by Kathleen Dolan
If the Jersey Shore is your summer tradition, you probably count the banner-towing planes gliding above the ocean as an iconic sight of your vacation. With the sun shining off its belly and an engine that sounds like a lawnmower, the planes cruise just above the beach, and you can’t help but pause while reading or swimming to glimpse these aerial advertisements. Occasionally they’re ads for local law firms. Other times they’re announcements for discount prices at Splash Zone. Sometimes you’ll even see a “Marry Me” banner.
This kind of advertising works well because the viewer is often doing something they associate with joy while absorbing the information, be it relaxing on the beach or cheering at a baseball game. Personally, when I’m at the shore, I’ll test my vision by guessing the letters from far away as my 3-year-old nephew smiles and points skywards toward the plane. Then the engine trails off, and he and I resume a futile but wonderful game of collecting every shell on the beach.
During these times, I never wondered how banner planes worked, how these huge signs eventually became airborne. This summer, however, one of the banners debuting over the Jersey Shore is a 90-foot long, 35-foot tall scarlet aerial billboard, complete with the Griffin and bright white letters that read “Chestnut Hill College.” So, to mark the occasion, I traveled with Margo Reed, a photographer for the College, to the Woodbine Municipal Airport, located in Woodbine, New Jersey, about 25 miles northwest of Cape May, where several banner planes take flight by the hour at this time of year, headed for beaches and stadiums.
On our way to the airport, I still hadn’t thought about how banner planes worked. I was mostly focused on the day’s plan: Margo and I would be flying alongside the CHC banner plane. To comply with FAA regulations, which allow only one person in a plane towing a banner, we had to fly in a separate plane, following closely behind the CHC banner plane. What’s more, rumor had it that the plane we’d be flying in was built in the 1940s and had an open cabin. I didn’t really know what an open cabin entailed, but I envisioned the goggles and helmet of a pilot from an old black-and-white movie, with my limbs free to dangle in the open air as I dodged high-flying seagulls and screamed for help, to no avail. So, maybe, I was too nervous to wonder.
As Margo drove that morning, I admitted to her that I was scared of flying. She turned and faced me in the passenger seat.
“You’re more likely to die driving with me on the roads of New Jersey,” she said with a smile.
Traffic thinned out as we reached the airport, leaving us as the lone car on a road slicing through the woods, where tall, thin trees with leafy tops spread out on both sides and reached toward a blue sky. It would be the first of many times that day when I’d be reminded of New Jersey’s sneaking beauty.
The Woodbine Municipal Airport is headquarters for High Exposure Aerial Advertising, the largest banner-towing company on the East Coast. Since the mid-90s, they’ve been flying aerial advertisements in the skies over New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland.
We arrive at the airport at 10 a.m. and duck under the wing of a plane that’s parked just inside the door of the hangar. A small TV glows in one corner, and Steve Carrell’s face fills the screen as an episode of “The Office” plays in front of three empty couches. There’s a kitchen, like one you’d see in a studio apartment, lining one wall. In the other corner were offices. They’re private and walled off, but otherwise the hangar is an open, airy space, like a large garage.
The tri-wheeled yellow plane parked in the hangar takes up the space of a couple of pick-up trucks, yet it must be somewhat light. I watched a pilot push and steer it out of the shade and onto the sunny tarmac as if he was maneuvering a large bike.
The hangar opens out onto the runway and a vast field, which stretches across acres until it meets the woods in the distance. More planes were parked on the grass at the runway’s edge, and in the middle of the field, there were a few crew members arranging traffic cones and bright-colored poles. It looks like a lawn game or a pick-up soccer game is about happen, with the posts being erected as makeshift goalposts.
In T-shirts, shorts, and baseball caps, young pilots were rolling out the planes, dipping in and out of cockpits, checking on things. We learn later on that 10 a.m. is a busy time, just before the day’s first flights take off.
George Dunner, sales manager for High Exposure Aerial Advertising, is waiting for Margo and I on the asphalt, and behind him, brilliant and beaming in the sun, is a red plane.
