"Scout 625 Alpha Papa," Dobry said into his radio, using his tail number. "We'd like to work the shoreline."
"Six two five Alpha Papa," the control tower replied. "You'll be at 1,100 feet?"
"Negative," Dobry said. "We'll be at 500."
Dobry, 53, dipped his plane with the deft touch of a man who has logged 11,000 hours in a cockpit. Suddenly, it all came into relief -- the lettering on the dive bars lining the Strand, the beach towels drying on hotel balconies, the masts of the boats at King Harbor. Dobry was so close he could no longer be ignored, which was precisely the point -- and the problem.
For half a century, planes like this one have been towing banner advertisements over the beach. But this summer, some residents and business owners, particularly in the South Bay, have decided that enough is enough.
They have declared war on the half-dozen companies that fly most of the planes. Dobry, a stout man with a crew cut, owns Aerial Promotions Inc., the largest ad-towing company in Southern California. From his point of view, his critics have declared war on commerce itself.
This weekend, thousands of people are expected at South Bay beaches for the International Surf Festival. Each will be an unwitting guinea pig in an experiment that will help determine whether the two sides of the aerial ad debate can achieve a fragile peace without landing in court.
The surf festival will be one of the first tests of a "code of conduct" asking the pilots to follow rules that are stricter than those of the Federal Aviation Administration, which restrict planes' minimum altitude -- 1,000 feet over inland areas, generally, and 500 feet over the ocean.
Under the new code, for instance, pilots wouldn't make more than four passes over a section of shore in a 20-minute block, would use mufflers when possible and would fly at least 1,200 feet high if circling an event.
The agreement carries the tone of a cease-fire; it is surely one of the first official documents to quote the words of essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. It's right there on Page 2: "Each man takes care that his neighbor shall not cheat him. But a day comes when he begins to care that he does not cheat his neighbor. Then all goes well; he has changed his market-cart into a chariot of the sun."
This skirmish, however, might not simply dissolve in the musings of a transcendentalist. That's because, at its heart, it is about more than a few planes towing ads for beers and Toyotas and fish tacos.
Anyone who has spent time in the South Bay in recent years knows it has changed.
Peter Tucker, 61, a Hermosa Beach councilman, remembers when Hawthorne Boulevard was a two-lane road lined with bean fields and strawberry farms. Today, the land alone at one South Bay house under construction costs $12 million, Tucker said. Rent for retail space can be as high as $8 per square foot; the stores -- and prices -- reflect it. Even among those who still love the place, there is a sense that some pockets have become little more than a commercial enterprise.
"We're still laid-back, still not too sophisticated," said Tucker, a leader of the effort to negotiate a compromise over the ads. "But it has changed."
The debate over the ads is viewed through that prism of change.
To Dobry, the planes are, by now, "part of going to the beach."
"It's no different than a couple of kids playing with a ball or somebody surfing or laying there getting a suntan," he said. "It's just part of the environment."