Long before the advent of social media, skywriters created ephemeral messages writ large in the atmosphere for all to see.
Aviation has given us many here today, gone tomorrow moments—passenger-carrying dirigibles, mailplanes, military gliders, enormous flying boats—and among them is the craft of skywriting. Just as there are diehard airship fans and those who would like to see Pan Am Clippers still carving wakes across San Francisco Bay, skywriting continues to have its boosters.
Skywriting can be traced back to the beginning of World War I, when Royal Flying Corps Major John “Jack” Savage developed a mechanism to pump an oily smokescreen out of an airplane’s exhaust pipe to help hide ships at sea. Some historians date the inception of such smoke to 1910, used “as an alternate means of communication,” in the words of one source. To imagine a 1910 Bristol Boxkite carving smoky letters in the sky is laughable, however, as is the concept of communicating military messages quite so openly.
Disregard as well claims that West Coast stunt pilot Art Smith invented skywriting in 1915, when he flew spectacular night airshows with a flare attached to the tail of his Curtiss pusher. Many spectators swore that Smith closed every show by “writing” GOOD NIGHT with his flaming taillight, but time-exposure photographs make it obvious that he simply flew a series of spirals and loops.
After the war, Savage’s friend and fellow officer Cyril Turner modified a Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a fighter to make use of Savage’s concept for skywriting. He installed a smoke-oil tank and valve to inject the potion into the exhaust, extended the big Hispano-Suiza V8’s pipes all the way to the tail, asbestos-wrapped them to keep the gases hot and split the rudder to allow the pipes to be joined into one big smoke outlet.
Skywriting as an advertising medium had its debut above the famous English racetrack Epson Downs, on Derby Day in 1922. Turner had made a deal with an aviation-friendly London newspaper to smokestream the words DAILY MAIL in the sky above tens of thousands of bemused bettors and most of the country’s peerage.
A few months later, realizing where the big bucks were, Turner boxed up his warbird, shipped it to New York and introduced himself with the smoky message HELLO USA spelled out over Manhattan. The next day, he wrote CALL VANDERBILT 7200—the phone number of his hotel—and, legend has it, elicited 47,000 calls in less than three hours…“legend” because that was the figure released by the hotel press agent, and the New York Telephone Company doubted that tally was possible.
Nonetheless, the American Tobacco Company was impressed. Makers of America’s favorite brand, Lucky Strike, the company became the first major corporate sponsor of skywriting. It’s said that sales of Luckies jumped 60 percent immediately after a skywriting demo over Philadelphia. Many claim that American’s early messages consisted of LSMFT—“Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco”—but that acronym didn’t appear until the mid-1940s. It’s more likely that skywriters wrote IT’S TOASTED, the brand’s meaningless catchphrase.
Jack Savage ended up owning the largest fleet of skywriting aircraft in Britain, and he sent them all over the world with Turner as his chief pilot. Turner’s original skywriting airplane, the S.E.5a G-EBIA, still flies as part of the famous Shuttleworth Collection, though restored in its original wartime olive-drab paint scheme. Skywriting, apparently, was too raffish a profession for a proper warbird to have been involved in. Commercial skywriting, in fact, is today banned in the UK.
It took awhile for skywriting to become an important commercial advertising medium. Initially, the capability was used to broadcast personal messages, political rants, birthday wishes and marriage proposals, and for such frivolities as flattering celebrities debarking from ocean liners by writing their names, and even simply to post goofy phrases and greetings—a kind of 1920s Twitter. But the potential was unmistakable. In the mid-1920s, city-dwellers would rush to a window at the mere sound of an airplane, and a simple low-altitude fly-by could summon an audience easily in the tens of thousands.
Skywriting became so popular that in June 1923 a New York Times essay by poet and critic Benjamin De Casseres complained that “Above the Himalyas, the Alps and the Eiffel Tower will be soap, cigarette and pickle ads…the competition for airspace may become so keen someday that I can quite conceive of devastating aerial battles between rival advertising concerns. A war between the pickle planes and soap Capronis….”
