Skywriting; The making of a miles-high billboard

Wayne Mansfield frequently has his head in the clouds --usually one of his own making. On this blustery spring day, he hovers 10,000 feet above an oxbow in the Merrimack River north of Boston in a snub-nosed Cessna L-19 "bird dog."

He steers the agile aircraft into a tight loop and flips open a petcock to one side. Suddenly, a plume of fleecy-white vapor streams out the rear of the plane, etching the azure sky. He deftly dips the plane into another loop, spits out another smoky blast, and sculptures a "B" that measures half a mile from top to bottom.

"I tell you, I'm guessing today," says the pilot, rounding out a ghostlike "A." "It's hazy up here."

Wayne Mansfield is a stratospheric scriptwriter. His quill is a canary-yellow Army reconnaissance plane. His paper the jetstream. His audience the curious world beneath. As one of the few skywriters in the country, he is part of an intrepid, tight-lipped fraternity that scrawls everything from "Tootsie Rolls" to "Happy birthday Tom" across the heavens.

Skywriting, in short, is one of the more novel forms of advertising, blimps and free bars of soap notwithstanding.

Fewer than a half a dozen of the aerial artisans are believed to exist in the United States today. This is partly because the tricky business is long on adventure but usually short on profits. Like Wayne Mansfield, many skywriters do other types of aerial advertising, such as towing banners.

A 13-year veteran of jetstream scribbling, Mr. Mansfield works out of a squat tin hangar at the Lawrence Municipal Airport north of Boston. Before his flight , I met him in his Spartan office at the back of the building. Sitting at a large mahogany desk and wearing a blue blazer, oxford-cloth shirt, and tie, the mild-mannered pilot looked as if he might be ready to dole out a bank loan. But in a few minutes he would be swooping out of the sky like a bullfinch, telling the world below about "backrack," a local restaurant.

He is president of National Aerial Advertising Inc., which owns about 10 planes, most of them Army-surplus Cessnas or Pipers that will flip into a full gainer before you can shout "Get me down!" Only one is used for skywriting. The rest are reserved for banner-pulling, a year-round activity that brings messages like "WHUE -- Radio 101" and "Pepsi" to everyone from beachcombers to football spectators.

The skywriting potion is a mixture of light paraffin oil and water. When pumped into the plane's exhaust, it heats up and turns into a smoky vapor. Getting the right blend is crucial to the longevity of the message. A fleecy phrase will last anywhere from a minute to an hour. The less humidity, the better the visibility.

At a half-mile in height, the letters can be seen for up to 500 square miles, particularly on crisp, clear spring or fall days. Summer haze can turn the vapor into invisible ink.

Although sharp on grammar, Mr. Mansfield sometimes gets edited by an obstreperous wind. He once set out to tell Cape Cod dwellers of a band that was playing at an area night club. "Jay and the Americans -- at On the Rocks," the message read -- until, that is, the wind came up. "Some lady looked up after it had blown and saw 'America is on the Rocks' and called Otis Air Force base," he recalls. Air Force officials, in turn, phoned Mansfield.

Crosswinds, oddly enough, don't affect the longevity of the word. Even in 60 -mile-an-hour gusts, the smoky slogan will drift but usually remain intact. Updrafts and other vertical wind shifts, however, quickly erase the letters.

Skywriting is something like mirror-writing: The words and letters have to be written backward. The messages are also written parallel to the ground, which means the pilot can see only the edge of each letter -- skywriter Harold Johnson says it's like looking into the "end of a pencil." The Morraine, Ohio, pilot ought to know. He learned through trial and error. His first jetstream entry was supposed to be "cat," but came out "tac." (It could have been worse, however , with a word like "straw.")

Mr. Mansfield always tacks his messages, in reverse, on the control panel in front of him. His clients include car dealers, radio stations, amusement parks, blue-jeans makers, movie theaters -- even banks. Most of the messages are terse: "Smyly Buick" or "Tastykake." But then there are the personals -- those pithy, direct-from-the-heart messages aimed at snaring a fiancee or startling someone on their birthday.At $30 a letter, few people are long-winded with their sentiments. But the message gets through nonetheless, in fluttering white, for the entire town, if not the country, to see.

Two recent entries: "Happy 27th Ann" and "Happy 80th Dad." During the Vietnam war, Yoko Ono and John Lennon had Mr. Mansfield write a message over New York City: "War is over if you want it -- happy Christmas from John and Yoko."

