Aerial advertising

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The Goodyear Blimp uses branding and animated lighting displays.
Large aerial advertising array fixed to a Cessna 172 at Fort Lauderdale in 1973. This supported illuminated messages.

Aerial advertising is a form of advertising that incorporates the use of aircraft,[1] flogos,[2] balloons, airships, or drones[3] to create, transport, or display, advertising media.[4] The media can be static, such as a banner, logo, lighted sign[5] or sponsorship branding. It can also be dynamic, such as animated lighted signage, skywriting, or audio.[6]

Prior to World War II aviation pioneer, Arnold Sidney Butler the owner and operator of Daniel Webster Airport (New Hampshire) utilizing his fleet of J3 Cubs created banner towing and was credited with a number of inventions and aircraft modifications used to pickup and release banners. At the start of World War II, the government took over the air strip for military training. Afterward, Arnold Butler moved his aircraft to Florida and formed Circle-A Aviation where he continued his banner towing business. Still today, many of his aircraft remain in service and can be seen in the skies over Miami and Hollywood, Florida.[citation needed]

Aerial advertising is effective if a large target audience is gathered near the source of advertising.[7] Balloons, skywriting, and banner towing are usually strategically located. Long-range vehicles such as blimps and flogos can reach a broader audience along their flight route. Secondary distribution such as news media coverage, word of mouth and photos of aerial advertising can reach an extended audience. Due to safety, privacy, and aesthetic reasons, the ability to perform aerial advertising is regulated by local and federal entities throughout the world.[8]

Employment methods


Hot air balloons advertising a furniture removals company in Canberra, 2006.

Advertising can be carried on the envelope of a conventional hot air balloon, or the envelope can be constructed into a specific shape to advertise a product. Research from the United States suggests that the direct cost of balloon advertising "per thousand opportunities to see" is lower than for newspapers, posters, radio or television.[9][non-primary source needed]


Blimps are effective carriers of mobile billboards due to their slow speed, long loiter time and inexpensive fuel costs.[citation needed] The first British airship, built by Stanley Spencer in 1902, was funded by an advertisement for baby food carried on its envelope.[10] The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company first used aerial advertising in 1925, when the company created its first in-house series, the Goodyear Type AD.[citation needed]

Fixed-wing aircraft

The most common type of fixed-wing aircraft used for mobile billboards and aerial advertising are single reciprocating engine aircraft, such as converted crop dusters. While on the ground, operators attach a grapple hook and a towline to the rear of the aircraft. Once in flight, the operator comes back and links the grapple hook to the banner, billboard, or streamer while in flight. The wind resistance created during the natural course of flight causes the banner to stream out behind the aircraft, allowing it to be easily seen by those nearby.

Because of the relatively low speed and altitude ceiling of propeller aircraft, this type is generally favored for the deployment of mobile billboards when fixed-wing aircraft are used. All metropolitan areas in the U.S. can be serviced except New York City and Washington, D.C. which have restricted airspace.[citation needed]

In the 1950's banner-towing started to become widely used as a cost-effective way of bringing a message to the attention of targeted groups of people. There were very few restrictions, the airspace was not nearly as tightly regulated as to-day. VFR traffic, meaning aircraft navigating solely by visual reference, could even fly into some major airports without using two-way radio, using special air corridors and getting landing-, take-off and taxi instructions by coloured light signals using an "Aldis" lamp from the control tower.

The Dutch charter airline Martinair, now part of the air-cargo arm of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, was founded in the 1950's by Martin Schroeder, a former Dutch Air force pilot, as a company using tethered balloons and banners. The towing aircraft used were DH 82a Tiger Moth, written off as primary trainers, and the occasional Auster. The company later set up an air charter operation at Amsterdam-Schiphol Airport. The first aircraft were a Cessna 172 (PH-MAF) and a De Havilland Dove. Later expansion followed and the company split into the charter company, called "Martin's Air Charter", later Martinair and the light aircraft division, called "Luchtreclame Nederland" based at Hilversum Aerodrome. It was later re-named "Reclamair", moved to Lelystad in the 1970s and expanded into a flying school and restaurant.

