Airborne advertising: risky business for pilots 2 killed this season towing banners

August 02, 1993|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Staff Writer

Jim Haas was 23, a year out of college and working toward his dream of becoming a commercial pilot. Bill Cerlin was 35, with a full-time job on the ground and years of flying experience he used in weekend and summer jobs.

Both men, their families say, were careful pilots. And both men died this summer while flying planes that tow advertising banners over Eastern Shore beaches.

The crashes occurred during the most dangerous part of such flights: swooping low to pick up the banner from the ground.

"In one of the last conversations I had with my son, I said, 'Isn't this dangerous?' " recalls James E. Haas Sr. of Severna Park. "And he said, 'Dad, I can handle it.' "

Mr. Haas flew for Atlantic Coastal Aerial Ads, which operates under the name Sky Banners, in Bethany Beach, Del. Mr. Cerlin worked occasionally for Ocean Aerial Ads Inc., in Berlin, Md.

Critics of banner-towing operations, like the older Mr. Haas, say the business is inherently risky work that takes advantage of young pilots willing to work for low pay as they build up the flying hours needed for higher paying jobs.

"Any one of the pilots will tell you, 'It's dangerous, but I can handle it,' " Mr. Haas says. "Everyone needs those [flying] hours. Everybody wants those hours.

"The regulations aren't strict enough," he adds. "And even if they were, it's hard to enforce them.

"I know there are pilots who do this job who say that even if the regulations are in force, there's no guarantee they'd prevent this kind of accident."

But others say that flying banner planes, done under Federal Aviation Administration regulation, is safe aslong as pilots are trained carefully.

Nathan Eng, a tow pilot who walked away from a crash near Berlin, Md., two years ago, says the planes he flew for Ocean Aerial Ads had frequent, routine safety checks. "I wouldn't fly in anything I felt was unsafe," he says. "If you keep your wits about you and practice safety -- barring the unforeseeable that can happen in any line of work -- it doesn't seem to be too dangerous."

"My wife, even after my little incident, said, 'Well, you can be killed crossing the road.' "

To the shore visitor, the work doesn't look perilous. All summer long, the small planes buzz lazily over seaside towns, dragging banners that urge beach-goers to eat at a particular pizza place or listen to a certain radio station.

That's the routine part. The trickier aspect of the work -- the maneuver responsible for most of the accidents involved in this kind of flying -- is picking up the banner.

The planes, light machines with a single engine, don't take off with advertisements unfurled behind them. The weight of the banner would make take-off too difficult. Instead, the banner is laid out on the ground. One end, featuring a giant loop, is raised and hung between two towers.

The plane drops an anchor-like hook, then swoops low and slow -- as low as 10 feet off the ground, as slow as 50 miles an hour -- to snare the banner. The pilot puts the plane into a quick climb, and the message wafts skyward.

Flight schools don't teach student pilots how to pick up advertising banners. That's taught to new hires by operators of aerial advertising firms.

Charles "Buddy" Gnau, of Bud's Biplane in Essex, has 28 years' experience in banner work. "When I learned, the guy says, 'Hey, you want to learn how to tow a banner?' I said, 'Yeah.' You learn from the guys you work for and then pass it on to the next guys."

A pilot can master the maneuver in a day or two, Mr. Eng says. Then the FAA sends an inspector to watch the pilot pick up a banner and certify that he or she can do the job.

But Mr. Haas believes the government's safety regulations are inadequate. "Planes are not designed to pick things up off the ground," he says. "You're asking the plane to do something that it can do but isn't designed to do.

"It's a Catch-22. The only people who can take the job are those without experience," Mr. Haas says. "And only people with experience can do the job and stay alive."

James E. Haas Jr., who graduated last year from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., died in a crash in June.

"My son was getting paid $10 per flight hour," his father says. "He could have made more at McDonald's."

Hitting snags

In the last 10 years, seven banner-towing planes have crashed in Maryland and Delaware, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Four of the crashes have resulted in deaths.

The NTSB has completed investigations in four of the accidents (including accidents that caused only minor injuries to the pilots). The reports on Mr. Haas and Mr. Cerlin are still incomplete.

In all four of the completed investigations, the crash occurred as the pilot attempted to hook a banner or just after picking one up. A mechanical problem was found in only one of the crashes.

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