Skywriters see it this way (Oct, 1947)

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Skywriters see it this way

They spell from right to left and make words that are 15 miles long.

SO YOU have a new pen that writes under water, a pen that writes for three years without a refill, and never leaks. Kid stuff!

I know a bunch of guys that write with a gadget that can make letters a mile high, write a word 15 miles long that’s visible for 40 miles, and can write 15 miles of letters in 20 minutes.

Yes, I’m talking about “sky scribblers,” the smoke writers. It all started back in 1922 on England’s Derby Day at Epsom Downs. Everything was going along as dignified as usual with King George and Queen Mary there to add a bit more tone to the affair. Suddenly some chap glanced upward at the sky, clutched his ascot and yelped, “Blyme, look there now, it’s bloomin’ writin’ in the sky!”—and thereby began a unique industry, Skywriting.

Major Jack Savage, a prewar British Pilot, invented the process and promptly gained control of World Patents on the system and smoke formula. It was he who gave the world the first pain in the neck due to reading letters in the sky, when he scribbled daily mail back there in 1922 over the Derby crowd. Since then his “smoke” has written in the skies of almost every country. Here in the United States, where a licensee of his patents does the writing, such words as lucky strike, i. j. f o x, and pepsi cola are familiar to anyone able to bend his neck back and look to the skies.

Allan J. Cameron, of Chicago, purchased the American rights to Major Savage’s system and licensed the S. S. Pike Co., of New York City, to do the actual flying. This year they expect to plaster 6,000 aerial smoke signs over about 800 cities from coast to coast. Mr. Pike expects to eventually cover Canada, South America, Mexico and Cuba with his very versatile bunch of “penmen” but he’ll have to dig up a Spanish speaking hombre for the last three.

Operating all over the country wherever the weather permits, his gang of 12 pilots, six reserve men and 26 planes are busy every possible hour in the air. Unfortunately but a small percentage of the 365 days of a year are suitable for skywriting. It takes more than just a cloudless sky to set the stage for their work. The air at the levels at which they work (10,000 to 15,000 feet) must be smooth, free from unexpected turbulence and as nearly stationary as possible. In the best of locations it is rare that more than two of the seven days of a week are good “writing” days and often it is two or three weeks before the right weather gives his men the green light.

His pilots check the air several times before going up to start their work to save time, material, and “bad will” for their advertiser by writing words that can not be read from below.

Of course sometimes letters that can not be read really pay off. For example take the time they were working for a big candy store chain, and one of their pilots calmly wrote ydnac tfol in mile-high letters. He had just forgotten to reverse the letters so folks below could read it correctly. The President of Loft Candy (what the pilot had written so no one but the president could read) nearly blew a fuse when he saw it, but the pilot soon saw his mistake and redid it correctly. The first version of it paid off for folks talked about it for days afterward.

Such a mistake is easily possible for every inscription must be reversed and written as seen from the back. The words are first plotted for the pilots so there will be no lost time in getting from one letter to the next. Usually on a long word, or when there is more than one, two planes work together as a team, one taking the cross bars and straight lines while the other chap fills in the curved sections and round letters.

Written at 15,000 feet the planes are invisible except for an occasional flash from a banked wing and the letters seem to appear by magic from the blue sky itself. The formula of course is secret, but it is a compound of paraffin oil and other chemicals. Pike has spent many thousands of dollars and over 15 years trying to get some color into his “long lasting smoke” but has just about decided to stick to white. He has, however, tried luminous “ink” for bright moonlight nights but this added expense hardly pays off for most folks are indoors after dark.

As I said, the smoke formula is a secret; but once, several years ago, when the Lucky Strike company was spending $2,000,000 for a three-year skywriting campaign they did have a competitor for a little while. An army pilot got hold of a few quarts of the stuff and really ran them ragged. Every time Pike’s boy wrote lucky strike in the sky. this army lad, who obviously preferred another brand, darted out of nowhere and scrawled a kindergarten camel alongside.

Of course the pilots who write this sort of aerial sign stuff have a hankering to write other stuff too. They usually curb their own ideas—but not always. A few years ago weird signs appeared over Long Island. The natives watched in wonder and amazement as the thing grew. Suddenly it began to take shape. A couple of the boys were playing aerial “tic tac toe” with a ten-mile square and circles a mile across. One other pilot just couldn’t resist doing a bit of arithmetic and did so to everybody’s amusement but his own—when he discovered he had written 1+4=6.

