Banner towing for ‘hire or reward’ means you need a commercial licence but you can also have fun and touch many lives
There are many ways to earn a living as a commercial pilot aside from the obvious ones of carrying passengers or freight. Some airline pilots supplement their income and add interest to their flying career by flying warbird or aerobatic displays. Younger pilots who have recently qualified and are perhaps finding it difficult to land a job with an airline or charter company might find their way into parachute dropping, which can make an excellent flying career.
Richard Parrott, who is 48, has spent most of his commercial flying career at Headcorn Parachute Club. His considerable experience at flying twin-engined aircraft in unusual operations has led recently to another branch of commercial piloting; banner towing. “The really big audiences for banners are in London,” he explains, “where only twin-engined aircraft are allowed to tow. So when my boss, David Parker, was asked if he could supply our Islander for the ‘Remain’ campaign, he asked if I would fly it, working with Zentelligence (Airads) Ltd Director Simon Moores. Simon has loads of experience banner towing in singles.” The tow took place over two days and was judged a success (although not for Remain!) Now Richard expects banner towing to be another regular earner for him, complementing the parachute drops.
One of the first instances of banner towing in the UK was at Hanworth Air Park in July 1930, in the same month that a dirigible inscribed ‘Advertise by Airship’ flew over London. The RAF had been towing gunnery sleeves for some years; the breakthrough was the use of a paravane, enabling the towing of a long banner steadily and safely. For £100 an hour it was claimed that the message could be read eight miles away (banner at 3,000ft). As banner towing became more common there were complaints about impertinence on Derby Day and flying low over London Zoo, jeopardising children being given rides on the elephants. One pilot was even carpeted for flying over Buckingham Palace.
Banner towing has become more regulated over the years. For a while it almost disappeared, but in recent times it has grown in popularity. Banner towing is classed as ‘aerial work’ so, whether a single- or twin-engined aeroplane is used, it must be a qualified commercial pilot at the controls when working for ‘hire or reward’.
Goodwood Aviation invested in a banner-towing rig to advertise both Goodwood’s own business divisions – such as the Goodwood Racecourse – and to undertake external commissions. They use a modified 1954 Super Cub and have installed a 150hp Lycoming 0-320. The banner equipment was purchased from the USA with black letters and characters 2.1m high and they also have a huge red heart used for marriage proposals, anniversaries and so on. The Cub is able to tow up to 32 characters, with wind and temperature limitations of 15kt max and ISA+15ºC. While making up the banner is relatively straightforward, the hard work comes in laying it out and coordinating the pick-up.
Banners read from left to right and so
Richard expects banner towing to be another regular earner for him...
careful positioning with respect to the customer or site is important. Trim tabs can be fitted to the actual banner or, if none are available, a gentle left turn will ensure that it presents at a slight angle to the desired onlookers. Banner towing has helped to create a real team within Goodwood Aviation, who say they have
developed a very different skillset than they would have had without this opportunity.
Goodwood is well situated to fly banners either along the coast or inland. Aviation General Manager Rob Wildeboer tends to fly at 800-1,000 feet off the coast and 1,200-1,500 feet agl elsewhere — unless ground features dictate otherwise. An ideal run is from Portsmouth to Worthing, which avoids having to bother Shoreham and takes in a huge amount of tourist coast for maximum exposure. Goodwood makes courtesy calls to other ATC units — even if they are operating outside their zones.
American pilot Rudy Jakma is now retired, but flew more than 3,700 hours flying advertising banners before becoming an airline pilot and has written extensively on the subject. He mainly used a Cessna 172 or Super Cub. He writes, ‘The method of picking up [with the Cessna 172] is by slinging a grapnel — which is attached to a quick release at the rear of the aircraft — into a loop, usually on two forked poles to keep it above the ground. This loop in turn is attached to the banner. If the banner drags over the ground, not only will it get damaged but the airplane will not be able to lift it aloft at all, it will stall and ‘mush’ into the ground. The grapnel in a C172 is attached to another quick release under the aircraft belly. Once airborne, the pilot will release this, the grapnel will now trail behind the aircraft and the pick-up can commence.’
He recalls that ‘it was a boring job’, flying mainly over beaches and other recreational areas. ‘An average day meant eight hours in the air, a quick toilet stop in between, sandwich standing on a wheel, refuelling the aircraft for the next sortie. We could get a day off only if the weather was too bad for flying. Which was not very often because our definition of VMC was any weather condition in which we could find our way back to the aerodrome.
‘In those days, we regularly flew forty hours a week and averaged 120 a month. Although there was little or no flying during the autumn and winter, after the first year I had already logged over a thousand hours.’
Air-ads, based at Blackpool Airport, is a fairly typical UK banner towing operation. The owner is Alan Elliot, Bob Stinger is the chief pilot and the third member of the team is Andy Nicholls who flies transit and looks after the admin side of things. Air-ads’ activities have included towing a banner at a televised ‘Match of the Day’ for a Nescafé advert. The procedure is to letter the banner in the hangar, pack it up, and then fly to an airfield near the display site where the banner can be laid out for pick-up.
Air-ads have a lot of commissions like funeral banners and marriage proposals, where timing is critical. While they operate within the rules, they sometimes feel that Controllers can be officious, holding them to the letter of the rules when a more flexible approach would still meet sensible safety requirements. However, Alan, Bob and Andy say they love banner towing and it’s pretty clear they consider it a great way of earning money while having fun as a commercial pilot.
A great way of earning money while having fun as a commercial pilot
Top right: Islander pilot Richard Parrott completes the tricky task of securing the grapple and its line with just enough tape to make sure it remains stowed until release — but not so much that it hangs up
Above: Simon Moores prepares the Remain campaign’s banner for pick up at Denham, inserting the weighted carbon fibre pole that keeps the banner square and upright. On the ground, the main ‘Vote Remain’ panel remains furled, secured by tape that parts...