Airborne advertising: risky business for pilots 2 killed this season towing banners


Jim Haas was 23, a year out of college and working toward his dream of becoming a commercial pilot. Bill Cerlin was 35, with a full-time job on the ground and years of flying experience he used in weekend and summer jobs.

Both men, their families say, were careful pilots. And both men died this summer while flying planes that tow advertising banners over Eastern Shore beaches.

The crashes occurred during the most dangerous part of such flights: swooping low to pick up the banner from the ground.

"In one of the last conversations I had with my son, I said, 'Isn't this dangerous?' " recalls James E. Haas Sr. of Severna Park. "And he said, 'Dad, I can handle it.' "

Mr. Haas flew for Atlantic Coastal Aerial Ads, which operates under the name Sky Banners, in Bethany Beach, Del. Mr. Cerlin worked occasionally for Ocean Aerial Ads Inc., in Berlin, Md.

Critics of banner-towing operations, like the older Mr. Haas, say the business is inherently risky work that takes advantage of young pilots willing to work for low pay as they build up the flying hours needed for higher paying jobs.

"Any one of the pilots will tell you, 'It's dangerous, but I can handle it,' " Mr. Haas says. "Everyone needs those [flying] hours. Everybody wants those hours.

"The regulations aren't strict enough," he adds. "And even if they were, it's hard to enforce them.

"I know there are pilots who do this job who say that even if the regulations are in force, there's no guarantee they'd prevent this kind of accident."

But others say that flying banner planes, done under Federal Aviation Administration regulation, is safe aslong as pilots are trained carefully.

Nathan Eng, a tow pilot who walked away from a crash near Berlin, Md., two years ago, says the planes he flew for Ocean Aerial Ads had frequent, routine safety checks. "I wouldn't fly in anything I felt was unsafe," he says. "If you keep your wits about you and practice safety -- barring the unforeseeable that can happen in any line of work -- it doesn't seem to be too dangerous."

"My wife, even after my little incident, said, 'Well, you can be killed crossing the road.' "

To the shore visitor, the work doesn't look perilous. All summer long, the small planes buzz lazily over seaside towns, dragging banners that urge beach-goers to eat at a particular pizza place or listen to a certain radio station.

That's the routine part. The trickier aspect of the work -- the maneuver responsible for most of the accidents involved in this kind of flying -- is picking up the banner.

The planes, light machines with a single engine, don't take off with advertisements unfurled behind them. The weight of the banner would make take-off too difficult. Instead, the banner is laid out on the ground. One end, featuring a giant loop, is raised and hung between two towers.

The plane drops an anchor-like hook, then swoops low and slow -- as low as 10 feet off the ground, as slow as 50 miles an hour -- to snare the banner. The pilot puts the plane into a quick climb, and the message wafts skyward.

Flight schools don't teach student pilots how to pick up advertising banners. That's taught to new hires by operators of aerial advertising firms.

Charles "Buddy" Gnau, of Bud's Biplane in Essex, has 28 years' experience in banner work. "When I learned, the guy says, 'Hey, you want to learn how to tow a banner?' I said, 'Yeah.' You learn from the guys you work for and then pass it on to the next guys."

A pilot can master the maneuver in a day or two, Mr. Eng says. Then the FAA sends an inspector to watch the pilot pick up a banner and certify that he or she can do the job.

But Mr. Haas believes the government's safety regulations are inadequate. "Planes are not designed to pick things up off the ground," he says. "You're asking the plane to do something that it can do but isn't designed to do.

"It's a Catch-22. The only people who can take the job are those without experience," Mr. Haas says. "And only people with experience can do the job and stay alive."

James E. Haas Jr., who graduated last year from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., died in a crash in June.

"My son was getting paid $10 per flight hour," his father says. "He could have made more at McDonald's."

Hitting snags

In the last 10 years, seven banner-towing planes have crashed in Maryland and Delaware, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Four of the crashes have resulted in deaths.

The NTSB has completed investigations in four of the accidents (including accidents that caused only minor injuries to the pilots). The reports on Mr. Haas and Mr. Cerlin are still incomplete.