The previous is to illustrate that aerial advertising was big business then, and could grow into a much bigger operation. A parallel can be found in Germany, where a banner-towing company grew into a much larger operation. At Essen-Muelheim a company called "Westdeutsche Luftwerbung Theodor Wuellenkemper KG" became "WDL Flugdienst" with main operations based at Cologne-Bonn.

The aircraft: Although there are various types of aircraft suitable for banner-towing they have to have stable flying characteristics, sufficient power to overcome the substantial drag created by a banner streaming behind the aircraft and they must be equipped with a quick-release hook at the tail. Needless to say, they must be approved for towing operations by the civil aviation authorities. In the 1950s Tiger Moths were cheap and dominated the scene in the Netherlands, but the occasional surviving Fieseler Storch was also very suitable. These aircraft now are priceless classics. Current types are Piper PA18 Super Cub, Vilga, Cessna 172 and other like Morane-Saulnier Rallye, Aeronca Champion, etc. Often these aircraft, when not in use for banner-towing, are used for towing gliders. Some crop dusters are equipped with a hook for towing operations. Nowadays we find that many are turboprop, or diesel powered. Even a twin-engine Dornier D28 has been seen towing a banner.

For towing, a grapple hook is attached. Mostly it is in the pilot's lap for take-off. It will be thrown out and door or canopy closed. The Super Cub door has a top and bottom half and the pilot could close it after take-off. The C172 door hinges forward. The pilot has to throw the grapnel out of the window, but the 172 often has a second quick-release under the belly. The hook is attached and released after getting airborne. If the pilot makes a mistake, (s)he will only have a line trailing from the aircraft with the grapple hanging under the belly. The only solution is to land, rectify it and take off again, hoping not too many spectators will have noticed.

The grapple (or grapnel) resembles a three-pronged anchor. But the prongs are rounded and bent back towards the stock. A subtle but very important detail: It will prevent the grapple digging into the ground in the event that the aircraft makes its run-in a bit low. And it will also reduce the risk of the loop, about which later, slipping off.

For the pick-up, the banner will be spread on the ground. There are two main types: One, a large poster. Not seldom 3 or 4 metres square. Often sewn by professional sail makers using pieces of parachute- or spinnaker nylon in different colours. They may represent a tube of toothpaste, a bottle, a company logo. Expensive to manufacture, they are mainly used for long-term contracts. The other type, more often used, is a text, a streamer as a rule made up of interchangeable letters, mainly black and sometimes red if emphasis is required.

The various components are: a line with grapple hook as mentioned, a loop attached to a long line, a parachute, a front boom, the actual streamer with the text or visual message and a stabilizing piece of webbing at the end. The stabilizer is necessary for two reasons: the end of the banner tends to flap or wave, making the last bit of the message difficult to read. It also wears more quickly so that the stabilizer also has a sacrificial function, as a piece of webbing is cheaper to replace.

The standard text consists of individual, detachable letters. A ground crew will assemble it beforehand. The standard height usually is in the order of 5 feet. A compromise because too large means a smaller text - limited by the aircraft manufacturers and copper-fasted by the CAA - and too small means that it will become difficult to read from the ground. Since they are used and re-used they normally are open-type making them stand out against the sky. A white background can get dirty over time. The letters are sown on parallel lines of thin, strong nylon rope. At the front of each letter is a rod of thin, strong and supple steel. The nylon lines at the front are fitted with wooden pegs, at the end the open lines have loops. When assembling a text, the letters are checked for integrity as they come out of storage and laid out on the ground to form the message. When everything is found to be in order, no pegs missing, no wires broken, no tears and the actual text correct without spelling mistakes the letters will be assembled and the webbing at the end attached, as well as a front boom. This is a strong metal rod with loops at the end. There usually are three lines to the actual towing line. The top one is shortest so that the center of gravity will be below the center of the boom. This to ensure that the message will hang vertical. In addition, often the bottom will be fitted with a weight.

If, for whatever reason, the aircraft loses the banner or has to jettison it in an emergency, the front boom will tend to fall straight down. For this reason, a parachute is added. Care must be taken of course that it will stream closed in normal flight; if attached the wrong way around it will cause a very high drag.

