Freshman banner pilot Jake Thibeault, 24, banked the little 1978 Bellanca Scout around the soybean fields north of Berlin, Md. He cut his altitude and lined the plane up with the two white poles, about 8 feet apart, just to the left of his employer's grass landing strip.
Skimming maybe 15 feet above the beans, the Scout raced toward the poles at 80 mph. When he'd cleared them, Thibeault yanked back on the stick and gunned it.
The grappling hook dangling from the plane's tail snagged a nylon rope strung between the tops of the poles, peeling a long advertising banner off the ground and into the air. The Scout clawed for the sky.
Thibeault knew right away something was wrong.
The Ocean Aerial pilot had been flying the plane all morning, towing advertising banners up and down the beaches at Ocean City. Then he'd fly back to Bob Bunting's farm, drop the old banner, roar over the poles to snag the next one, then head back to the beach.
But this was different. The two-seat Scout had lost power — not completely, but he could tell it wasn't climbing well. And it didn't sound right. He turned and hoped he could make it back.
Bunting, 53, owns Ocean Aerial, which flies all the planes whose buzzing engine noise makes vacationers on the sand look up from their books.
"There isn't any media on the beach that grabs the attention of the masses as well as the airplane," Bunting said. "There's still that fascination. When they hear that airplane, they look up and read the banner."
In summer, Ocean Aerial employs Bunting and his wife, Holly, their son Chris, nephew Ralph, a mechanic, a squadron of banner pilots and a ground crew of shirtless neighborhood boys in their teens. Bunting keeps all of it running, talking to his pilots on a handheld radio and answering customers' phone inquiries from a corner of one of the hangars.
It might have turned out differently. His brother Ralph first wanted him to go into the undertaking business with him, Bunting said, and even brought home a book on embalming.
Or so he says. You're not always sure whether to believe his stories. You have to watch his eyes for a twinkle to spot the tall tales.
"I wasn't interested in flying," he insists. "My brother made me do it."
And somehow their father, Ralph ("Poppy") Sr., bought them an airplane, they took flying lessons and started flying out of their back yard.
Bunting also got an agriculture degree and began teaching high school animal science, welding and other subjects in Laurel, Del.
He and Ralph began doing some crop dusting. And by 1983 they had taken over a banner-plane business at Ocean City's airport and moved it to the farm.
Soon after, Ralph Bunting died in a banner plane accident. "He came in too low on a pickup. Too low and too slow," his brother said. "It just wasn't meant to be."
Bunting kept flying. There were the banners, and some mosquito spraying for the state. In time, he quit teaching, and the banner business and sightseeing flights out of Ocean City Airport grew.
From "three ratty airplanes" and 20 or 30 banners a day in 1983, he now has eight pilots in the air and "close to 100 banners … on a busy, busy day."
The pilots come each summer from all parts of the country. Some, like Thibeault, are young and green, clocking hours to beef up their resumes. Others come with thousands of hours of airline and corporate flying.
Summer's Calling: Banner pilots
Ocean City's beach-buzzing airplanes are flown by the "seat of the pants"
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