No matter how intense the action on the field is, you are compelled to look up. It is inevitable. Capturing your attention, as it splutters slowly into your peripheral vision, is a tiny single-engine plane straining valiantly against the wind. Behind it flutters an enormous rectangular banner emblazoned with anything from a logo for AT&T to a passionate request to ‘PLEASE MARRY ME.’ as the aircraft loops round and round the stadium, saturating the crowd with its blunt message, you gotta wonder: What’s it like up there—above the game—in one of those rickety little planes?
On a sparklingly clear October Sunday afternoon, I got the chance to find out. I met pilot Dave Dempsey at the Linden, New Jersey, air port to take a spin over a Giants game and catch the action from the ultimate sky box.
Dempsey owns High Exposure, one of several companies that tows aerial banners over the New York City area. He and a partner began the business in 1993 with one plane, and they’ve grown every year. During the peak summer season, he has a squadron of up to seven planes filling the air with promotional flack. High Exposure does a lot of work over sporting events, including Giants, Jets, and Phil lies games, NASCAR races, and even the Boston Marathon.
Dempsey’s personal towing plane is a highway-sign-yellow 1956 Piper Super Cub. It’s anything but sleek and aerodynamic. And as I climb into the cramped backseat, and strap on the thick black seat belts, the plane’s worn wood floor and the exposed control wires give me more than a little pause about the intelligence of this adventure. Then, when he cranks up the 180-horsepower engine, it backfires loudly, and I begin to have serious second thoughts. But before I can unbuckle and hop out, he juices the throttle and we’re speeding down the runway.
When the Super Cub goes airborne, Dempsey peels off hard to the left and loops back around the airport. The way you pick up a banner is by dropping a grappling hook on a rope out of the back and then flying through two poles with a string pulled taut across them. The hook grabs the string, which is attached to the banner, and you’re off.
As we come back around, Dempsey lines up the Super Cub and brings it in frighteningly low. After we tear through the poles, he hammers the gas and pulls back on the stick—hard. We shoot straight up, putting any roller coaster I’ve ever been on to complete shame.
After a few minutes, we’ve reached a very uncomfortable cruising altitude of just under 1000 feet. Over the enormous roar of the engine, Dempsey hollers that we’re poking along at about 60 miles per hour, and as I look down some of the highway traffic is passing us. It’s about a 15-minute flight from the Linden air port to Giants Stadium, and the view is spectacular. Lush Garden State suburbs and golf courses are spread out below us and the Manhattan skyline shimmers glamorously in the distance over yonder.
As we get near the stadium, the giant blue-and-white Met Life blimp comes into view, hovering at a crooked angle off to the side. There’s also another plane towing a banner around the stadium, as well as jets screaming by from LaGuardia and Newark. All the traffic is a bit unnerving. As we take our slot in the rotation around the stadium, I peer down to see whether or not I can make out the action. And even though these are Bob Uecker seats to the extreme, I can still follow the game quite well, as the players zip and scurry around like hyper caffeinated little water bugs on a big green pond. The contract for the banner Dempsey is towing calls for eight laps around the park, and as we circle counterclockwise, I watch as Giant QB Kent Graham connects with Ike Hilliard for a nine-yard completion and a score. I can see waves of elation roll through the crowd after the TD.
After about the sixth lap, the winds have picked up and the little Super Cub is being knocked about capriciously by thick gusts. Just as my stomach is about to squeeze out its contents down the back of my pilot’s shirt, Dempsey pulls the plane out of its circular pattern and we begin the short flight back to Linden. As we head out, another plane that has been circling in the distance cruises in to take our spot. As we approach the airport Dempsey hollers back, asking if I want to go through the poles again for another wild banner pickup. Holding in my breakfast with all my might, I give him the thumbs down, and we cruise in for a thankfully smooth soft landing.
— Aerial advertising has been around almost as long as airplanes have been flying. Soon after the Wright brothers took to the air, people began looking for ways to use these new contraptions, and companies started to paint advertisements under the wings of their planes. After World War I came the era of the barnstormers, who used to zip around the country selling rides. There got to be a lot of these flyboys out there, and in order to stand out, many of them began to “drag rags” behind their planes advertising their prices to beat out the competition. Flying banners over sporting events began in the 1920s, when people realized they could reach a sizable captive audience and inundate them with their message from the air.
Dempsey says banner towing, which can cost between $250 and $550 a pop, not including the price of any custom-made signage, has its share of unique dangers and dilemmas. “A lot of people consider this type of flying to be high-risk. This and crop dusting. Fortunately, we’ve been flying without a fatality or an injury since we started. Most of the danger is in the pickup. On real windy days, if you’re coming in to pick up you’re bouncing all around. You’re only 12 feet off the ground, and those poles are six feet off the ground, so you have to really watch that you don’t get pushed down. That can happen. Sometimes traffic can also be a problem. I’ve flown the Boston Marathon and some of the NASCAR races and we’ve had 10 to 13 airplanes flying around at one time, and that is crazy.”
Even though it’s only 5 percent of his total business, Dempsey says he gets the most enjoyment out of flying personal, as opposed to corporate, ads. “The personal ads are more fun to fly because they have more personality. You see the people waving to you. Sometimes, if it’s a ‘Marry Me’ on a secluded beach where there are only two people, you can see them hug and kiss. It’s cool stuff.”
Earlier, during the baseball season, Scott Nestlebush hired Dempsey to fly a “Jean, will you marry me? Love, Scott” banner over Cam den Yards during a Baltimore-Seattle game. “People in the sections nearby us stood and cheered when the banner came over the stadium right before the start of the bottom of the seventh. Then the rest of the Camden crowd started to understand what was happening and they started cheering as well,” says Nestlebush.
“In fact, the Mariners’ pitcher actually stepped off the rubber because the crowd was getting so loud and the players were glancing into the stands to see what was happening. Jean’s eyes got real big when she first saw it, but I think it took a moment for it to really register. When she read it the second time, she started jumping up and down ecstatically. Of course, all my friends who have yet to propose are irate because the bar has been raised and now their girlfriends expect something equally cool.”