“This is the Red Barron,” Dunner said, proudly introducing the two of us to the plane. “It was built in 1940.”
He continued speaking as I gawked at the plane. It looked brand-new, like it had never been put to work. It looked like a toy plane, but enlarged. The propeller on its nose tilted slightly upward, and the lines of its yellow and red design curved in such a way that it gave it this bubbly cartoon appearance. At the same time, though, it looked like a piece from a museum.
“This is all fabric,” Dunner said, gently flicking the body of the plane. I mimicked the gesture, and it felt like a picnic tablecloth had been stretched and wrapped around the plane. “Don’t tap it too hard,” he warned me, saying he wanted to avoid putting holes in the fabric before murmuring something about putting duct tape on those holes before takeoff. I still don’t know if the latter was a joke or not.
The Red Baron is Dave Dempsey’s favorite plane to fly. Dempsey is the owner of High Exposure Aerial Advertising, and he’s been a pilot since 1987.
“It’s a treat. It’s fully aerobatic, which means we can do loops, rolls, all kinds of stunt flying,” Dempsey said, grinning. “If you like rollercoasters, we can make it interesting.”
High Exposure purchased the Red Baron 10 years ago from an air force flight instructor who had fixed it up.
“It’s built like a tank — it’s an original,” Dempsey said, explaining how planes were built around the time his Red Baron was constructed. “The skeleton, the fuselage, and the body were made out of metal. It has a round shape to it. There are also wood pieces that are called ‘formers’ that give it that round shape.
“The wings consist of struts, the structural components that run from the fuselage out to the tip. They have ribs that make the airfoil-shape. The wings are made out of almost exclusively long-grain wood. They would cover the airplane, not in metal, but in fabric. They would use cotton. People will say, ‘That’s a 1941 plane? You’re flying these old airplanes? Isn’t that unsafe?’”
I swallowed — this had been my exact thought.
Then Dempsey explained that, unlike all-metal planes, these “tube and cotton” planes can be almost completely refurbished.
“You can take one of those airplanes, strip it down to the fuselage,” he said. “You can completely uncover them, replace parts, metal as needed. You can replace the wings, replace the motor every so often.
“The only thing that stays constant is a little metal data tag. It’s like a license plate for the airplane. It’s mounted on the floor, and you constantly keep up with everything around it.”
They don’t wrap it with cotton anymore; however, they still use fabric — it’s called “ceconite” — and it’s much more durable and built just for airplanes.
The Red Baron was never a warplane. It was built by the Waco Aircraft Company in Ohio — it’s a WACO UPF-7 — and although WACO did manufacture gliders for World War II, Dempsey told me the company lost out on a military contract to The Boeing Company. The WACOs were then used for civilian pilot training.
The man known as the “Red Baron,” Manfred von Richthofen, was a famous and highly victorious German World War I fighter pilot who died in 1918 when he was shot during an aerial pursuit, causing him to crash-land his plane in a field in France. He was praised the world over by both the Allies and the Axis for his military record, which consisted of 80 air combat victories.
Dempsey named the plane the “Red Baron” because, when he first purchased it, it was colored red with hints of black scattered throughout. And although the real Red Baron was a triplane, he nonetheless thought it was a nice connection to make for marketing purposes.
Dempsey was excited to share another thing about the Red Baron, something he called a “pure coincidence.” After he bought it, he looked at the plane’s log books once it was in Woodbine. He discovered that it was towing banners on the Jersey shore in the 1950s.
The industry was just getting started then, having begun in the 1940s. Dunner said in those days aerial advertising was seen as a “guerrilla form of advertising.” When a younger version of Dempsey’s beloved plane, not yet nicknamed the “Red Baron,” was cruising the beaches, the banners it towed were made of bamboo poles and heavy cotton, the letters painted on the cloth. Today, the banners are fiber glass and nylon, a lighter weight that allows the size of some aerial ads, the billboards, to reach as tall as 50 feet and as long as 90 feet.
