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Skywriting is the only good thing the advertising business has ever done for anyone

A bizarre art form invented to promote Lucky Strike cigarettes could bounce back in the Instagram age, or it could die with the few people who know how to do it.

“I am the sky and here follows a brief history of my life,” the poet Anne Carson begins her “Lecture on the History of Skywriting,” originally recited in New York City in the spring of 2016.

The lecture is beautiful. “People place gods in the high blue sky because looking up causes a rush of dopamine in the brain,” Carson says. “The interpretation of and reinterpretation of shifting shapes of cloud is one of the most basic exercises in free imagining known to you dwellers upon the Earth.”

It is also a little rude. Carson goes on to say that hunting for shapes in the clouds is “useful for reminding you that most of the ideas you conceive about the world are fragmentary, fugitive, self-ruining, and soon forgotten.”

She delivers this information with the expression of a woman operating a highway tollbooth in the middle of the night, yet a history of skywriting includes — almost exclusively — events that are the opposite of drudgery. In February 2001, for example, the Brazilian artist Vik Muniz rented a modified crop-dusting plane and hired a skywriter to draw enormous cloud shapes of his own design to hover over the Manhattan skyline. John Lennon and Yoko Ono hired a skywriter to wish the city of Toronto a merry Christmas in 1969.

Skywriting was invented by British navy pilots and popularized by the American advertising industry, and is rarely performed outside of the ads business because of its prohibitive cost. The most common use case of skywriting is the word “Pepsi” or the word “Geico.” (Both companies spent decades building out their own fleets.)

At one time, the most popular acronym in the sky was “LSMFT,” which stands for “Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco.” Probably not what I would have guessed, but it must have been culturally salient at the time. It would not have otherwise been worth the exorbitant amount of money it takes to get a plane that can perform complicated loops and hard turns at 10,000 feet and stock it with pricey paraffin oil and a former fighter pilot with thousands of hours of flight experience.

I realized this spring that I’d never seen skywriting happen. I just knew of it. I felt like I could have seen it, the way that television sitcoms make me feel as if I might know an upper-middle-class family in suburban California. But checking the record, which is to say my extremely fallible memory, I was pretty sure it was not something coded in there by life experience. This is why I went to Long Island alone on Memorial Day weekend.

The Bethpage Airshow takes place every year on Jones Beach, which is a barrier island loosely attached to Wantagh, New York, a Long Island town that used to be called Jerusalem. In advance of my visit, I confirmed that Larry Arken, one of fewer than 10 skywriters left working in the entire United States, would be performing with the Geico skytyping team that day, and orchestrating a marriage proposal for a couple who would be watching from the beach. I will explain what skytyping is soon.

Even though the Bethpage Airshow website (which also emphasized that all attendees must wear sunscreen) warned that the event was likely to attract 200,000 people, forcing the police to shut down access to Jones Beach, I was able to taxi to the front of the park and enter airplane land, which had a lot of people in it, but not 200,000 people.

Aviation Fans Flock To New York Air Show
The Geico Skytypers at a previous Jones Beach airshow in 2005.
Michael Nagle/Getty Images

All around me there were, however, many thousands of old military guys, Cheez-It families, athletic teens. State troopers, babies who love toy planes, American flag bikinis, wheeled coolers, bucket hats. We were all trying to buy hot dogs.

Although we’d certainly all been taught better, and were patiently reminded by a website, none of us took wearing sunscreen that seriously because it wasn’t that hot. It was windy and the sun was a tiny tealight, and there was, I would argue, a sort of disgusting clash between the thrill of watching a helicopter go upside down just for fun and the absolutely terrifying noise of a Super Hornet fighter plane going 675 miles per hour, stopping just short of breaking the sound barrier, and creating a sonic boom that could shatter half the windows in Wantagh.

While it made the tight “minimum radius turn” required of a combat plane used to drop bombs on Iraqi airbases and suspected Taliban hideouts, the sound system boomed AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” a misleading song choice as the US Navy has actually spent around $48 billion on these planes, invented by Boeing in the late ’90s and first deployed in November 2002 during Operation Southern Watch. The DJ moved on to “Proud to Be an American” while the US Army’s Golden Knights flew around each other in complex patterns, then jumped out of their planes and parachuted down into the euphoric audience like so many Justin Biebers. “They always seem to fly better when they hear the roar of a crowd!” the announcer shouted, laughing.

“I wish there was a way to love planes without participating in militaristic nationalism!” I wrote down, genuinely sad.

And then, of course, I was saved. In the sky, out of nowhere, little bursts of white smoke, and in the air, the terrible Imagine Dragons song “Radioactive,” which I ignored. “WILL YOU” the smoke said. “MARRY ME?” the smoke said. Oh, my god! “<3” the smoke said. “GIUSEPPE,” the smoke said! It wrapped a semicircle above the ocean, continuing “K JOY 98.3 IS BACK GEICO SKYTYPERS WELCOME YOU.”