The banner will now be rolled up, brought to the pick-up point, usually in the grass along the runway and unrolled. Again, it will have to be checked. If one of the lines catches and loops itself around one of the rods, the tension not only may result in damage, but also will cause the banner not to hang straight, even twist and roll in the airstream during flight and the message will be unreadable.

To the parachute will be attached a tow line and a loop. This loop is draped over two poles, upright in the ground, Sometimes over forks at the top, other operators use a bit of tubing, split to hold the loop just enough so that it will stay up without slipping off at the critical moment. The lines, typically, are in the order of 30 – 50 feet in length. If there are two aircraft flying in formation, the second one will be fitted with two lines. The second banner will trail further behind the towing aircraft and the texts will not overlap.

The position of the poles at the pick-up point can be marked to make them as visible as possible to the pilot. Traffic cones or other markers like a brightly colored cloth held down with a few stones, or pegs, can be useful. An operator will be positioned who can view the approaching aircraft and give instructions, either using bats or via a portable VHF radio. The banner will be laid out away from the poles against the wind direction. Seen from the cockpit, the pilot will see the banner lying behind the poles; having said that, the large square posters are often laid beside the poles. Their construction will causing less risk of friction over the surface than the open and much longer standard banner.

The pilot, having released the grapple, approaches the pick-up point parallel to the runway in a long, very shallow descent. The speed will differ according to the type of aircraft. For the Super Cub, it will typically be 60 mph with one notch of flap extended. In a strong wind, the speed can be 10 mph higher. Over the poles, at a signal from the batsman, (s)he will initiate a steep climb, full power, until a jolt confirms that the grapnel has engaged and the banner is lifted off the ground. At this point, the banner will quite literally "peel" off the surface without dragging. The sudden increase in drag will cause the aircraft to decelerate to below stall speed. The curved flight path will allow this to happen. The pilot will slam the controls forward. Once the banner has lifted off, the aircraft will regain flying speed instantly. It will not be more than about 200 feet off the ground at this time.

Cruising speed with a banner usually is at 45-50 mph. The banner will stabilize the aircraft. In flight, the PA18 will need about 2000- 2100 rpm. More power will cause a very high increase in drag (for you, pilots: remember 1/2 rho vee square?), a corresponding increase in fuel burn and a gain of perhaps no more than 1 or two mph extra airspeed.

The aircraft will cruise, maintaining the flap setting. Again: two reasons. It reduces the stall speed, but it also allows a slightly less nose-up attitude. Meaning: a cooler engine.

When the mission is completed, the pilot will return to drop the banner before landing. The drop will be more accurate at as low an altitude as possible. If there is little or no wind, the pilot will fly over the drop-off position - usually the area where the pick-up took place - and pull the release. The banner will fall to the ground, the parachute will open to control the fall of the pole and the aircraft will join the traffic pattern for landing.

If there is a strong wind, the pilot may decide to drop at low altitude from a shallow dive. The dive will ensure that the banner, in cruise a few feet lower than the aircraft, will not prematurely touch down. If that happens, a weak link should disconnect the banner from the towing line. If that fails: the Super Cub may end up with the wheels touching the wings as the result of a (very) hard landing.

Banner towing has the reputation of being dangerous. In fact, if the pilot takes precautions it is not. The most important precaution is never, ever, to assume that the banner has failed to engage and start a turn to come back for another run - at very low level - too early. With the airspeed suddenly dropping off the clock in a (tight) turn, the banner will not stabilize it and the aircraft will enter a spin from which recovery is not possible. This is the phase of flight that has led to some banner towing pilots losing their lives.