The Red Baron doesn’t fly banners anymore. It’s not cost efficient, given that gas is more expensive and burns 16 to18 gallons an hour.
“It’s a classic, like a car — you use it for the right reasons,” Dempsey said. “The coolest thing about it is sharing the experience of flying.”
The planes that fly the banners are the Piper Super Cubs, what Dempsey calls “the workhorses of the fleet.” There is also a Citabria — “the odd ball” of the group — which was in a hangar High Exposure bought at an estate sale. They have five Cessnas as well.
Each plane has a purpose. Jake Rolston, a 23-year-old pilot in his second season flying for High Exposure, flies the Citabria.
“It doesn’t have a lot of drag — it’s a little underpowered,” said Rolston, who only pilots local flights with the plane, staying south of South Atlantic City.
The Cessnas are faster, Dempsey said. If they have an event somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania, like flying over a stadium, they’ll send a Cessna so the pilot can quickly reach his destination.
“The Piper Super Cubs have a greater power-to-weight ratio,” Dempsey said, meaning they can lift larger signs. A yellow Super Cub, for instance, is towing the CHC banner.
The age of pilots at High Exposure ranges from young to old.
“Our oldest pilot is 74, our youngest is probably 19 or 20,” Dempsey said. “The average age is 26.”
Currently, there is only one woman flying for the company. There are brand-new commercial pilots, which means they are legally allowed to fly for hire, and then there are pilots who have more experience. All pilots must have a minimum of 250 hours to fly for the company.
“Some have other jobs, flying for airlines or commuters, and some are trying to build hours to fly for airlines,” he said.
There is a joke at the hangar that you’re not a real pilot unless you can fly a taildragger. As Dempsey said this, Lyndsay Smith, the COO of High Exposure, who was sitting as his computer in the same office, stopped typing. “Eye roll,” he said. They both laughed.
“It takes more finesse,” Dempsey explained.
The term “taildragger” refers to the plane’s landing gear arrangement, which has a single wheel at the back of the plane by the tail and two more up front. Its center of gravity is behind the main gear, and Dempsey said, it requires a better pilot and more control because, for example, when landing a tailwheel, the back wheel can spin and cause one wing to rise and the other to tip and hit the ground. The Red Baron is a taildragger.
The other configuration is a tricycle gear, which Dempsey simplified by calling it “almost training wheels.” It has two wheels off the center of gravity and one at the nose of the plane. High Exposure has both, but Dempsey said that it’s hard to find tailwheel pilots these days. Over the course of the afternoon, I noticed the difference in the various plane’s set-ups. The taildraggers’ noses tilt slightly up, like the Red Baron’s, as if they know they are deemed the complex and sophisticated aircrafts of the fleet.
Of all that I had learned that day, my mind, for one reason or another, keeps returning to the term “taildragger,” a word I can now use in a knowing, albeit limited, manner that makes me feel like I’m privy to the esoteric world of banner planes. I smile, envisioning my upcoming shore vacation where the opportunity will come when I can point out the banner airplane to my family and say, “That’s a taildragger.”
On any given weekend this summer, 100,000 people in Ocean City, New Jersey, alone will see a banner towed over the beach by a High Exposure plane. If that plane’s route is Cape May to Barnegate, as is the case for the CHC banner, it’ll cover the entire southern portion of New Jersey’s coastline, meaning 900,000 to a million people will catch sight of it. This happens over three hours, the time it takes for the pilot to go there and back.
For the pilots at Woodbine, the thrilling part of the trip comes with a limited audience of a few grounds crew, fellow pilots, and lots of cicadas. It comes at the beginning, just before the banner starts to fly.
