Greg’s dad, Andy, was one of skywriting’s founding fathers, and he invented the modern form of “skytyping.”
It is one hour before take-off in the skywriting capital of the world, and Greg Stinis is tinkering with his airplanes. The smog of Long Beach glows brown overhead, but the sky above it is blue enough for a celestial billboard. Today is Sunday, so the message will salute Solarcaine (Coppertone has dibs on Saturdays), and now all Stinis has to do is get his aeronautical typewriter airborne.
“Skytyping” requires the five AT-6s to fly in a straight-line formation, puffing out little dots of smoke.
He clambers out of one AT-6 cockpit, mutters a quick explanation. “We’re just having a little problem with the electronics. I should be able to patch it up in a minute. On the airfield, he is a dynamo, racing under the wings of his bright red. World War II-vintage vintage flock like an anxious mother hen. Stinis is used to soothing cranky airplanes, just as he’s used to worrying about whether the sky will be clear or whether the wind will rend his handiwork. Those are just sub-worries of the one big worry: namely, just how much longer will people pay him to hang smoky ads in the firmament.
“What you did was write the message on a piece of paper, then you’d write down the headings you’d be flying."
So far, the business has put food on the Stinis table for two generations. Greg’s dad, Andy, was one of skywriting’s founding fathers, and he invented the modern form of “skytyping.” The senior Stinis also was crafty enough to patent the process, so now the family boasts that it’s the only outfit in the world with the right to “type” celestial messages. The company has only two offices in the United States and keeps most of its planes at Long Beach; that alone makes the LA suburb the aerial advertising mecca.
“Skywriting is much more exciting than the typing because everything is always different."
Operating out of it. the fleet regularly inscribes messages over the beaches ranging from San Diego to Santa Barbara, occasionally decorating other heavens throughout the West. A New York office handles East Coast skytyping, but the whole operation is small potatoes compared to skywriting’s heyday in the 1930s.
Right from its inception, skywriting boomed. First, man invented the plane; then he used it for war; then his thoughts turned to advertising with it. In fact, popular accounts agree that World War I smoke screens inspired a British air force major to take commercialism to the skies; the major, one John C. Savage, reportedly made skywriting history in 1922 when he puffed out an ad for the Daily Mail newspaper in the azure expanse over Epsom Downs Racetrack.
"You can’t see a thing you’re doing because it’s all coming out behind you."
The American appetite for marketing madness soon gobbled up the aerial gimmick, and a few months later a World Series crowd at the New York Polo Grounds mouthed the words as a message billowed out above them. The pilot fretted about running out of smoke after his fourth letter and enraging his conservative onlookers, but the smoke supply held out long enough for him to inscribe “Hello USA— Call Vanderbilt 7200”
Turbulence, not wind, is the constant opponent.
Thousands of people took the high-flown advice. By the end of 1923, the Skywriting Corporation of America had visited every major American city, from San Diego to Bangor, Maine. The company boasted a fleet of SE-5As, seven pilots, a 20-man ground crew, and five bases throughout the country. By the late 1920s, aerial attractions had trended toward the exotic. One outfit, called the “Voice of the Sky,” promised clients it could cover every square mile of a given territory and could shower a mixture of amplified commercial messages and popular music upon the hapless groundlings. During the first few months of operation, Voice of the Sky planes rained tobacco company ads upon an estimated 1.3 million people. About the same time, the “Flying Signboard" company tickled night audiences with another offbeat medium: motor-powered neon messages mounted on the wing bottoms of tri-motor planes.
The appeal of the smokewriting had the most permanence, however, and big orders rolled in from the beginning. By the end of its first year in business. Skywriting Corporation of America had racked up more than a million dollars in contracts, including commissions from furrier I.J. Fox, the American Tobacco Company, and Pepsi Cola. Pepsi later paid for the biggest skywriting campaign in history during the 1930s, a multi-million dollar promotion in the course of which Andy Stinis (one of Skywriting Corporation of America’s principals) spelled out the word “Pepsi" 7,000 times. “That was the height of skywriting," Greg Stinis mourns today. “From that point on it was all downhill.”
