Sky Writer

You think it's easy getting paid to write five letters? Try doing it while going 150 miles per hour at 10,000 feet when the temperature is below zero and both windows are open. And remember: You must do it backward. That's what pilot Wayne Mansfield does for a living. He's a skywriter, one of only about half-a-dozen in the country.

Mr. Mansfield comes from a family of pilots. He soloed at 13, and sky-wrote his first word ("fly") seven years later. He's constantly on the move, towing large banners during the day and "starboards" (illuminated signs) at night with his small plane. Banners are his main business. Skywriting is a small part of it.

"It's difficult to make a living on a medium that requires clear days," Mansfield says. Clouds can quickly cover his canvas. A brief shower will erase his hard work. If there's snow on the ground, it feels as though he's writing with an invisible marker. He can't see the letters against the white background.

Skywriting originated in England around World War I. Maj. John C. Savage of the Royal Air Force used smoke from airplanes to send military signals over long distances.

Skywriting was first used for advertising when Capt. Cyril Turner wrote "Daily Mail" over England in May of 1922. In October of that year he wrote "Hello USA" above New York.

Skywriting's heyday was from the 1930s to the early 1950s when Pepsi Cola used skywriting as its main way of advertising, Mansfield says. TV led to skywriting's decline. With television, advertisers could target their messages at specific audiences.

Mansfield has flown banners over crowds of crisping coeds on the beach at Cancun, Mexico. And you may have seen him writing "007" in the skies over New York, Los Angeles, and Boston to advertise a James Bond movie. (At least one British-born American in Boston was perplexed to look up and see "LOO" blazoned across the sky. "Loo" means "bathroom" in Britain. She was seeing "007" upside down.) Mansfield has also flown over Europe and Asia.

"If you can fly really well," he says, "and know the basic rules of working into the wind, you'll be fine" as a skywriter. That's a tall order, as I found out after talking to Mansfield and flying in a plane nearby as he worked.

Before Mansfield starts, he walks through his plane's flight pattern - the loops he'll do between letters - while still on the ground. In his office, he turns in circles, imitating what his plane will do. Sometimes he tapes the words onto his plane's instrument panel. He writes the words and letters backward, so they will look correct to observers on the ground.

When he's ready to go, Mansfield pushes his 600-horsepower Grumman AgCat out of the hangar. The nimble canary-yellow biplane used to be a crop duster. He calls the tower on his radio. "All clear for the smoke show," the air-traffic controller jokes.

When he gets to the right altitude (between 8,800 and 10,000 feet), Mansfield looks for landmarks on the ground. He uses them as starting points for his letters. On this job, he used some Boston streets parallel to a runway at Boston's Logan airport. The streets helped him align the letters correctly - sort of like using lined paper. The massive shadows cast on the ground by the letters also help.

Today he's writing the name of an Internet search engine. Mansfield is in his plane with an air-traffic controller yakking in his headphones as jumbo jets whoosh below him. He constantly checks his altimeter to make sure his letters are all at the same height.

The letters will be visible for 15 miles in every direction. He flips the toggle switch that pumps the "smoke" into his plane's exhaust system. It's a liquid paraffin wax that's clear and has the consistency of salad oil. Smoke pours out the exhaust pipes in the front and rear of the plane. The letters he makes are a quarter-mile tall, and the lines of smoke are 75 feet wide.

As he begins to draw the upright of the L, the first letter, Mansfield counts out loud to 16. That's how he knows when to turn off the smoke. The line he's made expands like a thick white mustache. Then he banks, turns, and circles around to lay down the lower leg of the L.

Though his plane has a canopy, Mansfield usually has both windows open. He says it makes him feel closer to his work. It's usually 35 degrees F. colder up here than it is at ground level. (Think of riding in a car with the windows open when it's 0 degrees F. Now think about the car going 150 miles per hour.)

As he banks hard to the right to set up the next letter, gravitational forces crush Mansfield in his seat. It's like having a 500-pound sumo wrestler sitting on your lap. But it's all part of fancy flying.

"Since you write everything backward," Mansfield says, "you really have to think." The slightest distraction can make you ruin a letter, he says, because "you're taking an educated guess" at drawing a moving message (it's being blown by the wind). From the ground, you can't see that he didn't quite close the O, or that he shut off the smoke for a split second while writing the Y.

Mansfield once drew a peace symbol over Boston in 1969. He also pulled a banner from a desperate mother aimed at her runaway daughter, a message that brought the girl home. The longest phrase he's ever written was over Toronto in December 1970: "War is over if you want it Happy Xmas from John and Oko," was commissioned by John Lennon and his wife. But the most difficult symbols to write aren't letters, he says - they're numerals: 2 and 5 are really tough.

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(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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