Others feared that the skies would be defiled by what they called “celestial vandalism”—smoky scrawls of every sort and color. Skywriters were working on developing palettes of colored smoke as well as glowing smoke for nighttime use. Neither ever came to pass, though of course aerobatic teams have used colored smoke. The expense of scrubbing dye-stained fuselages has always led skywriters to avoid it.
The Germans saw skywriting as another means to circumvent the Versailles Treaty, which forbade their country to develop any form of military aviation. So besides training its pilots through sport-gliding clubs and configuring future bombers as airliners, the Germans formed several Reklamestaffeln, or “publicity and advertising” squadrons. These specialized units did commercial skywriting work that screened what was in fact practice for target-marking and reconnaissance missions. Among the many pilots initially trained as skywriters was future general of fighters Adolf Galland, and the Reklamestaffeln actually became the first operational tactical units of the newly constituted Luftwaffe.
Hermann Dibbel, a Junkers Ju-87 sergeant pilot, was another Luftwaffe skywriter trained in this fashion. Dibbel used his Stuka to spell out surrender appeals above Soviet units and, later, Yugoslav partisans. Perhaps because they were amazed by such displays of technical prowess, some troops would indeed flee the front lines. After the war, Dibbel reinvented himself as Europe’s only skywriting instructor. Without access to an airplane, he had his students pedal a bicycle equipped with a container of limewater and a spigot that could be triggered open or closed, to make upside-down and backward letters on the ground just as a skywriter would in the air. The Dibbel dribble method disappeared into the mists of 1950s history, and whether it created any actual skywriters remains a mystery.
By the late 1930s, the big dog in the U.S. had become the Skywriting Corporation of America, operating out of Curtiss Field, on Long Island. Cyril Turner was their chief pilot. The company made much of holding all the patents necessary to create “the writing gas.” According to The New Yorker magazine, this involved “injecting a chemical into some kind of oil, the exact nature of these ingredients being a secret.”
Secrecy has always been an important element of skywriting. The profession even today labors like a White House press secretary to dissemble and hide any clues to its operation. It has long been hinted that only those who have the talent within their DNA can become skywriters, and that like the Flying Wallendas, unless you’re born into the craft you’ll never gain entry. When Pepsi-Cola became the world’s best-known skywriting user, its contracts with company skywriters forbade them to reveal any details of how they flew their smoky patterns.
Granted, skywriting is not easy, since the letters must be formed without the pilots having any perspective over what they’re doing. Though the letters look vertical from the ground, they are in fact horizontal, facing the ground, and a skywriting pilot can only see what he or she has done when the message is complete, if it hasn’t already been tattered by the wind.
This has led to some infamous gaffes. Skywriter Louis Meyer, working on a commission from Loft Candies, wrote SEIDNAC TFOL in full view of Loft’s president. Meyer immediately saw his mistake and redid the message correctly. Another pilot wrote AIR SOW to promote a New York airshow, and another scrawled EELIBUJ YN to publicize New York City’s 300th anniversary jubilee. Some skywriters have turned around and flown a long, straight strikeout line through a botched word or phrase—an aerial “my bad.”
Sometimes even correctly spelled messages can be misinterpreted. Modern-day skywriter Wayne Mansfield touted a rock band over Cape Cod beaches by writing JAY AND THE AMERICANS AT ON THE ROCKS, but winds at altitude soon turned the words into what seemed to spell AMERICA ON THE ROCKS. Horrified viewers called Otis Air Force Base to complain.
Mansfield’s best-known commissions came from musicians John Lennon and Yoko Ono. In December 1969, the couple commissioned one of the longest skywritten messages ever: WAR IS OVER IF YOU WANT IT HAPPY XMAS FROM JOHN AND YOKO, written over Toronto and then New York City. (Mansfield has always carried very large smoke-oil tanks in his skywriting airplanes—in this case 120 gallons in his Ag-Cat.) Eleven years later, Mansfield spelled HAPPY BIRTHDAY JOHN & SEAN LOVE YOKO over Manhattan, repeated eight times. John Lennon would be dead in two months.