A few years ago, in the UK a banner-towing aircraft crashed at the end of a flight; it carried a passenger, a politician for whose election campaign the banner towing flight was intended to draw attention. Unfortunately, it did that but for the wrong reasons. At the time, it was speculated in the press that the extra weight of the passenger would have been the cause of the accident. This is highly unlikely. The aircraft should have been able to carry the added weight. It is much more likely that the pilot was making a low pass to allow the press photographers to get a good shot. Flying at low airspeed, the banner will be substantially below the flight path of the aircraft. It is probable that the pilot misjudged the height and room required to remain clear of the surface, the banner dragged over the ground and the rapidly increasing resistance as more parts of the banner would come into contact with the surface would in a very short time, a matter of mere seconds, caused the aircraft to stall. Releasing the banner, either by the pilot or by the "weak link" breaking would not have saved the aircraft: It would have been in a full stall and losing the stabilizing effect of the banner it is likely that it slammed into the ground. In a fully developed stall, the application of full power would also have been too late to take effect.

When coming in too low for the pick-up run, there is a risk that the banner is picked up with the wheels. Especially a tail dragger can be pulled upside-down when landing with the banner. One German operator carried a knife with an extra long handle in every Super Cub so that the pilot could cut it loose. If not, the best technique is to come in to land approaching slightly high, making certain that the aircraft, at the lowest possible speed, will touch before the banner.

With experience, many pilots found that the best way to pick up is not to make the run-in at the height where the ground crew would see the grapple just above the ground.

Any turbulence would cause a swing and also could cause the hook to touch the ground. If that happened just before the poles, the grapple would bounce off and over the loop. The best way was to make the approach in a steady, very gentle dive. The pull-up could be initiated about 30 yards or so before the poles. Even if the grapple would be above the actual loop, the pull-up still would result in a decrease in airspeed which, in turn, would allow the momentum of the grapnel to swing a bit lower and engage. By that time, the aircraft would be in a much more gentle climb, already well above the poles and the stall at the top would also be much more under control.

Banner towing no longer is practiced as intensively as in the seventies, probably it's European heyday. Stricter rules and regulations especially when flying over urban centers and large assemblies, higher minimum altitudes, in some areas raised from 1000 feet to 2000 which reduces the legibility and impact. Low-flying aircraft are also perceived as a nuisance factor, perceived or real, but all have led to a decline in banner towing activities. In some countries, of course, the climate is not always reliable and the factual occurrence of banner-towing aircraft being caught out in IMC (weather conditions that make flight on instruments necessary if not outright mandatory), all have resulted in banner-towing becoming, if not a thing of the past, certainly becoming a much rarer form of advertising.


The growing popularity of consumer-grade and industry-grade unmanned aerial vehicles (particularly, quadcopter drones) led several companies to consider the opportunities of commercial application of such devices. For instance, Google and Amazon have plans of using drones as means of delivery, while the Coca-Cola Company, Lakemaid Beer, Paramount Pictures, and Wokker have already used them in a number of advertising campaigns. The cases of advertising-related application include the distribution of branded products, as well as drones carrying banners.[11][12]


Skyvertising with Flogos, flying foam shapes

Flogos[13] ("flying“ and "logos“) are stable foam shapes, customizable motifs made out of foam, which are suitable for both outdoor and indoor and once released into the air can float or fly into the air. In a special machine a patented foam fluid is combined with water and helium to make the foam. The generated foam gets pressed through a stencil which will determine its individual shape. Flogos are customized to suit needs and can be shapes, logos, symbols and words. The machine can also work for more complex motifs as well. They are produced continuously at a rate of one every 15 – 20 seconds in sizes of almost 100 cm. It can be written in the sky, the reason why they are often linked to the term "skyvertising“[14]

Helicopter Banners

This technique involves printing many rows of fabric and joining them to create one very large flag which is towed below a helicopter. Typical sizes of these banners are 20,000 sq/ft and visible for great distances due to their scale compared to plane banners. also incorporate a weight bag release system that is sewn into the leading edge of the banner allowing them to fly over populated areas.

Large Format Printed Aerial Advertising Banner

Kite systems

For centuries kite systems have been employed to fly advertisements. Messages have been on wing covers as well as hung on the tether set of the kite systems. Logos, greetings, purchased advertising messages, political messages, religions celebration symbols, event-marking art, promotional phrases, and flags are frequently flown by kites. Advertising by kites is one of the many kite applications. William A. Eddy was an early pioneer in using kites for advertising.[15]

Rotorcraft aircraft

Sky Sign Inc. created, patented and holds various STC's for their aerial LED based signs. These signs attach to popular rotorcraft and fixed wing aircraft, including Robinson's R22 and Cesna's 172.[16][non-primary source needed]


Skywriting over a cemetery in New South Wales in 2009.

