Airborne Ads

September 04, 1994|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,Ocean City Bureau of The Sun

Berlin -- The horses and the dogs and the donkey don't even look up as the planes take off, circle back and swoop down to hook the advertising banners they'll tow over the beach in Ocean City.

It's all in a day's work at Ocean Aerial Ads Inc., a banner plane, biplane and crop-dusting aviation concern on a farm in Berlin.

"This is the family farm," says Bob Bunting, who runs the business. "The whole family helps out. It's still a family-run business because I can't do it by myself."

A tour of the farm on a busy Saturday -- weekends are busiest for the banner planes -- bears him out. Horses graze beside the barn. Up in the barn's loft, Mr. Bunting's niece, Laura Bunting, and employee Sandy Jones are assembling a banner advertising the Greene Turtle bar. Five-foot red letters from A to Z hang on the walls, followed by numbers and punctuation.

The women pull down a letter, spread it between two slim white rods, then link the letters to form words which then are linked to form the whole ad message. It's a little like Scrabble, on a very large scale.

Miss Bunting, a high school sophomore, runs down the steps to get a pre-assembled word. On the barn's ground floor, they keep words that frequently occur in ads, she explains. Like "beer," the word she's fetching for this banner.

Once the banners are assembled, Miss Bunting rolls them up, piles them on a cart, and drives them out to the airfield.

On her way, she passes pilot John Bloomfield, 23, from New York. He's an experienced banner pilot, having worked in Ocean City and also along the Jersey shore. Before going up today, he's doing some maintenance on the yellow Piper Super Cub he'll be flying. "The minor day-to-day maintenance we do -- it's nice to see how things work," he explains as he tightens a screw on the engine housing.

How hard is this kind of flying?

"We have a lot of practice," he says. "Assuming somebody can fly the plane, picking up the banner is the challenge. It's a precise thing. You have a 115-foot line, and the hook, and that has to find its way."

"It's pretty simple if the person has a good basis in this kind of aircraft and a good sense of height," says his employer, Mr. Bunting.

The importance of a "sense of height" is clear when a pickup is observed at close range. Behind the barn and the maintenance shop, there's a short runway where the Piper Cubs and the Bellancas and the Scouts taxi and take off. Farther back on the property is the airfield where the pilots swoop down and snag the banners before flying to the beach.

This does require very precise flying. After takeoff, the pilots loop around the farm -- "We do this funny figure-8 because there's a guy with chicken houses over there" explains Mr. Bloomfield. Then they fly toward the banner airfield. They unloose a 115-foot line from the back of the plane. The line ends in a hook.

While the pilots are making the loop over the farm, the ground crew is readying the banner for pickup. Each banner has a tow rope attached, and that rope is strung between two poles about eight feet apart. Once draped, the line is about six feet off the ground, with the banner unfurled in front of the poles.

The pilots fly in low, directly over the two poles, and the hook snags the banner line, pulling the banner into the air. As soon as they've flown over the poles, the pilots hit the throttle and regain altitude. It's ear-splittingly impressive, and the hooked banner rises from the grass with a crisp whooosh as the plane ascends.

Chuck Holloway, his cousin Cal Holloway, R. J. Rhode and David Smith are the ground crew. It's hot in the grassy airfield tucked between a cornfield and a soybean field, and they've all brought large coolers and plenty of liquids and Twizzlers licorice to get them through the day.

By about 10:30, all four of the planes that will fly today are up, towing their first banners -- the band tonight at the Purple Moose Saloon on the Boardwalk, a campaign banner for gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Melvin A. "Mickey" Steinberg. National advertisers like Pepsi and MCI are on the list today, as well as Ocean City clients like Candy Kitchen, Sunsations and the Paddock Nite Club.

The ground crew readies a banner, draping the line over the poles, and moves back to the flatbed to wait. And soon a faint buzz in the distance comes closer and louder. The plane flies in low, dropping one banner that spirals down, fluttering, onto the grass. The pilot loops overhead, making the figure-8 that spares the chickens' nerves, and then zooms toward the poles. With a whoosh and a roar from the plane's engine,the banner is beach-bound. And in the distance, the next plane can be heard.

Because the planes take off one after the other, they tend to come back for more banners that way too. The ground crew is efficient, rolling up dropped banners, unfurling new ones, looping lines and logging in each plane.

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