Smith described the pick-up process as “unnatural.” Dempsey likened it to a video game. Rolston said the pick-up process is the most exciting part of the day, calling the hours-long cruise at 45 mph above the beaches “sheer boredom.” This part — flying over the beach, which the pilots do alone and for hours — is notorious among the pilots for its tedium and monotony. It’s peculiar, but it makes sense, considering the flights begin with maneuvers of speed, precision, and daring, spiking the adrenaline in a way a bird’s eye view of the beautiful sea can’t sustain.
In the middle of the field, the grounds crew lays out the day’s banners and aerial billboards in an accordion fold. This is called “the picking station,” and it consists of the banner, two poles that are five feet off the ground, and a thick piece of rope suspended between them, like a taut clothesline. On the tail of the plane is a toe release to which another rope, 20-feet long, is attached. On the other end of that rope is a hook, and it stays with in the cabin with the pilot until it’s released. The pilot takes off, climbs to about 300 or 400 feet, “circles around the pattern,” and manually drops the hook out of the window so the rope is swinging from the back of the plane. From that altitude, the pilot contacts the grounds crew to find out what picking station contains the pilot’s banner.
The next part is what Smith means when he said “unnatural.” Once in position, the pilot accelerates as he or she descends toward the ground at 80 mph, plunging from about 300 feet to 30 feet, and then he or she goes full throttle and pulls back on the stick. The hook then swings through the two poles, catches the rope, and the plane ascends skyward again. The suspended rope is connected to another 300-foot rope, with the banner attached to the end of it, and when the plane is around 300 feet in the air, the banner lifts off the ground behind it as they fly away toward the beach, where the plane will remain above 500 feet, per FAA regulations.
It’s a fast and somewhat suspenseful exercise that culminates in this sweet and graceful moment: The plane flies away with the banner in tow, fulfilling its purpose, and the engine sounds less like an engine and more like the soft buzz of air conditioning units whirring on a quiet street. Then the sight and sound of the plane disappear completely, and all is silent again.
There were lulls in flight activity as the day progressed, and we spent a few hours standing beside the Red Baron, waiting for our flight to arrive.
It was quiet at Woodbine Municipal Airport when no planes were taking off, landing, or flying directly overhead. The tree line in the distance encloses the space, so it’s fairly isolated, like a clearing in the woods. Pickup trucks were parked in the grass. Lining the long runway were other aviation companies’ hangars, some of which were closed, their doors, like large silver sheds, shut. The sunlight was absolute that day, and the only shade on the runway could be found in the stiff shadows the planes cast on the asphalt.
Dempsey likened the airport’s atmosphere to that of a firehouse. Some crew members ambled through the center of the field. A few pilots tossed around a football on the runway. Another slowly glided around on a bike. And one stood on the wing of a plane, aiming a hose down into the fuel tank on the plane’s nose. All this movement produced little noise. Then a plane would appear, or one would start up, and the noise of their engines filled the silence.
It was about 12:30 p.m. when Dempsey reappeared, a sign that we were nearing takeoff. He handed Margo and I two cloth helmets and told us to keep our sunglasses on. He gave us life vests and showed us how to inflate them in case we had to land in the water. Next, he instructed us on how to get into the Red Baron so that we avoided stepping on the fabric of the plane; it actually takes some flexibility to climb up, slink under the top wing, and slide onto the seat. The plane’s seats are arranged like its wheels — two in the front and one behind. The Red Baron, again, is a taildragger.
Margo and I sat up front, our knees practically touching. We buckled up and grabbed hold of the bar that was in place over our thighs, similar to the kind you’d find on a roller coaster. Dempsey settled in the seat behind us where he’d fly the plane. He advised us not to touch any controls, some of which were shockingly accessible to the passenger. There was a lever on my side, and I didn’t know its purpose — maybe it just opened the door — but I remained aware of it, and my thigh nearest to it, for the duration of the flight.
Margo was all smiles. Around her neck hung two hefty cameras, each with varying length lenses. We would be able to hear Dempsey through an earpiece in the helmet, but only Margo would be able to speak with him once the engine started, though it would nevertheless be difficult to hear. Her helmet had a microphone, so she could communicate how and where Dempsey needed to fly in order for her to get a good shot of the CHC banner plane that we’d be following.