One retired skywriter who flew an Ag-Cat gave Aviation History a few clues as to how the game is played. “Skywriting aerobatics is only for Hollywood,” he wrote. “I did everything level at 9,500 to 10,500 feet. Count to six-Mississippi and maintain a constant airspeed for any straight part of a letter. Count higher for bigger letters. Maintain a constant angle of bank for the curved stuff…and try to keep the curved stuff to a minimum. O is the hardest letter, especially at the beginning of a word.
“Determine the winds aloft and start waaaay upwind. Write upside down and backward, so the people on the ground can read it. Have two easily identifiable points of reference outside—one straight ahead and one straight off your wing.
“We would draw our pattern on a 5-by-8 card and clip it on the panel in front of us. It looked essentially like an aerobatic-routine card, showing how we maneuvered through each letter to the next one. Preflight planning was important, especially if it was windy at altitude, as letters don’t last long then. We’d keep writing the word or phrase over and over until we ran out of smoke oil. We could do about 25 to 30 letters on an 80-gallon tank of oil. Your messages looked terrible the first few times you tried to write, so we would videotape them and critique.
“That’s about it—no magic or mystery, just an old airplane with a big, fat exhaust and a semi-competent VFR pilot.”
Suzanne Asbury-Oliver, today the country’s most active skywriter, says, “If you can’t hold a heading and an altitude, you won’t be able to skywrite.” She agrees that a big part of skywriting is counting. “I count off seconds just like a dancer would count off steps,” she says. “Timing is essential. Lose count, no matter what the distraction, and you can count on failing at skywriting.” Another challenge is that each letter in a skywritten message is best done at a slightly different altitude, like stepping down a staircase, so the skywriter doesn’t blow away the previous letter.
One recent skywriting episode gave several cities a good look at the skills of occasional skywriters. On Valentine’s Day 2014, the ride-sharing company Uber held a promotion: For $500, Uber users could have 12-character romantic messages skywritten over L.A., San Diego, Dallas or New York. The response was substantial—first come, first served—but with more cities on the list than there are skilled skywriters in the U.S., the results were about what you’d expect. Numerous “fails” were posted on social media, though Uber was happy with the publicity.
Skywriters used to insist smoke oil was an exotic witch’s brew, but it is in fact sold by the barrel (about $900, or $16-plus a gallon) as Chevron/Texaco Canopus 13, which used to be called Corvus oil. It is also used by the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds and by civilian airshow aerobats as well as radio-control modelers. Aviation applications are actually what doctors would call an off-label use, for Canopus 13 was originally intended to be a quenching oil for fresh-rolled steel and a lubricant-system flush.
It takes one to three gallons of smoke oil to skywrite a typical quarter-mile-high letter, depending on the size of the skywriting airplane’s engine, so messages are limited in length by oil tank size, usually running from 15 to 80 gallons. (One of a skywriter’s most embarrassing situations is to run out of oil before a message is complete.)
In 1931 the Pepsi-Cola Company set forth to become the world’s foremost skywriting user. At the time a distant contender in the cutthroat cola wars—a 1940 New Yorker cartoon depicts an antiaircraft gun crew in Coca-Cola shirts taking aim at a Pepsi skywriter—Pepsi hired skywriter Andy Stinis and his classic 1929 Travel Air D4D biplane to spread its message, and Stinis would limn DRINK PEPSI-COLA often eight times a day over various cities. Pepsi eventually owned or contracted for a fleet of 14 skywriting airplanes—often Stearmans—to work all over the U.S., Mexico and Central America.
This continued until 1953, when TV advertising turned skywriting from the coolest form of advertising into a niche industry whose time had come and gone. No longer did the drone of a radial bring people racing to the nearest window, and Madison Avenue was learning the lessons of audience-directed advertising: Don’t just throw an expensive cigarette ad out there for a hundred thousand people to see even though most of them don’t smoke, buy a time slot on a TV show watched by middle-aged pack-a-day guys.
In 1973, in what has been called “a burst of nostalgia,” PepsiCo decided to get back into the skywriting business, encouraged by one of its corporate pilots, “Smilin’” Jack Strayer. Strayer located Andy Stinis’ original Travel Air, and Pepsi bought it. In 1980, needing an assistant, Strayer advertised for a skywriting pilot and found none. But he did find a 23-year-old commercial pilot and flight instructor, Suzanne Asbury. Within weeks, he had her skywriting, and within a year, Asbury (today Asbury-Oliver) was Pepsi’s chief skywriting pilot, following Strayer’s death from pneumonia.
