The Dying Art of Skywriting

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron / Chloe Effron

Steve Oliver never had a chance to practice. And how could he? Writing mile-high letters across the sky is not something a pilot can just go out and do. All that paraffin oil—"liquid smoke," as it's commonly known—is expensive, and skywriting being a low-margin industry, you don’t want to go spraying the stuff around unless someone else is footing the bill. There’s also the issue of visibility: With each message hanging way up there in the clear blue yonder, able to be seen for miles, what do you write that can build your skill set without creating too much of a buzz? You really don’t need a write-up in the local paper, much less a visit from the police department.

No, skywriting is a trial by fire for the uninitiated—the sort of ridiculously high-pressure, no-margin-for-error enterprise that has drawn many a white-knuckle flyer over the years.

And so on a clear February afternoon in 1982, Oliver, a pilot whose prior experience included towing banners and dusting crops, took to the sky over Florida’s Daytona Speedway. Bombing along at 150 miles per hour, the thin, frigid air rushing over his face, buffeting his Travel Air biplane about, he reached forward and flipped the switch on his control panel.

If he screwed this up, only half a million people would know it.

For nearly a century, daring pilots like Oliver have taken to the sky to write towering messages in white. Skywriting, or "smoke riding," as it used to be called, was once the exciting new frontier of advertising, a way for companies to reach thousands of people through a single, eye-catching spectacle. As it grew in popularity, skywriting also became a way for people to broadcast personal messages to the world—their loves, their fears, their political rants, their marriage proposals.

In an age of sophisticated digital and television advertising, social media and email, skywriting is an antiquated form of messaging. And yet, on clear days over big cities, at festivals and air shows around the country, you can still spot a lone plane scrawling letters across the blue expanse. Skywriting still exerts a nostalgic pull on the national imagination. It’s artistry at 10,000 feet; a fleeting imprint upon the heavens.

The days of watching skywriters carve up the skies may be numbered, though. Strong economic and competitive headwinds have winnowed the pool of flyers down over the years. It’s incredibly difficult to learn the craft, too, and just as hard to make money and keep your skills sharp. Today, according to Oliver, there are less than 10 pilots who know how to skywrite the traditional way—"mostly old timers," he said, in an interview with mental_floss—and even fewer who still practice it.

This is an example of skytyping. Danny Sullivan via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

For anyone who’s gone to an air show recently, who lives in a major city, or perhaps attended the Rose Bowl Parade earlier this year, skywriting may not seem like a dying art. But that’s because much of the mile-high writing people see these days is an automated form of skywriting known as skytyping, which was developed in the '60s by one of the country’s premier skywriters, Andy Stinis. Planes fly in formation along a fixed line, while a computer in the lead plane orchestrates puffs of smoke that each aircraft emits and together form a message. It’s a bit like a dot matrix printer two miles up.

Steve Oliver calls skytyping "paint by numbers," an affectionate poke ("we’re all friends in the industry," he adds) that nevertheless points to a skill gap between the modern, automated form and the longhand form he practices. Indeed, it’s that acrobatic, engine-buzzing, smoke-streaming form of skywriting that most people equate with the craft. And in the coming years, the decades-old art of skywriting could become extinct.

Skywriting dates back to World War I, when a group of pilots in Britain’s Royal Air Force discovered that running paraffin oil through their planes’ exhaust created a white smoke trail that would hang in the air. They used the smoke to signal ground forces when all other means of communication were unavailable, and to create (literally) smoke screens for troops and ships. After the war, a savvy RAF captain named Cyril Turner took what he knew about skywriting to the advertising world. In 1922, he struck a deal with a London newspaper, and on Derby Day took to the skies over Epsom Downs, where he wrote "Daily Mail" in large white letters. A few months later, Turner hopped across the Atlantic, where he wrote "Hello USA" over New York City. The next day, to promote his new business, Turner went up again and scrawled the number of the hotel where he was staying, "Vanderbilt 7200." According to The New York Times, the hotel received 47,000 calls in a span of two and a half hours.