The planes used for skywriting are mostly of three types, selected for their maneuverability. Early skywriters used such ships as the little British SE-5 fighter, but now AT-6′s, BT-13′s and some special “Speedwing” Travelaires are used. All of the ships of course have been converted to hold huge tanks of the chemical-mixture “ink” and carry the special “pens” used for the actual writing.

All of the pilots have had military training and are experts at flying exact maneuvers at exact altitudes and in following the complicated charts prepared for them before taking off. In some cases of course, when new words have to be worked out, they have to do some practicing. When this is necessary they fly 15 or 20 miles out to sea where a “hammy”

practice word will be seen by only a few ship passengers at the most.

The letter S seems to be the easiest for most of the Pike gang, while G with its cross bar seems to be the toughest. One assignment was a cinch. You could write the word upside down or right side up, backwards or forwards and it was still okay. It was an assignment in England to write 0X0, the name of a popular beverage.

A simple trademark over here however proved to be a lot tougher than it looked. It was the familiar Ballantines three-ring symbol. Each of the interlocking circles had to be at a different altitude or the plane flying through the preceding circle would have blasted it all apart, spoiling the effect. It took mighty careful pilotage and perfectly smooth air for the “penman” to write each ring at a slightly higher altitude—and of course in a slightly larger size so that the finished symbol would appear to be at the same level and the rings all the same size.

The sign that started the ball rolling in this country was win tigers — Chevrolet, etched over the Detroit Stadium back during the 1934 World Series. The effect upon the crowd was so satisfactory to the car manufacturer he promptly spent $150,000 for 350 writings of the car name all over the country.

Others taking up the idea have been I. J. Fox and Pepsi Cola to name two of the more popular ones. It is interesting, and no doubt gratifying to the manufacturer, to hear that most of the pilots of the “Pike School of Penmanship” drink “Pepsi.” I Understand that one of the pilots was caught drinking “that other drink” and had to go out over the Mojave Desert and write “I must not drink it again” 500 times. Of course that may be just a story.

In perfect air the signs may be visible for nearly 40 miles and read by millions in some instances before the wind finally erases them many minutes later. Once in a while the customer gets a nice bonus. This happened a couple of years ago when an unusually stable air mass carted an entire sign perfectly intact for twenty-five miles and more from over Manhattan to Mineola, L. I., New York, before it finally came apart, having been seen by thousands of additional “readers” below.

Some times it is embarrassing to have so many folks see a little gem you have written. Take that pilot back in 1937 when the air show was being plugged over New York. This pilot just dropped out an “H” to the amazement as well as amusement of millions. He glibly wrote air sow instead. A sympathetic-wind promptly erased it and he did it perfectly the next time. The “penmen” usually drop down a few thousand feet after doing their chore to check on spelling, uncrossed T’s and such, before doing the next one or getting back to the field. Occasionally they have to go back five or ten miles to dot an I or cross a T but if they don’t they know darn well some school marm will call the customer to complain.

In spite of all the seeming close calls when two ships are working on the same word there has never been an accident of any kind in the 16 years the gang has been working. The pilots must have special talents and “darn good health” to hold their jobs.

When Major Savage first came to this country to demonstrate his idea, he—being a loyal British subject—wished to welcome the Prince of Wales when he made his visit here in 1924. Knowing the limitations of his technique he planned to merely write hello wales, but decided to check with the British Consul. After considerable meditation and consultation with others in the office the Consul came back with the request he change that to WELCOME TO YOUR ROYAL HIGHNESS, THE PRINCE OF WALES.

It did not get written for the reason the Prince would have probably left the country by the time it could have been completed.

When the organization was young it was a magnet for all types of wealthy pranksters willing to pay for their fun. One father hired a pilot to fly over the Yale-Princeton football game and write for all to see: send your son to harvard! Another customer, about to be married, had his and his fiancee’s initials entwined in a smoke heart floating over the church during the ceremony. But the most puzzling cash customer was the quaint chap who paid good money to have eala bambus written high over the S. S. Bremen. That is a mystery no one has solved.

Although seen but occasionally over some parts of the country, skywriting is now so common in the sky over New York that no longer do fenders clank and bumpers bang in unison with the turns and banks of the writers above, although millions still gape from the sidewalks. In fact one story has it that a visitor to the Hayden Planetarium came away very much let down. Upon being asked why he replied: “There wasn’t any I.J. fox across the dome!”

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