On a hot and humid Saturday morning in late July, a small group of pilots hangs out in a shaded airplane hangar on a farm near Berlin, Md. Some pilots are playing ping-pong; others tell stories and joke around.
Two young women are hard at work in a nearby barn pulling individual letters off hooks and attaching them to banners that will soon be towed behind planes up and down the Delaware and Maryland coast.
One of the women is Jessica Bunting, daughter of Bob Bunting, owner of Ocean Aerial Ads Inc. Down in the hangar is Bob’s son Chris, a pilot like his dad. On this day, Bob’s wife, Holly, is also on hand – in charge of the bookkeeping, but also a nurse.
“It’s truly a family business,” Holly said.
Bob started crop-dusting in 1980. Two years later, he bought the banner business and moved it from the Ocean City Airport to his family farm near Berlin. “They were going to start running commuter flights, and they wanted the banner business to leave,” he said. “It didn’t last long.”
But the banner business did. For the last 37 years, Bob and his crew of pilots have been advertising the old-fashioned way to millions of people lining the beaches from Ocean City to Lewes.
“You’ve got a different generation handling advertising now,” he said. “They’ve been brought up with the internet, cellphones and social media. They don’t quite get the banner towing. But when you lie on the beach and an airplane goes by, you automatically look up.”
Bob says they’re not as busy as they used to be, but they’re still doing fine. “It’s timeless,” he said. “It’s ageless.”
Ocean Aerial Ads is the only game in town. If there’s a banner plane in the sky in Delaware or Maryland, chances are it’s one of Bob’s. Occasionally, a plane from New Jersey will make a pass, he said.
Typically five to seven planes are in the air on any given summer day. Routes vary from short single, double or triple Ocean City trips to longer trips up the entire coast. It all depends on the client, Bob said.
Many messages, such as daily specials, night club acts or marriage proposals, are put on long one-line banners that can stretch as long as 100 feet, but Bob’s planes are also capable of towing larger banners. Anyone in Lewes and Rehoboth is likely familiar with the Geico banner, the largest Bob’s pilots fly.
Contrary to common assumptions, towing banners does not put pilots at higher risk of problems, Chris said. “The banner actually makes the plane more steady,” said Chris, who mostly works on the crop-dusting side of the business, but occasionally flies banners when needed.
“If you follow the rules, it’s safe,” Bob said. “We’ve got built-in things for safety. And we have everybody on the radio at all times, so if there’s a problem, we can work with them.”
They’ve had a few problems over the years, but most, if not all, have been pilot error. “We’ve had some pilots not follow the rules, and we’ve had some tragedies,” he said. “But when you’re dealing with aviation, just like when you’re driving down Route 50 or 113, things are going to happen.”
Outside of the pilots’ control are birds flying into the planes, which happens occasionally, but flying 250 to 300 feet just beyond the breakers, pilots also need to keep an eye out for drones and kites.
Pilots vary in age and experience. This year’s crop comes from Mississippi, Arizona, Colorado and other states. Many are younger pilots who need to log hours to beef up their resumés. One of this summer’s pilots took a chance and stopped in to see if there was any room for another pilot. There was.
Banner pick-up is anything but simple for the pilots. After taking off, they drop a grappling hook as they circle back to the grass air strip. They quickly drop altitude, aiming for two white PVC pipes sticking out of the ground fairly close together. As they pass over the poles, the hook grabs the rope attached to the banner, and the pilot jerks back on the yoke to quickly gain altitude and pull the banner behind. When returning to the airstrip, they release the banner. Many will pick up another without landing and go out for another route.
Most marriage proposals make several passes to ensure the intended target gets the message. Others will run all day.
“A guy called me up and wanted to do a personal banner that said, ‘Honey, forgive me,’” Bob said. “He towed it all day long. Then his wife called me and wanted to know how much he spent on the banner – and then there was no forgiveness.”
For more information, go to www.oceanaerialadsinc.com or call 410-641-2484.