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Dragging Nylon

November 22, 2013

Whether you're a pilot or not, you've see the ubiquitous tow plane, clattering along over the beach or circling the stadium, pulling the banner exhorting you to GET THE CRAB SPECIAL AT PHIL'S, or some such message. As pilots, many of us have observed the banners being picked up at an airport, but the general public and even many pilots have no idea how the process works.

I joined the stream of hard working tow pilots who for one reason or another flew the banner aircraft back in the seventies. Unlike many of these sign draggers, I didn't need to build time, I was just trying to avoid starvation. During this era I would have taken on any flying chore that wasn't overtly illegal or positively lethal. To keep myself fed I was already doing instructing, charter, survey flying and sightseeing rides, so it was not a big step to add one more hopeful income stream and order a banner kit from Mr. Gasser down in Tennessee and then teach myself how to use it.

At the time I had a PA-12 Super Cruiser in the hangar and that good and stout airplane seemed a natural choice for towing duties. We ordered and installed the tow hook and I read all the information that Mr. Gasser had sent along with the banner and I was ready to become a tow pilot.

I assembled the trial banner, a tedious process and one that I was to hate forever after, by fastening each letter to a fiberglass pole with about eight nylon tabs inserted into spring clips, repeated ad infinitum until fingers were bloody and the banner was complete and laid out on the grass. I then stretched out the tow rope, which was about 150 feet long with a large loop on the airplane end and put together the poles that were to hold the loop aloft about eight feet above the ground, while I swooped down and snagged it with the grappling hood on end of the tow cable.

The tow hitch was equipped with a quick release for dropping the banner before landing so the loop in the tow cable was placed in the hitch and the tongue was locked over it and the cable stretched back up the side of the airplane. I mounted up and my helper handed me the cable and grappling hook through the open window and I held it tight while I made my takeoff. Once aloft with a little altitude I threw the hook and cable out the window and it dutifully streamed back and trailed the airplane. I stuck my head out the open window and watched the hook and judged it's cruising altitude to be about to be about ten feet less than that of the tail wheel. Armed with this valuable information I made my first approach on the tow rope, stretched between the pickup poles.

In order for the banner to peel off the ground and not drag, it was laid out on the ground backward, so the pickup would cleanly lift it into the air behind the airplane. Mr Gasser had stressed that after the rope was hooked one was to pull up "sharply". On each of my first attempts the hook kept sailing over the rope and missing the loop. I was consistently overshooting. I gave it some thought and realized that I was trying to hit the rope with the hook itself and I reasoned that as long as the hook was lower than the rope the rope would find its way down the cable to the hook. My next attempt was successful and I gunned the Piper and pulled up. As I looked over my shoulder through the rear window I saw the banner curl perfectly off the ground, right itself and fall into trail behind the airplane. We were in business.

I had a friend in town who owned the local radio station and when I told him I'd like to have a sound system to jazz up the banner, he found me a giant old megaphone speaker. We mounted it in the rear seat where it protruded out a removed rear window. A tape player with recorded marching music in an endless loop was added and the effect from the ground was to lift any eyeball in the vicinity skyward as we sailed overhead. We also wired in a microphone which gave me the world's largest ramp hailer and I used it to startle folks on the ground as I wished them a good day. I remember early one morning, asking a surprised farmer on the path between his house and the privy, where he was going and I also recall admonishing the workers on a strip job to 'clean that mess up when you're through'. I was having fun.

That fall was an election year and the banner division of our little empire became very busy towing for the local politicians running for office. We had commercials taped and proceeded to give noisy exhortations from the sky to vote for Judge Maximum, while pulling a banner behind us that urged the same thing.

The flights that I was doing were for contenders for county offices and my tows were usually only a couple of hours, which would pretty well cover the populated areas of Upshur County.

One day though, I got a call from a man running for the State Senate. He wanted me to pull his banner from Buckhannon all the way down to the Capitol in Charleston, then back again. My mental cash register did it's Ka-Ching as I added up all the hours it would take to do this and I quickly agreed to the flight and started assembling his banner.

The next morning dawned clear and bright, a perfect fall day for raining political propaganda from the skies I thought

Since I knew I would have to fuel in Charleston, I would also need to pick the banner up again there, so I broke the pickup poles down and stowed them in the back of the Super Cruiser. My banner grab was perfect and I left Lewis Field in the late morning and started grinding my way southwest. With the drag of the banner my normal ninety knot cruising speed was reduced to about sixty knots and I needed a higher than normal power setting to maintain even that. The wind was out of the southwest at about ten knots, so I was making headway over the ground about as fast as a loaded tractor trailer. I kept an anxious eye on the fuel gages as the banner flapped along behind me and the recorded commercial repeated itself over the loud speaker about four thousand times.

After an age I reached Yeager Field, received permission from the tower to drop the banner to the side of the runway and landed.

After fueling up and making arrangements with the tower for the pickup something suddenly occurred to me. After I snagged the banner I was going to head straight north east and work my way back to Buckhannon, so I'd be leaving my pickup poles behind. Dang, I didn't want to do that. Hmm, what if I just had a couple of guys hold the loop aloft while I snagged it? That should work, shouldn't it?

Scouting the FBO I was happy to find a couple of airport bums who were just soaking up aeronautical ambiance and needed some excitement to remember the day by. After outlining my plan and painting a picture of an unusual adventure in which they would have a major role, they agreed to help. We moved out to where the banner was stretched on the grass and I showed them the loop of tow rope and demonstrated to them how to hold it as high as they could above their heads while stretching it between them, subbing for the absent pickup poles.

There was a nasty crosswind on the active runway, and as I aligned myself with the banner I noticed I was crabbing to the right twenty degrees or so to maintain my track. Although I was aligned perfectly with the middle of the loop, just between my two valiant substitute pickup poles, my grappling hook must be…oh crud.

I've stood near a banner that was being snatched and I can tell you that you that the hook announces its arrival with a very evil sounding hiss as it hurtles through the air on its way to the loop. Glancing over my left shoulder I saw my left pole had suddenly morphed into rapidly receding heels and elbows as the hook whistled by at over a mile a minute. I landed to reassure the troops.

Unbelievably, my brave poles guys again held the loop and I made a much revised track toward the loop, the airplane being to the right of the right rope holder. Even more strangely, I snagged the banner this time and made my uneventful way back to Lewis Field. Flying home I pondered that if I ever employed this technique again, I needed to supply nostril plugs to the crew, to protect against their unintended pickup.


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