formerly "The View From Up Here"

Formerly titled "The View From Up Here" this column began in the Liberty Gazette June 26, 2007.

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February 17, 2015 Banner History

The Liberty Gazette
February 17, 2015
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Eighty-five years ago Lloyd Stearman, the guy whose company built the infamous Stearman biplane used for training pilots for WWII, was convinced that by 1980 we would have airplanes shaped like rockets and would be flying them around the earth above the atmosphere at 25,000 miles per hour. If we could do that we could complete one full circuit around the earth in just one hour. That’s still futuristic, but Lloyd was a visionary.

To get a perspective on this, the time in history when Stearman made this prediction was about the same time the idea of banner towing was new, an experiment by a German WWI flying ace named Ernst Udet, the most famous stunt pilot of his day. The year was 1930, and Udet, practically a household name, awed spectators with the most daring feats of aviation acrobatics.

Sadly, his life wasn’t all rosy. Smart executives know that an employee’s strengths in one area may not necessarily translate to strength in another, and the results could be undesirable. Not all sales people make good managers. Unfortunately for Udet, due to his superior flying skills he was given a promotion, but the new job didn’t include flying. The new position was political and he just wasn’t that kind of person. Which is to say, he was above politics, as there is barely any way to be beneath politics. But the weasels pushed him past his limits and after a time, under extreme pressure, he took his own life.

But before the sad ending, there was Ernst, a right smart German fellow who could fly circles around most other pilots, and he had an idea that would scare most everyone else at that time. Between the two world wars, from out of Berlin burst the news that Udet had succeeded in using an iron bar with a hook at one end to pick up a piece of cloth while flying at full speed. People were amazed. Aviation was still fairly new and his exploits were all the buzz – think of the commercial possibilities!

Mike: Today’s banner-towing pilots such as Coda Riley of Baytown are still considered a nervy bunch. It takes skill and confidence to tow a heavy banner behind a small, single engine airplane. The aerodynamic drag and the weight of the banner combined with the slow speed that must be flown to keep the banner properly unfurled require top skill. And although the Stearman biplane has been around just shy of a century, it is still a model often used for banner towing.

Above beaches, over stadiums, looking down on busy freeways, every day banner towing pilots chug along just on the edge of aerodynamic stall, their airplanes straining against the wind, to help businesses spread their messages. Last weekend we watched a pilot swoop down to hook a banner on the end of his plane to carry a very special message: "Sarah, will you marry me?"

The next time you see a banner floating along behind an airplane, and especially if you know of a business that uses aerial signs in their advertising strategy, think of Ace Ernst Udet demonstrating his skills and wowing the crowd.

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