Summer's Calling: Banner pilots

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.

"They're weird," Bunting said, with a twinkle. Then he started again. "They're unique individuals. This kind of flying is not your really normal flying. This is seat-of-the-pants, like in the '20s and '30s. They say this is the most fun they've had flying."

Marlin Hottle is a big, balding, 57-year-old from Somerset, Pa. with a gray goatee. He sells wholesale fishing tackle in real life. But he has clocked 5,000 hours since 1999 flying Bunting's banner planes in summer.

"This is hands-on flying, and it takes some skill," he said. "It's not like corporate, where you set your gauges and sit there for three hours."

Flying close to the ground, feeling the wind in the open cockpit and flying up the beach, he said, "every day is different. Every day's a little challenging."

The view is nice. He saw the whale that was swimming off Ocean City a while back. And you don't have to dress up. The deeply tanned Hottle worked in denim shorts, a T-shirt and sandals.

"I keep saying maybe next year I'll quit," he said.

It's not a bad summer gig for the ground crew, either. Out on the grass, alongside the landing strip, Bob's 18-year-old son, Chris, makes sure the new banners are rolled out and ready to fly on schedule. He grew up doing this work, and loves it. One day he'll have his license and help fly the planes.

The banners, with photos, fancy company logos and lettering, are made up in Florida, Chris said. The local bars' "Happy Hour" banners, and personal "Will You Marry Me?" banners ($350 for three passes in Ocean City) are made up with block letters, in a hangar, by Holly Bunting and her helpers.

Things can get busy. When one of the pilots approached in a yellow, high-wing Piper Super Cub, the ground crew snapped into action. A Higgins Crab House banner fell to earth, and the crew was soon there to gather it up. Chris laid the nylon lines of a Phillips banner across the uprights.

And in less than a minute, the Super Cub had circled around, and was skimming over the soybeans, hook dangling. At the poles, the pilot gunned his engine and roared for the clouds. The hook caught, the rope played out and the banner leapt into the air behind the plane.

It's no small job keeping these hard-working old planes flying. That's Jerry Abbott's job. The 62-year-old learned his trade in the Air Force. He worked for someone else for a while, then — 30 years ago — went into business for himself. He does all of Bunting's work.

"It's not hard; it's just continuous. A couple of days ago, we only had this airplane to work on," he said, motioning to a small plane awaiting a fuel valve. "Now we have three to work on."

Abbott figures it costs $5,000 a year to keep each of Bunting's planes flying. That doesn't count pilots or fuel. Bunting just wrote a $29,000 check for gas for his busy fleet.

Somewhere over their heads, meanwhile, Jake Thibeault was still trying to get his faltering Scout safely back on the ground.

The Seattle native always wanted to fly and got his license at 17. "Originally I was thinking airlines," he said. "I'm still going back and forth — airlines or corporate."

After flying old "tail draggers" — planes with their third wheel on the tail — for an antique airplane museum in Washington state, and a "boring" job with flight simulations at Raytheon, he sent Bunting a winning application. By Memorial Day weekend, after a week's training, he was flying banners.

"It's definitely more challenging," he said. Flying a few feet off the ground at 80 mph, "you have to have your timing down perfect. There's very little room for error."

But this tail-dragger was not behaving. Did he do something wrong? Should he drop the banner to lighten the load on the engine? Can the Scout even make it back?

He elects to keep the banner, and limps back, landing the Scout safely on the grass. It was a bad magneto, a type of electrical generator, Bunting said.

"Did I make the right decision, not to drop the banner?" he asked.

"As long as you're holding your altitude, or climbing, you're fine," Bunting said. "You did OK."

And he meant it. "Jake did perfect."