I’ve long been obsessed with banner planes. They are fascinating and amazing to watch. When I did my PPL in Spain, I was lucky enough to see them in action every weekend.

All excerpts from You Fly Like a Woman:

The weekends were busy at Axarquía now that high summer was here. Broad-shouldered young men with their hair clipped short invaded the airfield. They never spoke, they shouted, laughing and clapping each other on the shoulders as they checked their planes and fueled up. They flew the banner planes: advertising discothèques and cheap restaurants across the beaches of the Costa del Sol.

A young pilot at the fuel pump glanced over at me and then shrugged: crazy foreign lady. The banner pilots had never seen me fly. I retreated when they arrived, watching jealously from the distance. I listened to them on the radio — jokes, maybe insults. The Spanish was too fast and too dialectal for me to follow. They scared me: the energy, the easy-going laughter, as comfortable with the planes as an old bicycle kept in the garage. The airport held no secrets for them, the aircrafts were not a mystery. It’s a culture I would never belong to, even if I spoke the language, even if I were the same age. They must have been born in the cockpit, I thought.

After take-off, the aircraft circles back around in the circuit. Someone on the ground sets up the pick-up point. The banner is laid flat and the towline is strung between two poles across the runway.

The aircraft returns, flying low (about 10m) over the runway. He hooks the towline with a hook mechanism on the back of the plane and then flies straight up into a stall.

OK, not quite but that’s what it always felt like when I was watching. The pilot applies full power and goes into a steep climb. The tow-rope unfurls and then the banner lifts off the ground, in a way that literally seems like it is going to jerk the aircraft back down to the ground. The aircraft levels out and magic, the banner is flying behind it gracefully.

The following Saturday, I asked to use the radio so I could listen in. The first banner plane took off and made a left turn. He didn’t make any standard calls, it was chitchat, the roaring of the engines in the background. I watched the plane in the circuit when I noticed the man in the long-sleeved shirt was unfurling the banner, rolling it out centered along the runway. The plane came around, low and fast, just a few feet above the runway. On the back of the plane was a hook and as he came over the edge, it swooped down and hooked the banner. I felt vaguely sick as I watched. Having seen the weight of the banner, it seemed like it would jerk the plane backwards towards the ground as the hook tugged it. There wasn’t even a shudder, not a flinch, and he was away, an advertisement for Star-Spangled Disco fluttering behind. The next plane was already entering the runway, ready to follow the same sequence. Finally, all three circled with their banners on proud display before they called that they were leaving the station and the radio went silent.

They flew towards the coast. I dialed in the Málaga frequency on the radio. They would be flying through Málaga airspace and I wanted to hear how they sounded, once talking to air traffic control, once they had to be professional. But there was no call. It was as if they’d left us and disappeared. I waited a few more minutes and then changed the frequency back for local flights. Where had they gone?

Rick Witt, a banner pilot on the BeechTalk forums, describes what it’s like in the cockpit.

“Banner towing is 1 minute of adrenaline rush (the pick up) followed by hours of boredom followed by 30 seconds of fun (the drop).

If it weren’t for the fact that you’re in a 0g push at the moment the banner lifts, the plane would surely stall (more adrenaline). In a perfect pickup, the airplane is directly over the banner when it starts to lift, meaning you have climbed 100 ft while covering 100 ft across the ground.

I never had any passengers except for training. For towing billboards, we were at the limit of the plane’s capability. If we had excess power, they made the sign bigger!”

Somehow my explanations have always seemed rather flat compared to the reality, so I was thrilled to have found this video by C172skyhawk2 posted on /r/aviation showing banner pick ups in action.

(Note: if you are reading this on the mailing list, you’ll need to click through to view the videos on the Fear of Landing website)

We got back before the banner pilots arrived. The banner planes flew out to the coast and turned right, making their way to Marbella and then turning around to glide over the beaches, adverts trailing behind them.

I couldn’t face all of them together, that maelstrom of easy virility that flattened everything in its path. But I spotted one of the pilots on his own, sipping cold water at the bar. “Where do you go, when you leave?”

My Spanish was unsteady but he waited patiently for me to find the words. “When you leave the radio frequency, where do you go? You don’t speak to Málaga. I was listening on the radio.” I knew I sounded like a stalker but I wanted to know.

He laughed. “Es un secreto.” I scowled, feeling made fun of, but he kept on. “It’s true, it’s a secret channel. We fly low across the coast, low enough that Málaga does not even know we are there and we talk to each other.”

I was shocked. This was, well, against the rules! “So you just say nothing?”

“We say nothing to Málaga. We stay out of their way, and they are just as happy not to have the distraction,” he said. “We talk to each other, so we know where everyone is.”
Where “everyone” meant “banner fliers” only. I made a mental note to stay away from coast on weekends, at least until I found out their secret channel.

That would have been a fun way to learn more Spanish!

Here’s one more set of banner planes (picking up and dropping) video’d by C172skyhawk2 with obligatory aviation-video-music:

See you next week!