My nephew Tom needs to sweep his woman off her feet. It seems there was a lovers’ quarrel and feelings were hurt. “What about sending her a sky message, you know, one of those banners towed behind an airplane?” I offered. The idea seemed to lift his spirits. So I headed off to gather the skinny.

“Banner Joe,” of Aerial Advertising (619-222-4909; aerialadvertise.com), has been in this line of work since 1984. “Years ago, I had a product that I was trying to advertise, and it was going to cost me a lot of money,” he explained. “I owned an airplane, so I thought, I can advertise it in the air. So I went around to various conventions towing my banner behind my plane.”

Aerial Advertising flies over San Diego, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and the Los Angeles area and offers banner-towing, skywriting, and skytyping. “Skytyping uses five airplanes, and they spit out what looks like a typewritten message. The price starts at $5000 and goes up. Skywriting uses just one airplane and the price starts at $700.”

What is the substance?

“It is a very light oil that completely dissipates and is not harmful to the environment. It comes out of the exhaust, which is about four inches in diameter. When it comes out, it fattens up and is as wide as the airplane’s wings, which are roughly 30 feet.”

Where can you fly?

“We have to fly 12,500 feet over any large area like San Diego. And if we go inland, we can fly at maybe 6000 or 7000 feet. And we have to fly 2000 feet away from any building in the downtown area, such as Petco Park. For flying by the Q, we fly at about 500 feet or more out from the perimeter of the building; in other words, the parking-lot area. For the beaches we can fly lower; we fly at 500 feet altitude and 500 feet out from the breakers.”

How do the logistics of skywriting work?

“A pilot goes out generally 15 to 20 minutes beforehand and puts out trails to see how long it’s going to last. If it doesn’t last too long, then he goes up another 200 or 500 feet” and tries other test trails. “It all depends on altitude and how much winds are coming in and the humidity of the day. If there are clouds in the sky, the writing, which is white, doesn’t show up well. But weather like today, with a very small amount of cumulus cloud formations, would be a good day for skywriting.”

“Our skywriting has been known to go to New Mexico. If the wind is ten miles an hour at 12,000 feet, then every hour it will travel ten miles.”

And what about visibility from the ground?

“We know that you can see the message well 15 miles away from where it is done. So if you want to see the message all over the county, then it should be done three times: one in the south, one in the middle, and one in the North County.”

How long can the plane be in the air?

“We can fly as long as four hours. Soon we will have another airplane that will be able to fly roughly eight hours.” Joe says the rising cost of fuel, now up to $6 a gallon, has affected business. “The planes use 15 to 17 gallons an hour,” he said.

And what about the classic “Will U Marry Me?” in dots of smoke?

“We do a lot of proposals. I try real hard to talk them out of it,” laughed Joe. “I could tell you many stories.”

We moved on to advertising via banners.

“With banners, you get more for your money. There is a broader range with a banner, such as smiley faces,” and a range of colors and images.

And the reason you often see the banner-towing planes by the beach, “There are normally 650,000 people on any good weekend on our beaches. That is according to the chamber of commerce. So the beach is the biggest congested area. But football games, baseball games, [the Ocean Beach] chili cook-off, those all have a lot of people also.”

How big of a banner can you tow?

“We tow from 50 to100 feet. Some of our banners have been 110, 115 feet long. If the customer wants the banner over land, we have to fly 1000 feet high, so the letters on the banner should be seven feet high. If they want it for the beach, we fly it at 500 feet high and the letters can be as low as five feet tall.”

Joe related one touching banner memory. “About 28 years ago, a 13-year-old Boy Scout got lost in the Cuyamacas, and there had been a light snowfall. A lady called me and asked me to fly a banner up there saying, ‘Tommy, hug a tree and stay where you are.’ She figured he was wandering and that is why they couldn’t track him down. Tommy saw the banner and stayed put and they found him.”

Joe offered an example with the pricing. “This week we have a marriage proposal banner that will be flying five times in Long Beach. It will cost the client about $470. Another client wants a ‘Happy Birthday’ banner to fly for about an hour and a half here in El Cajon. That will cost over $400.”

Air Ads (619-562-0055; airadsinc.net) also offers banner-towing. “A client calls up and tells us what they want us to fly,” explained owner Jim Oakley. “They give us a copy, and we put together the message for them. It can be up to 50 characters long. Letters can be red or black. And the price is $350 for one hour.”

For the cost of a banner with graphics it “depends on how large it is, but you can figure $2.50 a square foot, plus the additional cost of towing. Depending on how many hours you are going to fly, figure around $300 an hour.”

Anywhere you cannot fly?

“We can fly pretty much anywhere unless the president is in town. If he is in town, you cannot fly anywhere; they shut everyone down.”

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