Banner Planes in Action

6 Dec 13 7 Comments

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!

Category: Demystifying,


  • Thanks for finding these videos! I too have tried to explain this to others and can’t quite convey how insane the pick up maneuver is. Living in downtown Atlanta right next to three major stadiums, I see these particular banner towers all the time, especially the white one with blue trim. I had always wondered where they are based out of. The airport in the videos is Briscoe Field (LZU). The Cheetah, incidentally, is a large strip club in town. They’ve probably single-handedly kept the local banner tower industry afloat since that same banner has been gracing Atlanta skies for at least 15 years.

    • Colin: it is hard to explain, isn’t it. I really like the video.

      Richard: I think it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to get a ride, to be honest. As explained by the pilot above, if the aircraft has any spare capacity, they make the banner bigger. :)

  • Interesting post. Three (probably silly) questions:

    1. Why do they have to climb so violently? Is it just to stop the banner dragging on the ground?

    2. How do they know for sure they have picked up the banner? (No rear view mirrors!) They don’t want to fly past beaches for hours and then find they are not dragging the banner.

    3. To drop the banner do they just do a low pass and unhook it somehow?

  • It’s more exciting ( to the pilot) when you hook the tow rope with the landing gear instead of the grapple.
    1. yes don’t want to drag banner on the ground 7 tear it up. also has much more drag when pulled through the grass
    2. You feel the banner in planes reactions. and you lean out and look back to see if banner is not twisted or upside down.
    3. drop banner and pull the release same equipment that glider tugs use.

  • I think I did more than 3700 hours flying advertising banners, the start of my career as a commercial pilot. The C172 was frequently used but other types as well: the Tiger Moth but also Morane-Saulnier, Citabria Champion (after dropping good for a few barrel rolls and loops), but mostly on PA18 Super Cubs.
    I have picked up banners hundreds and hundreds of times, so I will comment without the benefit of looking at the video:
    The method of picking up is by slinging a grapnel hook – 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. I suppose that the video will show that the banner is on the ground, viewed from the cockpit behind the poles.
    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.
    Okay, from the beginning. 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. Of course, novices may release the tail hook. That of course will not result in a pick-up, but in a red face as the pilot has to come back in, land and re-attach the line. Or (s)he might face an irate ground crew if the grapnel itself was released as well, resulting in a search or an insurance claim if it fell through someone’s glass house. The Super Cub has a door that opens in two parts: the top which opens upwards and the bottom downwards. We would take-off with the grapnel in our lap, after take-off throw it out (clear of the tail, of course), steer with our knees whilst closing the doors.
    Coming in for the pick-up was usually coordinated by a batsman. But he would want to get the aircraft lined up so that the grapnel would hang lower than the aircraft in a level approach and at the last moment “wave” for a fairly steep climb. The problem is that when starting the climb the aircraft slows down and the grapnel would come lower and often hit the ground, bouncing over the loop.
    So most experienced pilots would ignore the batsman. Instead, we would come in on a shallow dive, one notch of flap, IAS (PA18) around 60 mph and initiate a gentle pull-up just before the poles with the loop.
    The grapnel’s momentum, if this were all done properly, would allow it to continue in a downward swing. Made possible by the aircraft slowing as it started to climb away. If properly executed, it would result in the grapnel swinging in the loop without the rather violent initial climb. The banner would be “peeled” off the ground without dragging at all.
    At the top, perhaps 80 feet high, the pilot feels a “jolt” confirming that the grapnel hook did indeed engage. Further confirmed by a further drop in airspeed. At this moment the aircraft is virtually stalled with full power. The stick full forward – the nose will not drop by itself because of the banner and recovery is nearly instant. Yes, it was a very boring job. We flew mainly over beaches and other recreational areas or ventures. An average day meant 8 hours in the air, a quick toilet stop in between, sandwich standing on a wheel, refueling 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”. With not more that a liquid compass for navigation although a few Super cubs were equipped with a “turn and bank” indicator. But that was all: no VOR, no DME, no ADF, and no transponder. A VHF com, that was all. One mile or 1500 metres visibility was the official minimum. which was already cheating a bit because a mile is 1600 m. There was a church spire about 1500 m. away from the aerodrome office, if the mist cleared sufficiently for it to be seen we could go. But we got paid by the flying hour, not sitting around so it has happened that we took the car, drove to the far side of the grass strip until we saw the spire, drove back and swore to the manager that we could see the spire – albeit not from the office, but of course that was not mentioned. The manager would say nothing but go into his office, close the door and we would go flying. Actual vis perhaps 700 metres. And I do not remember anyone ever NOT finding the way back, not even if the conditions did not improve.
    After the last flight, not rarely near the aerodrome closing time, we often went for a bit of “entertainment”: looped the Champion or did dogfights with the Cubs. The aerodrome manager, himself a WW2 RAF flight instructor, would turn a blind eye. He was quite lenient. In order to save time we would make very tight circuits to pick up and be on our way. One day he reproached us: “Gentlemen, I do appreciate that you are flying commercially and time is money, but would you please fly your pattern outside the aerodrome boundaries?”
    In those days, we regularly flew 40 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 1000 hours.
    There were virtually no jobs in the ‘sixties and early ‘seventies. And banner towing experience is only good to airlines in small doses. The ability to navigate using a Little Chef map without infringing any control zone or prohibited- or restricted areas is of absolutely no interest whatsoever when flying and airliner IFR. So I had to do this for a few years before I got a break into corporate flying.
    But that may be for another time – and other comment on Sylvia’s blog.
    I may continue this talk about banner-towing if the mood grabs me, so watch this space !

  • D-EFCY on a banner-towing mission leading two more PA18’s to Egelsbach, a small airport just on the south of Frankfurt-Main EDDF’s control zone, was getting into a wee bit of trouble as the visibility kept dropping. So did the cloud base.
    None of the Super Cubs had anything in the form of electronic navigation equipment, except a VHF-com. Nor did they have any basic instruments other than an ASI, RPM, oil pressure and temperature and a liquid compass. So when the third aircraft in the tight formation started to have problems keeping no. 1 in sight, and when the aircraft could barely see the ground flying at about 300 ft AGL, the formation leader did the only responsible thing and called Frankfurt Approach for a vector to the big airport.
    A rather surprised air traffic controller refused to provide the service: The airport was closed to all traffic due to weather. Meaning closed to the big jets flying IFR, they all had to divert. And here were three little Pipers flying VFR towing banners.
    They continued to Egelsbach. The airport manager refused to believe that the Cubs had actually landed until the pilots convinced him to get in a ground service vehicle and showed him where they had dropped the banners. The airport manager nearly got lost on his own airport.

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