Sky-writing by fixed-wing aircraft, combined with the use of a vapor projector, remains popular with major advertisers, especially movies, TV, and insurance companies.[citation needed] It is most effective in brand awareness with short, dramatic messages and occasionally for "spectaculars" such as marriage proposals. The practice of sky-writing is known to be one of the safest forms of flying as it is only done in clear skies with smooth air (winds can be strong but smooth) and usually in controlled airspace, where radar separation is provided between planes.


Modern proponents of aerial advertising hold the position that it is a cost-effective method to reach otherwise isolated pockets of consumers (such as people stuck in rush-hour traffic, or at the beach, where advertising tends to be limited). Aerial advertisements, according to the service providers, give a company the opportunity to target specific customers based on their geographical location and related demographics. The benefits of aerial advertising, banner towing in particular, include a high recall rate[17] and increased engagement with a brand through social media.[18][19][non-primary source needed]

Detractors of aerial advertising maintain it has a highly limited and ineffective scope in the age of the internet. In particular, they state that the use of aircraft near two major metropolitan regions (NYC and D.C.) tends to be tightly regulated and restricted, and that, at least in the U.S., the use of aerial advertisement over sporting events with 30,000 or more in attendance is prohibited. Aerial advertising planes do fly before the events over the masses of tailgaters. A 2003 article by the Associated Press reports that aerial advertisement companies had lost a preliminary injunction against new federal security regulations, and all data indicate that the use of civilian fixed-wing aircraft over sporting events in the U.S. is forbidden.[20]

Studies by advertisers have shown that mobile billboards carried by aircraft have a limited local exposure but a high consumer recall and retention rate— in other words, customers who see the ad tend to recall the message or product being displayed at a higher rate than with most other forms of advertising, but the region where the advertisement is displayed is limited to the flight path of the aircraft. The reason for this higher retention rate is unclear, but it can be postulated that it is due to the relatively unusual method in which the advertisement is displayed; the novelty of seeing a message in an unfamiliar way helps consumers to remember the message. Viral marketing and stealth marketing are excellent examples of this idea put to work in the modern day.

Examples of use

Spencer's 1902 airship in flight, showing the advertising for Mellin's Food


There are some inherent dangers involved in the operation of low-altitude manned aircraft. Most of the fixed-wing aerial advertisement accidents that have occurred in the U.S. have been determined by the United States Federal Aviation Administration to be the result of just a few basic causes:[24]

  • Problems during the pickup/deployment of the banner
  • Banner tow lines that become tangled or snarled

Some of the specific areas of danger include grapple hook deployment errors, and banner pickup errors. If the grapple hook is not released in a satisfactory manner, it can snarl on the tailwheel or in the landing gear itself, fouling the landing and causing an improper landing or a crash event. Once the grapple hook is deployed, the aircraft must approach the banner pickup in a descent using the energy of the shallow dive, and then rotate with application of full power to pick up the banner. Professional banner companies have training programs which comply with the FAA guidelines for aerial banner operations.[citation needed] However, safety reasons may lead local authorities to consider banning some forms of aerial advertising in populated areas.[25]

Risk mitigation

Modern companies have employed a new, patented, methodology of banner towing that greatly reduces the risks associated with the older, grappling hook method. With the new take-off technique, the pilot no longer has to pick up the banner in the tow hook - a time-consuming and technically demanding manoeuvre. Instead, the pilot can take the banner, already set up for towing, directly from the hangar across the taxiway to the airstrip, and then carry out a normal take-off.[26]

A technical innovation makes the ground start possible. Wheels are mounted on both sides of the banner tube system, so the front part of the banner runs on rollers. This counteracts the effect which would otherwise be created between the banner and the ground over which it is towed, sucking the banner downwards.[26]

See also


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  10. Duke, Neville and Lanchbery, Edward (1959) The Crowded Sky: an anthology of flight from the beginnings to the age of the guided missile, Cassel (p. 47)
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