The advent of the Second World War started the decline, and the birth of television accelerated it. Companies which had been pouring their advertising dollars into the air rechanneled them onto the airwaves, and most skywriters packed up their smoke machines forever.
The Skywriting Corporation of America managed to hang on, however, and was around to ride a minor skywriting renaissance in the 1960s, when the early glow of TV began to fade. Although Andy Stinis had invented skytyping in 1949, the process wasn’t streamlined until the mid-1960s, and Greg says business now is modest but stable.
Of course, writing and typing in smoke aren’t the only forms of aerial advertising to be found today. One cousin, banner towing, seems to be growing in San Diego. An El Cajon company, the Golden State Flying Club, has been towing messages all over the county for six years, and at least two other flying services have begun to offer more recent competition. Banner towing is just a sideline for all the local companies, but Golden State says it’s now doing about $10,000 a year in business, which includes both personal and commercial messages.
Banners offer two distinct advantages, argues Steve Mason, one of the Golden State partners. “First, you can fly them in a wider range of weather. You don’t have to have blue skies. Secondly, our main niche is that we’re a lot less expensive. People call me up all the time and ask me about smokewriting, and I’ll tell them about Stinis up the coast. They’ll get his price and then ten minutes later they’re calling me back, saying they’d better stick with the banners.”
All three banner companies charge about the same: $145 for the first hour and $100 to $120 for each hour after that. (Stinis’s price, in contrast, starts at $500 per message and escalates from there.) To avoid dragging the banner over the ground, two planes fly down low enough to hook a rope tied to the assembled message, then hoist the gaudy package into the air. The planes fly at 1,000 feet, as low as the Federal Aviation Administration regulations will permit, in order for the five-foot letters to be best seen.
That’s their fatal flaw, counters Stinis, who also tows banners now and then: you have to be within close range to read them. When Stinis contrasts them with the dimensions of skytyped letters, an irrepressible gleam lights his eyes. “Each sky-typed letter is as tall as the Empire State Building, and most messages are about five miles long. When we put them up at 10,000 feet, you can see them for 20 miles in each direction! At that altitude, we figure you’re reaching two million people with a five-mile-long billboard. At 17,000 feet, our new altitude, you reach three million!” Skywritten letters are even larger and they've traditionally been more spectacular.
As Stinis uses the terms, “skytyping” requires the five AT-6s to fly in a straight-line formation, puffing out little dots of smoke. The combination of dots forms computer-straight letters which march evenly across the vista. In contrast, “skywriting" requires one pilot in a single plane to fly along the lines of each letter. The process is much harder than skytyping, but Stinis still does it, both as a challenge and to preserve a dying art form.
He estimates there can’t be more than three or four pilots who skywrite in the entire country; even at the height of its popularity, the business didn’t employ many pilots.
Aviation oldtimers in San Diego are hard-pressed to think of any local flier who ever tried it, but one veteran is M.A. (Bud) McDonald, the Lindbergh Field manager.
McDonald recalls that he sky-wrote five or six messages over New York State in the hectic days after World War II. “You have to bear in mind this was a bunch of World War II pilots flying war-weary airplanes, and we got paid a little money, but mostly we were doing it for the hell of it. It was a real Mickey Mouse arrangement."
McDonald says his aerial penmanship never was much good and the hardest part was keeping track of what he’d already put up. His solution: to cross out letters on a diagram as he did them. “What you did was write the message on a piece of paper, then you’d write down the headings you’d be flying and what turns you’d have to make. If you flew it right and if you turned on your smoke when you were supposed to, it’d come out all right.”
