Skywriting is the process of using one or more small aircraft, able to expel special smoke during flight, to fly in certain patterns that create writing readable from the ground. These messages can be advertisements, general messages of celebration or goodwill, personal messages such as a marriage proposals and birthday wishes, or acts of protest.
The typical smoke generator consists of a pressurized container of viscosity oil, such as Chevron/Texaco "Canopus 13" (formerly "Corvus Oil"). The oil is injected into the hot exhaust manifold, vaporizing it into a huge volume of dense white smoke.
Relatively few pilots have the skills to skywrite legibly. Also, wake turbulence and wind disperse and shear the smoke, causing the writing to blur and twist, usually within a few minutes. For these reasons, computer-controlled "skytyping" has been developed where multiple small aircraft, flying in tandem, write in dot-matrix fashion, creating messages that can be much longer, and legible for longer periods, than those of traditional skywriting.
The beginnings of skywriting are disputed. In a 1926 letter to The New York Times, Albert T. Reid wrote:
- A newspaper paragraph says skywriting was perfected in England in 1919 and used in the United States the next year. But Art Smith, who succeeded Beachey in flying exhibitions at the Panama–Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, after the latter had been killed, did skywriting, always ending his breathtaking stunts by writing "Good night." This was not a trial exhibition, but a part of every flight, and was always witnessed by thousands.
Major Jack Savage, former British Royal Air Force pilot and a writer for Flight magazine, had a successful skywriting fleet of Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5 aircraft in England. He flew throughout the 1920s and 1930s, bringing the practice to America as well. The first recorded use of skywriting for advertising purposes was over the Derby at Epsom Downs Racecourse in the United Kingdom in May 1922, when Royal Air Force Captain Cyril Turner wrote "Daily Mail" above the track. In the United States, the first use of skywriting in advertising followed on November 28, 1922, over New York City during a visit of Savage and Cyril Turner.
Commercial skywriting in the United States developed in 1932 by Sid Pike, president of the Skywriting Corporation of America. One of their first major clients was Pepsi-Cola, which used skywriting to reach a mass market. Pepsi contracted a tremendous number of flights, including 2,225 in 1940.
Artists have also used skywriting as a visual medium. Skywriter Wayne Mansfield created aerial messages for John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and appeared as a sky artist over the Biennale in Venice, Italy. Artist Vik Muniz used skywriting for his "Pictures of Clouds" project.
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Another form of skywriting is using an aircraft to tow a banner, a medium has been popular in the United States for decades. It is usually practiced in coastal areas, where aircraft can fly at low levels past crowded beaches. Banner towing is a popular way to make a romantic marriage proposal.
Two types of banners can be towed behind aircraft:
- Readable from long distances
- Messages can be changed for each flight (usually within hours)
- Highly customizable, including graphic elements
"Logo banners", where a graphic logo is added to a standard banner, are also used to exploit both formats's advantages.
In 1946 the Skywriting Corporation purchased a fleet of surplus World War II planes and developed "dot matrix skywriting", subsequently known as skytyping. The process uses five planes, flying in tandem, releasing puffs of smoke under computer control, similar to characters produced by dot-matrix printers. These messages, written at 10,000 feet, can be up to 1250 feet tall and over five miles long. Traditional skywriting messages are limited to 3,000 feet and take much longer to write (1–2 minutes/character, vs. 2–5 seconds/character with skytying), limiting messages to no more than a few words before the smoke disperses.
- "Skywriting in 1915," The New York Times, October 9th, 1926, p. 16
- Simpson, Andrew (2014). "INDIVIDUAL HISTORY ROYAL AIRCRAFT FACTORY SE5A F938/G-EBIC/9208M MUSEUM ACCESSION NUMBER 74/A/23" (PDF). RAF Museum.
- Air Trails: 48. Winter 1971. Missing or empty
- obituary Flight 1945
- "S. Sidney Pike Skywriting Corporation of America Collection 1920s-1940s". Smithsonian. National Air and Space Museum. Retrieved 2015-08-29.
- Harriet Veitch (2006-12-02). "How big are skywriting letters?". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2008-09-17.
- "November 28, 1922: First Skywriting Ad over New York's Times Square". Retrieved 2015-08-29.
- "Repeat his "Sky Writing"" (PDF). New York Times. 2015-11-22. Retrieved 2015-08-30.
- "S. Sidney Pike Skywriting Corporation of America Collection 1920s-1940s". Smithsonian. National Air and Space Museum. Retrieved 17 April 2014.
- Cecil Coffrin, Pepsi Skywriting pilot
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