Before Strayer died, Pepsi combined the might of television with the nostalgic appeal of skywriting to create a classic TV commercial. A scarfed-and-goggled Strayer takes off from a farm field in the Travel Air, resplendent in its swoopy red-white-and-blue Pepsi livery, and writes MARRY ME SUE far above the heads of a farmboy and his girlfriend. It helped turn the Travel Air into a national icon, and today the airplane hangs in the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center.
PepsiCo got out of the skywriting business for good in 2000. During the fat years, Suzanne and her husband, aerobat Steve Oliver, were on the road for nine months every year, skywriting for Pepsi several times a week. Today Suzanne estimates that their company, Olivers Flying Circus, still does 500 messages at 150 different locations each year, “from marriage proposals to commercial stuff.” Each job pays from $5,000 to $15,000, most of which is eaten up by travel and other expenses. Asbury-Oliver flies a highly modified 1956 de Havilland Super Chipmunk.
Other than Asbury-Oliver, perhaps the most widely seen skywriter active today is 74-year-old Jerry Stevens, a retired corporate pilot who frequently traces religious messages over Orlando’s theme parks with an Ag-Cat logoed “Holy Smoke.” A heavenly texter, he has been known to write not only the standard JESUS FORGIVES and GOD IS GREAT but U + GOD = :).
Today, most skywriting is done by a company called Skytypers, flying Grumman AA-5 Tigers on the West Coast and North American SNJ-2s in the east. Skytyping involves five airplanes flying a perfect line-abreast formation, their smoke-oil valves controlled electronically. The technique has been called dot-matrix skywriting, since the message is pulsed out in short bursts of smoke. It’s fast, efficient and faultless—the controlling computer is programmed with the message before flight, and all the pilots need to do is maintain a perfect straight-and-level formation.
Some sources claim that Sidney Pike, a pilot who had become president of the Skywriting Corporation of America, began developing the predecessor of skytyping in the late 1930s, though the system didn’t see actual use until the late 1940s. A formation of seven airplanes pumped smoke oil through valves radio-controlled by a “mother ship” in the middle of the flock.
Greg Stinis, the son of Pepsi skywriter Andy Stinis, says that claim is nonsense: “Sid took credit for inventing the system, but it was actually invented by my father. I watched my dad work on that system for many years while I was growing up. He told me Sid didn’t even know how to turn it on.” In 1964 Andy got a patent for a version of the Skytyper technology controlled by punched tapes, and he took over the pennies-on-the-dollar fleet of SNJ-2s and BT-13s that Sid Pike had bought immediately after World War II.
Greg Stinis formed Skytypers Inc. in 1979, and today holds his late father’s patents as well as his original fleet of J-Birds. In 2004 Greg’s son Stephen and cousin Curtiss Stinis developed the present-day computerized, all-digital, wireless-network skytyping system.
The appeal of classic skywriting has always been the lazy, what-comes-next unpredictability of a barely visible airplane, its message slowly scrolling forth from what seems to be God’s own felt tip pen. Each letter takes at least two minutes to form. Skytypers, on the other hand, seem to move as fast as a CNN news ticker—actually two seconds per letter—and there’s little danger of the first letter disappearing before the last is typed. It’s an emotionless, paint-by-numbers approach to skywriting, but it’s perfect for our text-and-talk, face-in-a-phone millennials audience.
Unlike Zeppelins and big flying boats, skywriting will be around forever, even if only on a rare, occasional, amateur level. The sky is a canvas so enormous that there will always be a painter-pilot or two waiting to challenge it.
Contributing editor Stephan Wilkinson’s latest book, with Bruce McAllister, is Lindbergh: A Photographic Biography of the Lone Eagle. For more on Olivers Flying Circus, see skywriter.info; for more on Skytypers Inc., see skytypers.com.
This feature originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Aviation History. Subscribe today!