Otherwise, Dempsey told us to give a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down response to his questions. I discreetly made a thumbs-up and thumbs-down gesture to make sure all was working correctly with my hands. Between this and how tightly I was gripping the bar before I let go to test my thumbs — all this before the engine even started — I realized I was still a little nervous.
The engine started. The propeller rotated, and loudly. The wing that runs above the front seats gave us a great deal of shade, and there was a little windshield in front of us, but otherwise it was open. I stared down at the ground, the gritty asphalt, only a few feet down. Dempsey let us know we were going, and then we go.
Halfway down the runway, before we left the ground, Dempsey asked us something, but we couldn’t make out what he said; my guess was that he asked if we could hear him. He then repeated the question in a calm, regimented tone, all while fidgeting with things in front of him, so I thrusted my thumbs down, probably a bit too emphatically. Margo was toying with something in her helmet, trying to adjust the controls in her ear. I kept my thumbs-down gesture high in the air, wanting to be certain Dempsey saw it, just in case this hiccup was an indication of a system-wide malfunction.
Dempsey brought the plane to a stop. He unbuckled and ascended a little, looking past us from his seat toward a few controls below the windshield. He pointed out a dial in front of me and asked me to turn it to the right. I turned it. He said something, and we could now hear him on the helmet speaker. The volume was down.
I loosened my grip on the bar and took one last look at the ground. Dempsey started the plane back up, and we took off. We floated above the woods of Woodbine, the airport a shrinking lime-green bald spot nestled within the dark pine-green treetops. The long soft curve of the ocean’s horizon came into view almost instantly once we reached a few hundred feet, and we flew toward it. The dense trees of the Cape May National Refuge below became sharply-curved channels of water that, from boats navigating, had crisp white trails, like chalk marks, etched across their surface.
The noise of the engine became a hum as we rose in the air. I leaned to the side, out of the cover of the windshield, to get a blast of wind. Below us was a network of squiggly-lined waterways of blue-gray and swamp-green, blurring the difference between land and shallow water.
Soon we neared the coastal town of Strathmere, sitting on the northern end of a barrier island, a thin beige strip of land topped densely with bright, white-roofed houses. The density was abrupt after the houseless span between there and the airport. And then there was the beach, the coastline itself, white sand and blue water, side by side as far as the eye could see, winding its way north and south, nothing but jetties of black shining rock interrupting its embracing and winding course.
Over the water, casting a black shadow on its blue surface, we spot the CHC banner plane. Dempsey flew near it so the Red Baron’s shadow was close to the Piper Super Cub’s on the water. Margo leaned out and over me, alternating cameras, getting shots of every angle as Dempsey soared below, above, behind, and beside the banner plane.
There was a good amount of people on the beach as the banner cruised overhead. The Red Baron must have looked like an eager paparazzi outfit, trailing and hovering the banner plane, zipping up ahead before turning around to get another glimpse before it flew to Barnegate. The water was a striking blue, and it appeared so clear that I was convinced I was staring at the bottom of the ocean. I kept an eye out for any kind of marine life. I watched the birds near the shore. Margo and Dempsey talked. He made a slow and gentle turn so I could look down the wing toward the ocean. We were on a tilt, with blue spreading out on all sides, as the engine continuously droned.
Our trip ended after 25 minutes. We flew back to Woodbine over the trees, with the airport’s runway soon coming into view. Dempsey landed the plane, soft enough that I didn’t feel the wheels hit the ground.
Eventually, after flying to Barnegate, the CHC banner plane returned to Woodbine Municipal Airport. Once there, the pilot pulled a lever in the cockpit when the plane passed over the drop area and the banner was five to twenty feet off the ground. The lever then disengaged the hook on the toe release, and the banner gently fell onto the ground. The next day, all the pilots, crew members, and grounds crew at the airport would do it all over again so the banners, including Chestnut Hill College’s, could fly again.