Turner eventually became the lead pilot for the Skywriting Corporation of America, the country’s first and most prominent commercial skywriting outfit. Operating out of Long Island’s Curtiss Field, the company contracted with big-name clients like Ford, Chrysler, Lucky Strike Tobacco, and Sunoco. In cloudless skies across America, the one-time war pilots wrote slogans like "Drive Ford" and "LSMFT," for "Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco."

Having an advertising medium that literally stopped traffic kept the pilots busy year-round, which in addition to earning them lots of money also advanced the art of skywriting considerably. In this promotional video, shot in the early '30s, you can see smoke riders writing tight, precise messages that look almost handwritten.

The most enthusiastic supporter of skywriting was a young soda company based in North Carolina. Eager to gain an edge in the cutthroat soft drink industry, Pepsi bought its own open-cockpit biplane and hired Stinis, a barnstormer flyer whose parents had immigrated from Crete when he was a young boy, as its pilot. In 1932 the Pepsi Skywriter made its inaugural flight over New York City, writing "Drink Pepsi Cola" eight times over the course of the day. Pepsi eventually beefed up its skywriting fleet to 14 planes, headed by Stinis, which flew all over America and in countries such as Cuba, Nicaragua, and Mexico. The fleet gained a worldwide following, and was instantly recognizable from the planes’ red, white, and blue exteriors. In 1940 alone, Pepsi planes [PDF] wrote more than 2200 slogans in skies at home and abroad.

After television came along, skywriting faded as an advertising medium. But it endured as a fixture on the air show and festival circuit, and as a medium for all sorts of personal and political raptures. During the '60s, large peace symbols would often appear in the sky. In December 1969, Toronto residents looked up and saw one of the longest skywritten messages ever: "War is over if you want it—Happy Xmas from John and Yoko."

Recognizing a certain nostalgia for those buzzing biplanes, Pepsi brought back one of its Skywriters from Stinis in 1973, and for the next 30 years the plane served as the de facto mascot for the company. Pepsi’s wildly popular "Marry Me Sue" ad from 1979, which showed the plane writing out a marriage proposal from a country boy to his urbane girlfriend, made the plane a national icon.

In 1980 "Smilin' Jack" Strayer, the pilot of the Pepsi Skywriter who replaced Stinis and was a member of the company’s original squadron, took a young prodigy under his wing. Suzanne Asbury had made her first solo flight at age 15, and showed a real knack for skywriting. By 1981, Strayer had retired and Asbury had moved into the pilot’s seat—one of only two female professional skywriters ever, and the only one still practicing.

A year after that, while working at the Kentucky Derby, Asbury met a banner-towing pilot from the Bluegrass state named Steve Oliver. They bonded over their love of flying, and in the months that followed Asbury passed along to Oliver the sacred knowledge of skywriting. Nine months after they met, they got married. Soon after that, they started their own skywriting business: Oliver’s Flying Circus.

In the hours before his inaugural flight over Daytona, Steve reviewed his flight diagram with Suzanne—a crucial step for any skywriter—noting his turns, where he would begin and end each letter, how many seconds to count off from the top to the bottom of each letter, and so on. Everything had to be razor precise, down to individual seconds and degrees. They walked over to the hangar where the red-and-white Pepsi Skywriter, which now hangs in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., was parked. On the big, open floor, Suzanne had her husband walk off his route.

"I had committed everything to memory and was able to show her exactly how I was going to do it," Oliver said. "And she looked at me and said, 'okay, now go do it.'"

Despite being as nervous as one would imagine he’d be, everything went off without a hitch. Hundreds of thousands of NASCAR fans that day looked up to see "PEPSI" inked into the sky, as if by magic.