“HAPPY ANNIVERSARY SHELLEY AND LARRY THANK YOU,” the smoke continued, and I flopped over like a raw hot dog (also the color of one because I forgot sunscreen). Larry is the lead pilot! Happy Anniversary to Shelley and Larry, and he’s Larry? Pure white letters appearing in the clear blue sky as if from nowhere, so big and tall and crystal-clear in their intent; Larry in an airplane, saying happy anniversary to his wife and also to himself. The only reason man invented machine. Imagine opening Tinder ever again after this, I said to myself.

While they were writing, the planes were too high in the sky to see. When they were done they swooped down and did tricks with strange names, such as “belly pass in delta formation,” and the Pirates of the Caribbean score boomed across the beach. I texted Larry, “Do you know how it worked out for Giuseppe?” and he texted back, “She said yes. Glad you liked the show.”

Skywriting was invented during World War I. According to the Smithsonian, a bunch of pilots in the British Royal Air Force realized they could send signals to people on the ground or create smokescreens for ships by running paraffin oil through the plane’s exhaust system. After the war, one of the pilots, Capt. Cyril Turner, turned the trick into an advertising business. He started in London in 1922, moved to New York City, and wrote “Hello USA” in the sky.

He then launched his skywriting business by — no joke — writing the name of his hotel and his room number so that people could contact him. He staffed up a team of pilots that had also been trained in the military, and the resultant Skywriting Corporation of America had contracts with Lucky Strike, various car companies, Sunoco, and, most important, Pepsi.

In 1932, Pepsi bought a Pepsi-branded biplane and hired a pilot named Anthony Stinis to fly it around and write stuff in the sky about Pepsi. And everyone loved it so much that the company eventually purchased 14 planes, and in 1980 made an absolutely absurd commercial in which, of course, a woman named Sue is proposed to by her hunky cowboy boyfriend after he enlists some help from the Pepsi skywriter to put “WILL U MARRY ME SUE?” up in the clouds.

Skytyping is a different thing. It was invented by a man named Sidney Pike a few years later, and it was a horribly convoluted process at the outset. Seven airplanes — North American Aviation’s SNJ basic trainers — flew in formation and used a complicated system with switches and relays and tape and hand-drawn diagrams. It’s done differently now, Arken explains, and the team I saw on Long Island uses only five planes, connected via computer. While a single pilot in a skywriting plane typically needs about eight minutes to write five letters, and the message is extremely susceptible to wind and to getting confused, skytyping is less fallible. The five planes fly in a line and emit smoke using a digital matrix, making even, long messages, up to 20 or 25 characters in two minutes.

It’s much more expensive than skywriting, which is usually around $2,500 for a single flight and a simple message. For skytyping, Arken says, the biggest cost is getting so many airplanes up at once. The team doesn’t get out of bed for less than $15,000, but that gets you 10 messages (each 20 to 25 characters). If they’re already scheduled to fly and will be up anyway, he’ll knock it all the way down to $2,000.

And he’ll do free joke messages for friends, obviously. “I do some sneaky things, and put their name up when they’re not expecting it,” Arken tells me. “Skytyping is magical. You barely see the planes and then it’s visible in a 30-mile circle. The New York metropolitan area is 3 million people.”

There are three skytyping teams in the US, all stemming from Anthony Stinis — his son Greg runs a team in California; Arken’s father purchased the East Coast side of the business from the Stinis family; Arken’s team has a satellite outfit that does summer jobs in the Carolinas. The process is patented. In California, the skytypers are busy all year writing corporate slogans over the beaches, three or four times a month. In New York, it’s every weekend from Memorial Day to Labor Day, going up and down the stretch from the Jersey Shore to Connecticut.

“As a pilot, I don’t think I could ask for more,” Arken says. “I’ve been flying almost 40 years; I’m not young anymore. But I’ll do it until the day I can’t.”

The question of succession is an urgent one in the skywriting business. It’s not an easy craft to learn, and there aren’t many people who can teach it. It passes most often from father to son.

Other pilots may choose to take on a protégé, like the husband-and-wife skywriting team Steve Oliver and Suzanne Asbury-Oliver. They’ve spent their lives touring North America, skywriting hundreds of messages a year, and sometimes employed Nathan Hammond’s father to fly their extra planes from show to show.

Nathan was a self-described “ramp rat,” a kid who hangs around at airports. When he turned 18, he took over for his father, helping the Olivers transport their planes. For years, he absorbed everything he could about skywriting, and one day they had an accidental double booking.

“They said, basically, go out and practice because tomorrow you’re going to skywrite over top of the Atlanta Motor Speedway,” he tells me. “It was truly a trial by fire. I went down to a southern part of Atlanta where nobody was around, put up a few letters real quick, and was like, ‘Okay, I can do this.’ Next thing I know, I was at the speedway, skywriting for 100,000 people.”

2005 Melbourne Cup
An Australian skywriter professes his love for the racehorse Makybe Diva.
Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

The one thing they didn’t tell him was that it was going to feel like “a roller coaster ride that lasts 45 minutes and you can’t get off.” In a single plane skywriting situation, the plane is climbing, turning, diving, and the pilot is looking at everything upside down and backward, trying to turn the smoke on and off at the right time to make the letter. Hammond sings the Scooby-Doo theme song during flight to keep him in the right rhythm and make sure the letters are all the same size. That first flight, he was miserable and nauseated, but made it through, and now he’s arguably the most famous skywriter in the country. (He goes by Ghost Writer.)

