High-Flying Messenger : It’s Always a Banner Day in the Aerial Advertising Business


Doug Stavoe goes to the beach every weekend, but he doesn’t have much of a tan.

The 33-year-old Detroit native rarely misses a Dodgers or Angels game and he’s been to every World Cup match at the Rose Bowl--though he’s not a die-hard sports fan. He visits Disneyland dozens of times a year and never pays admission.

Stavoe, who runs one of the largest aerial advertising companies in Southern California, sees it all from behind dark aviator sunglasses, high above the crowds, as he zips along in his two-seater airplane with one arm slung out the window and a banner following behind.

“It’s a happy, up, fun kind of business,” Stavoe said one recent Saturday as he cruised the Orange County coastline towing the smiley-faced banner that promotes his own company. “People don’t buy it because they have to. It’s not like health insurance or going to the dentist. People only buy it because they want to.


“It can be nice being above L.A., being a little removed. You look at it from a different perspective. It’s healthy.”

After a series of jobs he didn’t much like, Stavoe started Pacific Drifters Corp. eight years ago, and now has some 200 clients.

They are fast food chains, record companies announcing releases, local clubs offering drink specials and random folk who just have something to say. Businesses pay about $1,000 for a full day, while personal messages cost $275 each.

Smoke-rail skywriting--”when people have a lot of money they’ve just got to spend”--costs $250 a letter.

“We’ve done everything from births to deaths,” Stavoe said, noting that he once flew over Forest Lawn Cemetery with the message: “Thanks for the memories, John.”

Stavoe helped Arnold (Schwarzenegger) celebrate Father’s Day, congratulated Roseanne (Arnold) on her Emmy and sent a message to The Fonz (Henry Winkler) from his son.

But he does have limits. He has refused to drop condoms attached to little parachutes onto the beach while flying a safe-sex banner.

“We didn’t want to get charged for littering,” he said with a shrug, gazing down at a crowd of thousands surrounding Huntington Beach Pier. “You really shouldn’t be dropping things out of airplanes.”


Marriage proposals, like the one Stavoe recently took aloft for Erik Estrada, are the most popular. And Stavoe’s favorite.

“Every single time it happens, people are so happy,” Stavoe said, filling out the weekend’s agenda with , indicating another soon-to-be couple. “They’ll grab each other and start smooching. The girls will call me after and they’re all excited. . . . You get to be part of this person’s memory for as long as ever. That’s really cool.”

Once, the recipient of an airborne proposal refused to answer. Instead, she called Stavoe herself and ordered up a “YES YES YES” to be sky-written the following day.

Another time, though, a dejected proposer called the next day reporting negative results.

“That one guy was crushed,” Stavoe remembered. “He needed a psychiatrist after that.”

Stavoe’s “office” is a rented hangar at the Long Beach Municipal Airport. Red canvas letters and numbers, 3 feet wide and 3, 5 or 7 feet tall, hang horizontally on wall hooks. The ceiling is draped with old banners: a mouth-watering cheese steak from Jack-In-The-Box; logos for Ruby’s and the Red Onion.

For decoration, some beer cans from around the world are stacked on a shelf.

The real work is done in the plane--which Stavoe calls “my girlfriend, my baby,” though he has a pregnant wife and a 3-year-old daughter at home.

With a 300-horsepower engine and 36-foot wingspan, the yellow, brown and white Cessna 185 is “kind of like a jeep,” said Stavoe, who bought it for $62,000 a few years back. The plane could hold six passengers, but Stavoe has ripped out all but two sheepskin-covered seats, and keeps big pillows and a blanket in back.


“I can throw stuff back there--skis, people, whatever I need to haul around,” he said.

Stavoe, who splits his time between an apartment in Newport Beach and a newly purchased ranch in Arizona, learned to fly while in college at Michigan State University. After quitting his job as an accountant--he lasted one year, nine days and two hours--Stavoe considered joining the Air Force, spent some time as a flight instructor and even tried aerobatics.

Eventually, he discovered banners.

“I wanted to start a business and I didn’t have a lot of money to risk,” Stavoe explained. “If I completely fell on my face, I would only lose $5,000 or $10,000. That’s everything I had.”

But Stavoe hasn’t fallen flat. He owns three planes and rents more for busy summer weekends. Plus, he has set up a network of banner-fliers in cities across the country.

He also collects extra cash designing and creating flying billboards, such as the $2,500, 1,000-square-foot Burger King/Dr. Pepper banner he unveiled on a recent weekend.

Besides the message panels, banners have several other parts. In the back, black parachute-like netting forms the “tail flags” that create drag so the banner does not bunch. On the other side is the “lead pole,” carefully weighted so the message faces the correct direction.

Five canvas straps called the “mast assembly” connect the pole to the long “tow rope,” which has a lasso at one end.


The trickiest part of the operation is picking up and dropping off the banners.

Pilots take off at about 100 m.p.h. and, once off the ground, toss a hook out the window. As the planes fly low over two red flags atop 20-foot poles, the toe rope suspended between them, the hook grabs the rope. Then the plane shoots almost straight up, as the 100-foot rope and banner unfurl.

After a day of cruising the beaches, stadiums and amusement parks, the pilot returns to Long Beach, pulling a lever just before landing that allows the banner, rope and hook to fall to the ground. If the timing is off, the banner ends up in the parking lot or the middle of the street--with an embarrassed pilot chasing behind.

“It’s kind of like dropping a bomb,” Stavoe joked. Then, after a perfect drop and landing, he added, “Well, put it this way: You don’t want it to be like dropping a bomb.”