According to Oliver, the only way a pilot can learn to skywrite is from a current skywriter. The storehouse of knowledge that’s built up over the years and passed down from pilot to pilot represents the only training manual that exists in a phenomenally difficult craft. Having all the right equipment—including a single-engine, high-horsepower plane and an $800 drum of liquid smoke, properly installed—along with some piloting skill alone won’t cut it. Even expert crop dusters and acrobatic pilots with hundreds of flying hours would be hard-pressed to learn the necessary skills on their own, he says.

Some have certainly tried. A few years ago, a pilot—"some clown with a Cessna 150 and no skill set," according to Oliver—signed a contract with United Airlines to write "Fly United" over a major U.S. city. He botched the job, and the contract was canceled. On several other occasions, aviators have tried their hand at skywriting over festivals and air shows only to form a jumble of illegible or barely-readable letters.

"People will say to Suzanne or I, 'Boy, you guys really screwed that one up,' and we have to tell them, 'that wasn’t us!'" said Oliver.

Precision is the name of the game. Skywriters have to diagram every turn and roll and flip of the smoke switch beforehand. Then have to go out and execute their plan at 150 miles per hour, with sometimes violent wind shear and an air temperature around zero degrees. Letters and numbers that seem so simple to write on a piece of paper become an intricate ballet of maneuvers at 10,000 feet.

Because pilots write horizontal to the ground, they can’t track their progress visually. It’s all blue sky and walls of smoke, as Oliver tells it. So skywriters have to trust their planning and their instrument readings, and stay dead on the heading. Being even slightly off can make for a pretty silly looking "B" or "P" or "W" that can ruin a message. As if that weren’t enough, they also have to be able to efficiently transition from one letter to another, knowing when to open and close the flow of smoke. They also have to ensure that each letter is proportionate to the others, evenly spaced and running along a straight line.

"Most pilots are happy if they can land their plane on the runway," said Oliver. "But a skywriter is the type of pilot that’s only happy if the wheels hit that center line every time."

There’s the weather issue, too. Skywriters need blue skies for their work to stand out, and so they can’t work on cloudy days or during inclement weather. Clients typically agree to pay rain or shine, and if there’s time flexibility then skywriters like Oliver will wait as long as a few days to allow the skies to clear. Detailed forecasting helps, but sometimes Mother Nature rears her ugly head and the plane never gets off the ground.

And then there’s the most challenging part of the craft. Because skywriters are writing horizontal to the ground, they also have to write backwards (think about it for a second). It’s a step that not every skywriter has remembered to do—like one in 1924 who wrote "NY Jubilee" the wrong way over New York during the city’s 300th anniversary celebration.

All of which makes skywriting not very much like "writing" at all. Oliver calls it "the dance." Rather than forming individual letters, skywriting for him is a series of carefully choreographed, razor-precise moves. He draws a comparison to, oddly enough, the Radio City Rockettes.

"They have to learn very complicated dance routines quickly, which is the same thing we’re doing, but we just happen to be in a plane," said Oliver.

Skywriters rely on a storehouse of knowledge to make their living, and because in generations past they were often competing with each other to secure gigs, many were loathe to pass along that knowledge. The pilot they trained could become the skywriter that secured a lucrative contract over them. This reluctance to pass along the trade has lead to a narrowing of talent over the generations.

There are numerous other reasons why skywriting is a dying art. There aren’t many gigs, which makes it harder to earn a living. Fewer and fewer pilots know how to fly single-engine, high-horsepower planes. And those who do are reluctant to sign on for the constant grind that skywriting entails.

During their busiest years, Steve and Suzanne were on the road 33 weeks out of the year. One week they’d be in Florida, the next they’d have to be in Seattle, then Anchorage, Alaska after that, and maybe a tour through Canada to follow. Traveling by jetliner would make all that travel a breeze, but that wasn’t an option since the Olivers had to ferry their plane, which could only fly a few hundred miles between fill-ups, from place to place. Oftentimes one of them would fly the plane while the other drove. Sometimes their mechanic would do the flying while they drove along together, bedding down in a different town each night.

