Vigilance is key. CROSSING DESERT

Some missions also offer lots of cross-country time. For example, following the NASCAR scene. Flying from Los Angeles to the Phoenix International Raceway gives one a great opportunity to see the great American desert whilst flying for a few peaceful hours over totally open space. As you travel, you’ll meet a lot of different and interesting people. Moving from State to State can be as big a change as passing from one country to another in Europe.The local accents vary widely, as does the regional cuisine, some of which can be truly excellent. Ask the boss to be sent to Louisiana if you love spicy seafood, the mid-Atlantic for Crab, and Chicago if you’ve gone off vegan. The steak is great! The downside to the NASCAR assignment, however, is the long stretch of circling round and round one venue for up to eight hours at a stretch. If you are hour building, eight hours flying in one day is a real plus, but you’d better have a strong back and a lot of patience.DROPPING ON TARGET

After a banner-towing mission is completed you must then return to base to drop the banner off. This may sound simple enough, but this manoeuvre requires a lot of planning and practice. You are now flying the world’s longest object, as the combination of plane, banner, and towline can approach 500 feet in length.First you must blend seamlessly into traffic bearing in mind that your speed is much slower than just about every other aircraft’s, which means anticipating the turns and often flying faster than you would during the usual towing regime. Then you must avoid dropping a super lightweight cloth banner worth several thousand dollars on a wire fence, which can (it has more than once) cause the banner’s destruction.If there is a crosswind, you have an even greater challenge, and most airfields will have planes parked nearby. You do not want to explain to your boss or to the aviation authorities that the banner’s weighted mast drifted into the windshield of a King Air or Falcon jet. In fact, some consider the banner drop more difficult than picking it up.Once released the banner is on its own, so in a crosswind you will actually need to approach from well to the upwind side with a lot of extra speed, essentially diving the banner into its target zone. It’s a bit like a precision bombing run. Here again it can get tricky. The banner acts to stabilise the aircraft. When you release the sign, you lose that stabilising effect and you’re manoeuvring at low airspeed in a ‘dirty’ configuration… and at perilously low altitude.Now you must take great care to establish full power, maintain heading and airspeed, and avoid the temptation to climb too early. You could encounter a fouled release mechanism, meaning a go-around from low altitude at low speed with the banner in tow. If there are obstacles like trees or electric wires, then you need some extra speed and energy in the event of this infrequent – but known – occurrence. On rare occasions you may even have to land with the banner in tow. On a smooth paved surface this isn’t especially difficult, though it will cause wear and tear on the banner. Once you’ve proved your mettle, say after 200 hours, you may get promoted to one of the more powerful and complex aircraft, like our modified 300hp Cessna L-19 Bird Dog, or the Grumman and Stearman biplanes with up to 600hp. Operations also vary greatly by country. In France or Spain you will almost surely fly an MS-Rallye, whereas in the UK there are a variety of aircraft employed, from the Cessna 172 and Super Cub to more exotic specimens, like the Wilga and Pawnee. Each has its own set of virtues and drawbacks.One thing for certain is that you will acquire useful skills that will stand you in good stead during the rest of your aviation career; things like fuel management, dealing with differing conditions at airports away from home base, a bit of politicking, and most of all being resourceful. Formation banner tows are especially demanding, and will hone your skills to a very fine edge.WHAT YOU’LL NEEDTo banner tow, you need a basic CPL, and in most places, a tailwheel endorsement as minimum qualifications to start training. In America once the company has put you through the training course outlined by the FAA, you are then added to the operator’s Certificate of Waiver and Authorization. The local FAA FSDO office may come and observe you making a launch and banner drop. In the UK, the aircraft must have an approved flight manual supplement, which is assumed to be sufficient instruction to conduct the operation. At present, EASA looks like it will adopt the less relaxed American approach.

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