Can you name a time when there was a banner flying overhead that didn’t make you stop and look?
As I pulled into North Perry Airport, I noticed a small one seater Piper PA-25 Pawnee diving down to pick up a banner. As frightening as it may have looked, this seemingly aerobatic move is just another day in the office for most banner pilots.
Alvaro Smith, a 28-year old banner pilot, has his face smeared with sunscreen as he begins his preflight check of the plane. He walks around the aircraft with a stern, sweaty look, checking fluids, oil, wheels, and gas. His attention to detail is tested while he searches the entire plane’s fabric shell for any possible rips.
Before he starts the engine, he reaches into his backpack filled with a backup Icom handheld radio, cold water and a Visual Flight Rules map, to pull out his blue life vest. Smith admits he doesn’t always wear it, but his flight today seemed like an appropriate occasion. He’s towing a Geico banner from Miami Beach up to West Palm Beach. Totaling in at a six hour duty day, flying mostly along the shore line.
It was a similar hot summer afternoon when Smith flew a Geico banner over South Beach Miami on July 4th 2015. Around early afternoon he noticed something was wrong with his plane. The engine of his plane seized up.
“I wasn’t scared, I was pissed off,” said Smith. “I knew I only had about 10 seconds to land.”
His first objective was to ditch the banner. He decided the best place to drop it was over a residential community rather than a crowded beach. Smith later found out the Geico banner fell in the backyard of a local celebrity, Gloria Estefan. The beach was filled with people and his only option for landing was in the water.
“I don’t remember exactly what I said over the intercom, I just know it was a lot of cursing. I had to let Air Traffic Control know I was going down,” Smith said.
Smith glided the plane towards the water. He braced himself for impact. Once under water he begin searching for the release button to his seat belt. “The seconds searching for my seat belt seemed like an eternity,” Smith recalled.
CNN reports that the US Labor Department ranks pilots and navigators as the second deadliest occupation in the country.
“I’ve always considered myself a dare-devil cowboy,” Smith says, “I guess that’s why I didn’t get scared, I got a rush.”
Jordan Freeman, a 28-year old banner pilot, works with Smith for the same Aerial Advertising company. He happened to be flying a banner near the area when Smith went down.
“I was worried for him. I just wanted to know if he was okay,” Freeman said. The reality of how dangerous his career is seemed to hit home. “I was scared to fly the next few weeks. You see someone crash who does the exact same thing you do… that freaks you out.” Freeman said.
Tristian Bogart, a 22-year old ground crew member, is responsible for setting up and tearing down the 80-foot banners. He works alongside Freeman and Smith on a daily basis.
The responsibilities for the ground crew can vary from different companies. At Aerial Banners, their daily duties also include building the banners. They have to join each seven-foot letter together to spell out whatever message the client paid for that day.
Bogart was building a banner in the field when he received news of the crash, “It was July fourth, a busy day at work for us, but the weird thing is Alvero wasn’t even supposed to be flying.” Bogart went on to explain that Smith was covering a shift for another pilot that called out for personal reasons.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the new Airline Transport Pilot requirements have increased the hours to 1,500 for most to be able to apply for an airline job. Aspiring commercial pilots need to build their hours to reach that 1,500 hour range.
Some pilots may have the money to purchase their own plane, or rent a plane for around 120 dollars per hour. But becoming a banner pilot is lucrative because it allows the pilot to not only build hours, but get paid while doing so.
“Banner towing is not for the faint of heart, but I do it because I have a family to feed and goals to reach,” says Freeman. He hopes to one day become a Delta Caption, just like his father.