Another San Diegan. Rusty Sayers, never did any skywriting himself, but remembers witnessing a particularly historic demonstration of it. That was over Shanghai, China, back in 1936, on Chiang Kai-shek’s 50th birthday. Sayers watched his then-employer, a former Skywriting Corporation of America flier named Allen Patterson, inscribe the Chinese characters for “long life” over the city. The demonstration was a sly piece of advertising, since Patterson was selling airplanes and Chiang's wife headed the Chinese Nationalist Air Force. The gimmick stopped traffic for miles.
“Patterson hadn't even been able to practice beforehand, or it would have given it away, but somehow he did it perfectly. There must have been about seven million people in Shanghai at the time, and so at least a million must have seen it,” Sayers marvels.
Storytelling and skywriting seem to go together, and no one can top Stinis's adventures. The skywriter has had so many he’s made up a list to remind himself of the highlights. Off the airfield, Stinis is very approachable, a stocky, tanned man who seems just a touch shy. He spends most of his weekdays on the phone, answering endless naive queries about his business, but he still seems freshly enthusiastic about skywriting.
“It’s much more exciting than the typing because everything is always different—you’re never doing the same pattern twice. But it’s also really hard. You can’t see a thing you’re doing because it’s all coming out behind you. You really have to have your wits about you.”
He recalls the time that he needed them while putting up “Bugaloo is love” over a San Francisco Navy base. Just as he had finished, Stinis realized Navy gunners were using his o’s for target practice. “It just about scared the life out of me!” he says, remembering his hasty retreat.
Another “Bugaloo is love” over Los Angeles contributed to some eerie urban drama. “The ‘Bugaloo is’ part faded right away, but the air conditions must have changed because the ‘love’ just hung right up there. Eventually, it floated over to Griffith Park, where some hippies were having a love-in. No one could believe it, but it must have stayed for at least an hour!”
Stinis’s skytypers usually cover San Diego’s beaches every other weekend, but this city hasn’t seen much skywriting. It certainly has never seen any stunts like the one Stinis did over Griffith Park, when he worked for a self-proclaimed aerial artist. The client’s idea was for Stinis to be the paint brush, while the client radioed instructions on what he wanted “painted.” Stinis concedes the two did rehearse ahead of time, and the result was 12 cottony airborne astrological signs. On another occasion, a friend of Hugh Hefner commissioned the skywriter to puff out a gigantic Playboy bunny for Hefner’s birthday. Stinis gamely etched the rabbit silhouette, then got lost in the smoke and misplaced the bunny’s eye.
He only ran out of smoke once, while promoting musicians Simon and Garfunkel. The error occurred because the first letters unexpectedly expanded and the skywriter kept trying to draw larger letters to keep the message even. He ended abruptly with “Simon and Gar-funke” but says that drew more attention than the intended lettering.
Though that kind of mistake gives skywriting its romance, the ability to avoid errors is part of what has made skytyping so strong; with the extra speed comes control. While Stinis’s skytypers can spit out 12 letters a minute, and easily handle 2S-letter signs, Stinis advises clients ordering skywritten words not to go much over five or six letters.
Smoke-producing mechanics for the two processes are identical; both spew out a biodegradable parrafin vapor. In skytyping, however, the center plane transmits an electronic code to the two planes on each side of it. The pilots just fly straight while a machine taps out all the puffs automatically. Stinis says the planes now use a secret code and frequency; public frequencies caused some memorable early problems.
He recalls, “We were using a frequency that also controlled model airplanes. So whenever the signal came on we were crashing the models, as well as opening automatic doors and changing street lights. Then we’re also a little defensive; we have had people try to upset us. When you’re flying over a city, you’re always going to have some clown down there who wants to see if he can write his name in the sky. Someone’s always going to be out there trying to get you.”
At the Long Beach Field, Stinis had exorcised the electronic demons and the planes get quick clearance from the tower. The red, white, and blue trim glitters as they climb through the smog. They look like a pack of willful toys. At 9,000 feet, they let out their first test puff and an observer radios back from the ground.
