A coffee shop could buy ads to appear only in the early morning, for instance. And a company could launch a come-on to consumers directly over a competitor's location — something Benham says a car dealership is thinking of doing.

Bootcamp Lights has videographers shooting footage so its clients' campaigns can last beyond the time it takes to display the messages aloft.

The company also has a team of ground spotters in case something goes awry. Benham said he lined up people to do that work after his staff discovered an hour into a flight over Ocean City that the billboard wasn't turned on.

"You learn those kinds of things," he said. "You're launching something that's so new."

It was the appeal of the new that prompted the Baltimore Police Department to contact Bootcamp Lights about advertising its plans to add several hundred new officers. "BALTIMORE POLICE NOW HIRING" scrolled over the crowds in town the Friday before Labor Day for the Baltimore Grand Prix.

Police officials were pleased with the results, and not just because the company offered to do (and did) the job pro bono.

"Everyone saw it and just thought it was the coolest thing," said Detective Jeremy Silbert, a police spokesman who watched the advertising event from the ground. "It was a great way for us to get our message out."

Sean Lewis, general manager of Scores Baltimore, was just as enthusiastic about the ads for his club. "It was awesome," he said.

The digital billboard — 8 feet tall and 36 feet wide — is about four times the size of Bootcamp Lights' Robinson R22 helicopter. Attached with bolts and cables, the billboard hangs between the copter's fuselage and skids. Essentially a wire frame with lights, it weighs about 60 pounds.

The open design, required by the FAA for safety reasons, means messages fade into the sky during the day. The company needs the darkness of early morning and evening — or late afternoon during the winter — to do its work.

The outdoors has other limitations, too. Benham and Schapiro have had to twice postpone the launch of their 100-character campaign because bad weather made it unsafe to take the helicopter up.

They're undeterred. They launched the campaign Thanksgiving evening, flying over tailgaters gathering downtown for the Ravens game. On the billboard flashed messages promoting a documentary, a local attorney, a Baltimore County house for sale, a game designer's Twitter account and several business ventures.

Bootcamp Lights, like many startups, isn't making its founders any money yet. Benham works on a syndicated radio talk show on the weekends and has a side venture with his fiancee selling mini-wallets made of recycled leather. Schapiro — dubbed "Bootcamp" by friends when he joined the Maryland National Guard in 2008 — is a flight instructor and does helicopter tours.

But they're both hopeful about future profits. They believe so strongly in their business' concept that they funded the company themselves.

"The way I see it, every strong business nowadays is started in a bad economy," Schapiro said. "This seemed like a great time to start."

jhopkins@baltsun.com

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