He’s not in it for the glory, though. “Nobody sees you up there, you’re three miles away,” he says. “I like to go up there and be the unknown scribe. I can write a marriage proposal and make somebody very, very happy, and put 10,000 other guys who are walking with their girlfriends that night in a very awkward position.” He laughs at this joke he has probably told before, and so do I. So far, he has only taught his brother how to skywrite, just in case he ever breaks his leg.

“Skywriting will never go away,” he says. “I’m still a young guy, I’m only 37, but eventually the day will come when I teach the next generation.”

Of course, what really sustains skywriting is advertising money. And the novelty of an Instagrammable outdoor spectacle is something brands crave now more than ever. Now that consumers are inundated constantly by advertising in their various feeds, in the fringes of every website they look at, in magazines, podcasts, street corners, benches, buses, children’s YouTube channels, and so on, the only way to stand out is to be a small miracle.

This is the same angle that Paul Lindahl, founder of the Brooklyn-based mural painting company Colossal, is currently working, as he readily told the New York Times last year. His clients include companies as big as Adidas, Coca-Cola, and Spotify, and all his advertisements are hand-painted on enormous scale by a team of highly trained “wall dogs.”

“Like other novelties of the post-hipster age, the source of value is not just the finished work, but also the tedious and rarefied conditions of its production,” reporter Jamie Lauren Keiles explained in the Times piece. “The spectacle of painters hanging from a wall is as much Colossal’s product as the murals themselves.”

Skywriting is similar, in that half of what you pay for is the thrill of disrupting an entire city’s day.

This can backfire, obviously. In 2011, artist Kim Beck hired Nathan Hammond to help her with an art project commemorating the 2008 financial crisis. So he went up over the Hudson River and wrote things like “Now Open” and “Lost Our Lease,” as well as, to the shock of many New Yorkers, “Last Chance.”

“They’re advertising messages that are no longer advertising anything specific,” Beck told the New York Times. “‘Last Chance’ is everything coming to an end.” But this message got lost in the shuffle. “We had kind of flipped out half of Manhattan because everybody thought it was terrorism,” Hammond remembers. “Like someone giving us the heads up that they were going to come in and do something bad.”

Patrick Walsh, the founder of AirSigns, which used to specialize in skywriting and has now pivoted to blimps, tells me that all outdoor advertising in New York has suffered because of the vague threat of airborne terrorism.

“I would say it was really, really popular up until [the attacks] on 9/11” he says. “When that took place, there were a lot of flight restrictions around sporting events. There was a year, year and a half period when they wouldn’t even allow aerial advertising to target near cities. That put a lot of people out of business at the time.”

But since then, it’s bounced back up, and social media is definitely the cause, if you ask Walsh. The only place anyone wants to see an ad is in the sky. In my life, have I ever gotten out my phone and taken a picture of a billboard and put it on my Instagram? He answers the question for me. I probably have not.

“We create a private air show with every flight, we showcase the client’s brand front and center,” he explains. When they take a plane or blimp to Coachella, the math becomes absurd. “You have 150,000 people coming, and each of them have an average follower count of 10,000. You’re talking about a reach of millions within minutes.” His company now owns almost every blimp in the United States, except the three owned by Goodyear. The blimps “have the highest engagement factor on social media,” he explains. “Above any other form of outdoor advertising.” Last year, they helped 2 Chainz shoot an album announcement video, which “went completely viral.” (And, according to 2 Chainz, cost him well into the seven figures.)

While I appreciate Walsh’s desire to move past skywriting to something grander, I feel myself getting sleepy during our conversation. Why are we talking about engagement and return on investment? I only love smoke words in the sky. I am dreaming of seeing them again.

Larry Arken says skywriting doesn’t happen all the time because you have to “keep some uniqueness.” It is his worst nightmare that planes writing letters in the sky would get “monotonous” for people, like so many forgettable TV commercials. He rattles off the brands he has done work for — US Tennis, Ford, Heineken, Budweiser — and says the list goes on. One time an artist paid him to write the first 100 numbers of pi in a circle around Manhattan just before sunset.

In celebration of International Women’s Day this year, Old Navy hired his team to write “To all the women” in the sky over New York City. The brand then tweeted a photo of the message, captioned, “LOOK UP NYC- we’ve got a message for all the women.” Kind of eliminates the need to look up if you’re already looking at a photo of the message? But if you encountered it outside of a brand’s Twitter account, I’m sure it did shake you up. Maybe it delighted you! This is the only good thing advertising has done.

Though Arken enjoys every flight, there is one special job he remembers from when he was a kid, still learning the business from his dad.

“A guy’s girlfriend left him and he spent a fortune to write all over the tri-state area,” he says. The message was “POOH BEAR COME HOME,” and nobody knows whether she ever did. We never will. I hope she didn’t. The man who spent his money this way sounds as if he is confusing grand gestures with meaningful communication. But I’m glad he tried, and that millions of people got to be mystified for a moment, chins pointed at the sky.

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