14 Ethereal Secrets of Skywriters

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The first time humans saw a message written in the sky was during World War I, when pilots in the British Royal Air Force used skywriting to communicate with troops. In 1922, a Royal Air Force captain took the technique to the world of advertising, writing aerial messages in England and New York City. Brands such as Lucky Strike cigarettes, Ford, and Pepsi soon employed skywriters to advertise in the great blue yonder, a practice that continues today.

If you’ve ever looked up at a sky-written message and wondered about the person flying the plane, you’re in luck. Check out these secrets of skywriters for an inside-the-cockpit view.

1. THEY’RE BASICALLY ACROBATS IN THE SKY.

“Your professional sky-writer is a trained aerial acrobat,” famed aviator and skywriter Oliver Colin LeBoutillier wrote in the March 1929 edition of Popular Science Monthly. Besides successfully navigating a plane at 10,000 feet, skywriters must also diagram and memorize each maneuver and perform it with complete precision. They have to write their messages upside-down and backwards, so that it’s legible to people on the ground, and they can’t see what they’re writing when they’re up in the sky. “I’ve been doing it for years and years and years, and still there’s a learning curve,” skywriter Greg Stinis tells Quartz.

2. THEY VALUE BREVITY.

If you find Twitter’s character limit challenging, you’ve probably never written a message in the sky. Depending on weather conditions, a skywritten message will evaporate within a few minutes to a few hours. Because of this time pressure, skywriters need to keep their messages brief. They’re also limited by the amount of fuel and skywriting fluid their plane can hold. Most can only write 10 letters, but skywriter Suzanne Asbury-Oliver and her husband, Steve Oliver, have a modified plane that makes it possible for them to write up to 25 letters.

3. THEY VIEW THEMSELVES AS ARTISTS.

Although they’re highly skilled pilots with tons of technical knowledge, skywriters think of their work as an art form. They begin a job by sketching the message on a piece of paper, planning and diagramming each twist and turn. And once they’re in the air, they have to use their intuition to feel their way around the letters. “The only bad part is that I can’t take my canvas of art away with me. Eventually it fades away. It goes with the breeze,” Stinis says.

4. THEY LOVE HOLIDAYS AND BIG ANNUAL EVENTS.

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According to Glenn Smith, a skywriter based in Australia, holidays and big annual events are his bread and butter. “It is the big events of the year that guarantee the work—the Melbourne Cup, the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, and Valentine’s Day,” Smith says. Companies may hire skywriters to advertise during music festivals, movie premieres, and baseball games because the message will get a lot of eyeballs. And Valentine’s Day is a popular day for marriage proposals and other big romantic gestures.

5. THEIR CUSTOMERS PAY THEM LARGE AMOUNTS …

Skywriting is a costly enterprise. Because skywriters must pay for a high-horsepower plane, plane maintenance, fuel, and skywriting fluid, which can cost $10 a gallon, a typical job costs thousands of dollars. And the price can quickly go up. Asbury-Oliver tells Bloomberg that the most expensive part of skywriting is transporting the airplane to the job. “It costs about $2 a mile to move the airplane. If we’re in Tucson, Arizona, and [clients] want something in San Francisco, we have to charge them for mileage.”

6. … BUT MOST SKYWRITERS NEED A SECOND JOB.

For Smith, who owns an engineering company, skywriting is not a full-time job. “My primary income is from my engineering business—you wouldn’t be able to run an airplane, run a family, and pay a mortgage out of skywriting. You do it because you have a passion for it,” he says. Today, because fewer companies are hiring skywriters, only a few people are able to earn enough to make it their full-time job. “We always have called [skywriting] a lost art because it was dwindling when I started and it still is dwindling … There's really just a handful of skywriters left,” Asbury-Oliver tells The Atlantic.

7. TYPOS ARE THEIR GREATEST FEAR.

Because skywriters don’t have the luxury of using erasers or pressing the delete key, complete precision is a major job requirement. Although skywritten typos and misspelled hashtags do happen, it’s rare for a professional with years of experience to make a mistake. When mistakes do happen, though, a pilot might draw a line through the error and start the message over. And in a large city, millions of people will see the typo before it evaporates.

8. A CLOUDY DAY MEANS THEY CAN’T WORK.

Because skywriting fluid appears white, cloudy days mean that a skywritten message won’t be visible. Skywriters aim to work on clear, cool days with high humidity and minimal wind. Since weather can be unpredictable, most skywriters won’t promise that your message will be written at an exact date and time. “We need at least a three-day window to get their message up there,” Oliver explains.

9. THEY’VE CAUSED TRAFFIC JAMS AND CAR ACCIDENTS.

Skywriters have the power to turn heads, stop traffic, and distract drivers. Because skywriting appears slowly, letter by letter, people often try to figure out what the message is as it’s being written. “When people see [skywriting], they literally slam on their brakes in green lights and stick their heads out the window,” Asbury-Oliver says.

10. THEY KEEP THEIR TRADE SECRETS CLOSE TO THEIR CHEST.

Because skywriting has historically been a highly competitive field, skywriters have carefully guarded the technical secrets of their job. Oliver tells mental_floss that there’s no certification program and no written training manual. Aspiring skywriters, even if they’re highly skilled pilots, must learn the craft from someone who knows it already. Asbury-Oliver, who worked for Pepsi’s skywriting program until it ended in 2000, couldn’t reveal trade secrets to anyone without violating her contract. And today’s skywriters, such as Stinis, try to keep the business in the family—his father taught him how to skywrite, and he taught his son.

11. SKYTYPERS HAVE BROUGHT SKYWRITING INTO THE DIGITAL WORLD.

Traditional skywriting differs from skytyping, a digital form of skywriting in which multiple planes (usually five) use a centralized computer system to quickly and accurately create a message. Stinis’s father Andy patented skytyping in the 1960s, and Stinis’s company uses the technique, which is similar to dot matrix printing, to create automated messages. Skytyping requires less artistry than regular skywriting because the planes rely on a computer (rather than pilot) for much of the work.

12. THEY LIKE SOCIAL MEDIA.

Social media has boosted skywriting’s popularity. With Facebook, Twitter, Periscope, Snapchat, and Instagram, people around the world can see a skywritten message even as it’s being created, the messages reach more eyeballs, and they can be preserved for far longer. Although the message is lost when the smoke vaporizes, the internet is forever.

13. THEY TRAVEL ALL AROUND THE WORLD FOR WORK.

Because skywriters are few and far between, companies are often willing to pay them to travel. It takes time and money to transport a plane, though, so Stinis and his son Stephen own planes in Spain, France, and South Africa. Stinis has done jobs in Japan and Dubai, and Oliver and Asbury-Oliver have skywritten messages in all 50 U.S. states, Mexico, Canada, and El Salvador.

14. WE MAY SEE COLORED AND GLOW-IN-THE-DARK SKYWRITING IN THE FUTURE.

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Although it is possible to skywrite with colored (rather than white) fluid, it’s more difficult to work with. For over four decades, Stinis’s company has experimented with dyes to produce colored smoke, but hasn’t found a functional, cost-effective solution yet. If the technology progresses, we may regularly see colored skywriting—or even glow-in-the-dark skywriting for nighttime use—in the future.

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November 10, 2016 - 6:00pm
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