Both messages and lettering are sometimes derided. "I have more critics than Mikhail Baryshnikov," Mansfield says, flashing a rectangular grin. Not all of the ground-based criticism is warranted, however. One area bank will often have Mansfield scrawl a letter upside down to attract attention. It usually does. Inevitably, the protests flow into the bank the next day: "Hey, the skywriter can't spell."

Yet the voluminous response to the aerial blunders -- "artistic license," Mansfield calls it -- underscores another point: the power of the cloudy word. With skywriting, the medium may indeed be the message.

"People watch you form each individual letter," he says. "A billboard is good for maybe nine seconds.But with skywriting, you have people standing out there for 15 minutes trying to second-guess you."

"People generally like skywriting," he adds of the nonpolluting vapor calligraphy. "I've had people send letters and call, thanking me for brightening up their day. That's one of the nice things about skywriting -- it comes and goes. You leave your impression. You leave your message. But you don't harass them."

In fact, the impact can be so strong that Mr. Mansfield doesn't like to do wedding proposals. He thinks they may conjure up more stardust sentimentality than solid thinking.

"I have seen cases where a lady has said, 'OK, I will marry you' not because of any long-term commitment, but because she was bowled over by the medium."

The first smoky letters appeared on the horizon in the 1920s, over Britain. It didn't take long for the idea to drift to North America. Since then, skywriting has been used to tell people about everything from politics to soft drinks. During the 1940 Roosevelt-Willkie presidential race, for instance, New Yorkers were messaged, "no third term."

In recent years, a new type of celestial scrivenery has cropped up: skytyping. More Gutenbergesque than its predecessor, skytyping usually involves five planes flying wing-to-wing. The pilot of the lead aircraft, generally tucked in the middle, punches out computer signals to the other planes, which then belch coordinated puffs of smoke that look like elongated cotton balls. From the ground they resemble typed letters.

There are perhaps two advantages to skytyping: speed and clarity. A 25 -letter message can by blurted out in a little over a minute, compared with the half hour it might take a skywriter. Yet, some old-fashioned flying aces think skytyping involves too much science and too little art. And, they say, skywriting draws people's attention for a longer time.

To be able to skywrite, a pilot has to be as relaxed in the cockpit as a frog on a lily pad. It requires keeping an eye on the altimeter, speed, and direction -- all while dotting an "i" and crossing a "t." "Basically, your heart has to be in it," Mansfield says."You have to be able to fly the plane without thinking."

It also takes a brawny, responsive aircraft -- no cheap commodity these days. Most of the scrawling is done at 10,000 feet or more, where there is less turbulence and a greater likelihood of being seen. One of the toughest letters to crack, surprisingly, is the "x." While it isn't too hard to trace the letter itself, lining up the one to follow is difficult. Sometimes the attempt results in a boomerang-shaped word.

And don't expect to learn these aerial P's and q's overnight.Skywriters are a secretive lot, careful not to let too many trade secrets fall into competitive hands (such as the recipe for the paraffin-water mixture). Like Wayne Mansfield , many skywriters learned from family members.

Mansfield's parents, both barnstormers, took up skywriting after World War II. Wayne himself first learned to fly when he was five years old -- while sitting on his father's lap.

For Harold Johnson it wasn't quite so smooth. A selftaught skywriter, he still vividly remembers the time the oily vapor caught fire and almost grounded him permanently. Now a 25-year veteran of skywriting, the seasoned stunt flyer still finds it a challenge. Yet today he sees one more threat on the horizon: pollution.

"The increased amount of pollution in the air near metropolitan areas . . . is making it very difficult to skywrite," says Mr. Johnson, head of Air Ads of Dayton and Mayor of Morraine.

Halfway across the country, as Wayne Mansfield is finishing off the final letters of "Backtrack," a setting sun burnishes the patchwork northern Massachusetts countryside and gritty mills of Lawrence 10,000 feet below.

"This is a funny transition from R to A," says the aerial calligrapher, rounding out another letter.

"I don't know if the 'C' is going to line up, but here goes." He veers sharply to the left, spews out a smoky stream, and pulls up again. "Well, I just blew the 'C'" he groans. "I didn't make it long enough at the bottom. We'll hear about it. Like I said at the office, I've got lots of critics."

By now, the first letters of the word are already starting to disappear in the late afternoon haze. Again, the plane dips, spits, and pulls up.

"Hey, you know," Mansfield says, reflecting on his work, "this is fun after all."

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