The Evolution of Aerial Advertising
By Jon Welte
Hanging near the front of the Hiller Aviation Museum’s Beginnings of Flight gallery is a full-scale replica of a Wright Model B flyer. This particular airplane, modified into a Model EX for cross-country touring, recreates one flown by pioneer aviator Calbraith Rodgers on the first transcontinental flight in 1911. Surprisingly, the real airplane is better known by another name, that of an otherwise long forgotten soft drink—the Vin Fiz.
The Vin Fiz name originated in the sponsorship Rodgers acquired to support the daunting logistics of his multi-week transcontinental odyssey. To fund the endeavor, Rodgers courted food magnate J. Ogden Armour. Armour agreed, provided that the airplane’s wings be emblazoned with the name of a new grape soda being distributed by his company. Rodgers duly launched from New York in September, 1911, With “Vin Fiz” printed on its wings and stabilizers.
Aerial advertising had its start long before Cal Rodgers set off to fly across a continent, and in fact predated the Wright Brothers’ development of the airplane. At the dawn of the twentieth century Englishman Stanley Spencer undertook to build and fly the first powered dirigible in Great Britain. He succeeded in 1902, launching his Airship No. 1 into British skies. Spencer also discovered that displaying the name of a sponsor’s product high above the ground was a powerful lure to prospective funders—his No. 1 airship took flight with the name of Mellin and Company, a baby food manufacturer, printed on its envelope.
Even as airships were overtaken by airplanes in the realm of aerial transportation, they retained the advantage of a far larger surface area to use as advertising space. In 1925 the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company launched a new powered dirigible, the Goodyear AD. Goodyear had manufactured blimps and balloons for nearly a decade prior to the AD, seeking a market for military airships and leisure craft. The AD was originally conceived as a personal aircraft as well, but when launched with the name “Goodyear” proudly stenciled on its side it quickly took up a mission of corporate advertising for a company that ultimately found automobile and aircraft tires to be more lucrative than airships.
During the same period, aviation opened an even larger tapestry to marketing departments around the world—that of the open sky. During the Panama-Pacific Exhibition of 1915, pilot Art Smith had been a driver working an automobile exhibition when famed aviator Lincoln Beachey perished in an accident during an aerobatic routine. Smith was subsequently hired to replace Beachey flying daily routines over the exhibition. He discovered that adding oil to the hot exhaust manifold of his airplane generated copious amounts of white smoke able to leave a distinctive trail in the sky. Smith used this ability to write farewell messages to his crowds at the end of his performances, giving birth to the art known today as skywriting.
Skywriting was used sporadically to promote products and services in both North America and Europe over the following years, but found its full flowering at the hand of pilot and entrepreneur Sidney Pike. Pike founded a company of skywriters for hire in 1932 and shortly thereafter landed a contract to promote Pepsi Cola. Pike’s pilots flew thousands of missions across the United States promoting Pepsi Cola. Its Travel Air airplanes—including one originally flown in a record-setting endurance flight by pilot Louise Thaden, which is currently displayed at the Hiller Aviation Museum—were painted in Pepsi colors and flew about the countryside, painting the Pepsi name into the sky time after time.
In the years leading up to World War II, a different form of advertising took flight. Arnold Butler used a small fleet of Piper J3 Cubs to tow large banners bearing messages from his home field in New England. Banner towing combined the large message size and message persistence of an airship with the ease of operation of an airplane. Butler developed many specialized tools to facilitate banner tow operations, and following the war relocated to Florida to pursue aerial advertising along Florida’s long, straight beaches.
The end of World War II also caused a flood of surplus aircraft to become available. Sidney Pike’s Skywriting Company acquired a full squadron of Navy SNJ airplanes in 1946. These were used to develop a new technology in aerial advertising, often known as skytyping. In skytyping, five aircraft fly in line-abreast formation at relatively high altitude, typically 10,000’. Smoke is released sequentially from the airplanes as they fly along in a pattern commanded by a simple computer program. The result is a dot-matrix set of letters across the sky. Skytyping requires five aircraft instead of one and involves a more sophisticated smoke distribution system, but is capable of creating messages more quickly than traditional skywriting and can often be seen across a wider area.
Today, aerial advertising remains an eye-catching form of promotion. Skywriting and sky typing capture the attention of passers-by, and banner tow aircraft are a fixture over beaches and sporting events to this day. Goodyear finally exited the niche field of airship manufacturing, but continues to operate a small fleet of promotional airships. Spirit of Innovation, its last non-rigid airship, operates from a special airship base in Carson, California, just south of Los Angeles. Wingfoot One, based near Goodyear’s home in Akron, Ohio, is a semi-rigid airship constructed by Zeppelin NT in Germany.
Aerial advertising has been part of sports championships for over 60 years—Goodyear’s first such appearance was at the 1955 Rose Bowl. On Saturday, February 6th, the Hiller Aviation Museum celebrates the amazingly diverse world of aerial advertising, in all its many forms. Make your tailgating plans today to join us for the festivities.
Roberts, Rachel. Art Smith, Pioneer Aviator, 2003