“It’s breaking up as fast as you put it out,” the radio crackles. Stinis orders ascent to another level.
“That’s no good either," the voice barks again.
“We’ll try a little higher,” Stinis responds. As the AT-6s perform their three-dimensional ballet, their smoke squirts out like shaving cream in the chill, and at 12,000 feet the ground man finally sends reassurance. The visual staccato commences.
Turbulence, not wind, is the constant opponent, according to Stinis. He explains that a steady wind simply moves the letters; he’s confronted 50-mile-an-hour blows with no problems. In contrast, confused air masses act like giant aeronautical erasers, and their patterns are very unpredictable. At one extreme, Stinis said he once had to descend in defeat; letters wouldn’t hold at any altitude. At the other end of the spectrum, he tells how he once put up a sign for Continental Airlines over Fort Worth only to have it blow, intact, all the way to Dallas. “I had been scheduled to put up a second sign over Dallas, but I just went down and admired the first one!”
With his letters holding, Stinis interrupts “Solarcaine stops sunburn pain" with a personal announcement of his second son's birth. “It’s a boy!” the plane announces to greater Los Angeles. Only 400 feet separate the planes’ wing tips; the precision flying is the only challenge. Both Stinis and the ex-military pilots who work for him confess to the tedium. “Every once in a while we get to do some fancy flying, and then we can feel like a poor man’s Blue Angels. But most of the time it is awfully boring,” one said with a sigh.
To Stinis, however, even skywriting’s worst boredom is only relative. In exchange for hours upon hours of sunburn oil in the sky, he can say with quiet pride that he’s the only man in the world doing what he’s doing. He flies regularly, he never knows what crazy client will call him up next, he’s sustaining this peculiar American pop art. If only, he sighs, the ad buyers weren’t so blind about skywriting’s virtues.
“They think of it strictly as serving the beach crowd. No one has actually done a Neilson on it," he explains a trifle bitterly. “If they just looked at it logically, on a cost per thousand (subjects exposed to the message) basis, they’d see it makes a lot of sense. Most print media cost you at least $1.50 per thousand. TV is $3 on up. Skywriting, at its most expensive, is only 20 cents per thousand. But when you go to them, they just reach for that little red book and of course they don’t find skywriting in it.”
When the company moved from New York to Southern California, ten years ago, the Stinises thought they’d found utopia. The pilots could inscribe ads on blue skies all year, and it could turn the business around, they dreamed. Accounts ranging from “Be Up Here—Fly Navy” to “New Price Leader—Toyota” have rolled in, but the non-summer months remain hungry. Stinis works at it full-time and says he makes enough to support his family, but he certainly would have made much more as an airline pilot. As it is now, he views his future with an uncertain shrug.
Then he unbends. He does have a dream, locked in a briefcase in his office closet. He almost pulled it off a few years ago, then the gas crunch scared him into locking it up again. As he dials the briefcase combination, he reveals his plans as eagerly as a child.
Instead of the toy-like AT-6s, he envisions using Lear jets. Instead of 10,000 or 17,000 feet, he’d fly them at 40,000. “At that altitude, you could have a 20-mile billboard, cr with 100-mile visibility,” he whispers gleefully. “With less turbulence, the M signs would hang up there much longer. I could lease the jets for just $600 an hour, so it’s economically feasible and we have the electronics to do it."
And he will, Stinis promises. This is his final answer to the imperative of thinking big. He figures the basic appeal of skywriting hasn’t changed, no matter how many times they’ve watched you before, if you skytype “S-o-l-a-r-c," people stare, open-mouthed, as you puff out the“a-i-n-e." “They’re compelled to watch. It’s like a giant game in the sky,” Stinis muses with a grin. The space-age medium reminds them anew of the inherent delight in creating any message. Language and writing, after all, are fundamentals of humankind, and who can resist the impudence of elevating them to the heavens?