It was a tough way to make a living, but the two embraced life on the road. They bought an RV, got a dog named Charlie Brown, and went all in on the idea that home was wherever they were parked.

"We’re both gypsies at heart, and we’ve always loved to travel," said Oliver. "With the motor home, we’re at home every night. It’s just the lawn that changes."

In just over three decades, the Olivers have performed in every U.S. state, including Alaska and Hawaii. They’ve skywritten all over Canada and Mexico, ventured out to the Dominican Republic and the Cayman Islands, and traveled as far south as Ilopango, El Salvador for a job. They’ve received requests to perform in Europe and Asia, but have turned these down because of the time and expense involved in shipping their plane.

Getting their plane from one place to another isn’t cheap, and it’s a cost the Olivers have to pass along to the client. This makes skywriting too pricey for many individuals and businesses. Steve said he’ll get inquiries from high schoolers who want to ask their date to the prom, or couples celebrating their anniversary who quickly back out after receiving an estimate.

"We get calls from people who think they can get a skywritten message for $250, and of course that’s not the way it is," said Oliver.

Scott Smith via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Landing contracts has long been a challenge. And yet, lo and behold, in recent years there’s been an upswing in business. Recent clients are a diverse bunch, including Jaguar, T-Mobile, the University of Michigan, and Lady Gaga, who promoted her 2011 album in the skies over Coachella. Oliver credits the power of social media, whose users preserve skywritten messages and help them reach a wider audience. Really, there’s nothing more Instagram- and Facebook-worthy than a tiny plane carving giant letters into the sky.

Several years ago, Cool Moon Ice Cream in Oregon commissioned the Olivers to write their company name in the sky above Portland. The high-flying stunt caused quite a commotion, even stopping traffic in some parts of the city. Local news stations were on the scene, while the blogosphere lit up with pictures and comments.

"Caused quite a scene downtown on Broadway with everyone looking up," one commenter wrote.

"I’m seriously impressed," wrote another.

"How the hell can you figure out how to make a bunch of big letters in the sky?" yet another mused.

Along with being very few in number, most skywriters are in their 60s and 70s. Their days of precise, acrobatic flying are coming to a close.

"We always get asked the question, 'who’s going to do skywriting after you and Suzanne retire?'" said Oliver. "And we always said there would be a time when we would bring on a protégé."

That time is now. For the past few years, the Olivers have been training 30-year-old Nathan Hammond, the son of their longtime mechanic, to skywrite. Nate, as he’s known, grew up around planes and would often travel with the Olivers, watching as they carved giant letters across the sky. He’s proven quite adept, and nowadays he handles most of the work that Olivers Flying Circus receives. The plan is to eventually turn the business over to him.

"He loves it up there," said Oliver. "He’s just like us 30 years ago."

After more than four decades of flying, though, it’s difficult to fathom retirement. For the best pilots, home is anywhere about a thousand feet, where the atmosphere becomes limitless and the world below a tapestry of geometric shapes and colors. But when asked what he loved most about being a skywriter, Oliver refused to wax poetic.

"It was how we made our living," he said.

Steve Oliver performing stunts at an airshow.

And yet, the way he spun story after story conveyed an undeniable sense of pride and adventure.

Like the time an anonymous client in Los Angeles paid him to write "Love, Love, Love" over a location above the Hollywood Hills that wasn’t disclosed until just before Oliver took off. To this day, he still doesn’t know who the message was for, though he suspects it was a major music producer.

Or the time he wrote "BOOM!" over an air show in Addison, Texas, and the local police department flooded with calls. The message unnerved passengers on a Southwest Airlines flight that flew right over it while landing.

Or the time when a groom-to-be paid for an elaborately planned wedding-day message. While saying his vows at the altar, he told his bride, "My love for you is as big as …" An assistant on the ground then radioed "hit it!" and Steve, who’d been circling in the skies overhead, drew an enormous white heart.

"I wish we’d been better about keeping a diary," said Oliver. "Because we’ve had a book’s worth of experiences over the years."