In all four of the completed investigations, the crash occurred as the pilot attempted to hook a banner or just after picking one up. A mechanical problem was found in only one of the crashes.

"It's a situation that requires due diligence," says Jim Butler, whose Aerial Sign Company operates 35 planes around Hollywood, Fla. "It's not a forgiving business." But since 1945, Mr. Butler says, only two Aerial Sign pilots have been killed in crashes.

His pilots get 45 hours of training on the ground, take a 200-question written exam, then train for 15 hours in the air before they can fly for Aerial Sign, Mr. Butler says.

"I know the industry as a whole has not had an unblemished record relative to safety," he adds. "But the situation is, very simply, that we train these people in accordance with what the FAA has asked us to do."

In Bethany Beach, Eric Cooper, managing director of Sky Banners, says his employees get extensive training. "No one flies banners unless they're qualified" and are approved by the FAA, Mr. Cooper says.

And though Mr. Cooper says he likes a pilot with confidence, he does not want one who is too cocky. "If you're a hot dog, you're not in my operation.

"There is, in the course of every pilot's existence, those few seconds where he has to make a decision," Mr. Cooper says. "And if he makes the wrong decision, it makes no difference what kind of training he's had. He could be a fatality."

In the eight years that Mr. Cooper has operated Sky Banners, Mr. Haas' death was the first.

Robert Bunting, the owner of Ocean Aerial Ads in Berlin, agrees that "banner towing takes concentration 100 percent. And if you make a wrong judgment for one second, it can be fatal."

Since 1982, when Mr. Bunting bought the business, four Ocean Aerial pilots have died in crashes. One was his brother, Ralph.

"You know and I know anyone can have an off day," he says.

He says he trains his pilots strictly and dismisses anyone who cannot perform a pickup smoothly.

"The FAA certifies you, but it's up to us to decide if you're a safe pilot or not," Mr. Bunting says. "If we don't feel you're a safe pilot, you're gone. Years ago, we used to think we could train anybody to pick up a banner, but that's not true.

"When you see an accident in the paper, it says, 'Banner towing is dangerous.' Everything is dangerous," Mr. Bunting says. "We try to make safety improvements every year."

He also disputes the allegation that companies like his exploit eager young pilots who lack experience. He says his pilots include people in their 30s and 40s. "We're considered a bunch of graybeards out here."

He adds that pilots need 250 flight hours for a commercial license but 500 hours to work at Ocean Aerial.

Family's fear realized

Bill Cerlin, who died in July, had 2,000 hours of flying experience. He made his living installing industrial equipment in Pittsburgh and had been flying for Ocean Aerial summers since 1988, says his friend Michael Milan.

"He was an outstanding pilot, an avid sailor," Mr. Milan says. "I described him at the funeral as a renaissance man. He was part poet, part scientist, part artist."

And he was cautious, Mr. Milan says. "His family worries that he's going to be portrayed as some hot dog who took a lot of risks, and that just wasn't Bill. He was always cool under pressure."

His mother and sister feared the work was dangerous. "He said, 'It is, but I always leave myself a margin for error.' "

Mr. Cerlin's plane crashed into a soybean field near Berlin, broke up and burned. He was killed on impact.

Mr. Milan says his friend was too careful a pilot to have misjudged so badly. Maybe a gust of wind caused the plane's right wing to drop, as witnesses reported.

When Mr. Cerlin's family worried, Mr. Milan recalls, the pilot would say, "Just remember, if something ever did happen, I was doing what I wanted to do.

"They all expressed fear that something would happen," Mr. Milan says. "And unfortunately, it finally did."

The National Transportation Safety Board's investigators so far have interviewed witnesses to the most recent crashes. Investigators now await the results of metallurgical tests from the planes, tests that could take several months to complete.

The families of Mr. Cerlin and Mr. Haas await the NTSB reports for some answers as to why the pilots died.

Meanwhile, neither Sky Banners nor Ocean Aerial faces any FAA restrictions. And over the Eastern Shore this summer, the banners keep flying.

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