The Sky Ad Story
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In the 1960's I had a long running dream about being involved in a small flying business. In that dream I was buying and selling Cessna L19's, and working out of the old Rosemead airport. That dream reoccurred over and over, night after night, until it finally went away, and was forgotten. In 1976 I decided to chuck my long running career in Engineering and turn to flying full time. Ever since getting my Instructors ticket in 1956 I had been essentially working two jobs. My Engineering career during the days, and Instructing nights and weekends. But now at age 40+ and divorced, what options were open to me? I decided that the fastest way to make the money I wanted would be in Ag flying. I made several trips to the San Joaquin valley visiting every Duster strip I could find making inquiries as to employment. Without exception, every operator I met asked me the same question: "How much Stearman time do you have"? My explanation that I had none, but would have no trouble flying a Stearman fell on deaf ears. Then I looked into the Ag school in the valley and found that $4,000 would buy 35 hours in a Stearman. That seemed like an awful lot of money for so little time in the airplane. After some negotiation I bought the stock two-hole Stearman from the school. Six times around the patch (Hanford) and I was on my way home, and little did I know, into a new career. My plan was to fly the Stearman for a few weeks and become an Ace in it, and then return to the valley and get a start in the Ag business. Wrong!
At the time I was renting an apartment in Corona Del Mar, so I got a tie-down spot at Orange County airport. But my first trip was back to Meadowlark of course. I had no sooner gotten out of Bessie when a young fellow came up to me and asked: "How would you like to make some big bucks with your airplane"? That fellow was Rod Worthington (son of the famous Cal Worthington). That was music to my ears and within a week I was banner towing for Rod and his business, Sky Ad. That summer went by very fast, and I was having fun and making money. I suddenly found that Frank Tallman (Tallmantz Aviation) needed Bessie for TV work. A while longer and Art Scholl contacted me for the same reason. Bessie was like a magnet. Any where I landed, people came over to talk and look over the airplane. I suddenly found that newspapers, magazines, TV shows (Real People, Ralph Storey), all wanted a piece of the Stearman's.
Later on in the fall of 1976, Rod asked me if I would like to buy the business? Little did I know that he had pulled this trick several times in the past. Sell the business to one of his pilots and let them "baby sit" it during the off season, and then buy it back after the buyer became discouraged with it. I bought the business which included all of the banner stock, the phone numbers, and one ragged single cockpit Stearman with a 450hp P&W engine, all for $18,000. With that one decision, my life changed forever.
Cover O.C. magazine 1st color cover Cycle News Skate Board Ad 66Nasty
The Ag business would wait!
The one catch in the plan was that Meadowlark was scheduled to close in about two years. Well, two years of fun flying, and then off to the Ag business. The "two year" window stretched from 1976 until 1989, when Meadowlark actually did close. Meadowlark Airport Those 13 years were the most fun years of my life. I got to be involved in more things than I ever expected to be in, and to meet more interesting people than I ever thought existed.
They say that timing is everything in starting a new endeavor, and in my case, the timing was perfect. The weather my first year in the business was the best I have ever seen since, and the business climate was growing strongly; and my competitors were folding their camp for various reasons. Some of my first jobs were towing banners for restaurants and night clubs. I soon found that besides paying well for the work done, there was always the bonus of some free meals or club tickets to be had. Although I was working as early as February with the good weather that first year, the official banner tow season starts with the Memorial Day weekend. And that weekend was the beginning of a continual fight with the City of Huntington Beach. I had booked so much work that I needed as many airplanes as I could lease to make all of the flights. One of the main handicaps was the lack of ground radios to communicate with the tow planes; everything was done with hand signals. Several of the airplanes were rushed into service without testing. It was an embarrassing day for me when the tow hitch release that Sonny Schubert installed in Ed Nortonís Stearman failed. If I had had more experience back then, I could have predicted its failure. As it was, Wayne Schofield finally got the banner released, but it fell upon the high-tension wires along Warner Avenue. The caused the power to be shut off to several dozen homes, and did nothing good for my reputation. Without the benefit of ground-to-air radios, the work required an extra amount of help on the ground to prepare the banners for launch. The dunebuggy played an important part in transporting the banners from the hanger to the field.
Sometimes there would be a cranky engine. I remember this one as wearing out several of us before we got it going. Dave Misko in the cockpit, and Peter Kennedy propping.
For the first four seasons of the business (Meadowlark was always two years away from closing) I used leased airplanes to fill in the work schedule that my two Stearman's couldn't handle. The good part about that was that the owner usually provided the pilot, or flew the airplane himself. I had trained a few pilots to fly my Stearman's, but they were the minority. Chris MacDonald was my first Stearman pilot. He not only flew banners in Bessie, but also gave rides before and after the towing schedule.
Chris was a really likeable guy but he had a way of getting into trouble. Like the day he was scheduled to fly a banner for University Stereo. I had just trained a new pilot named Dave Misko and he was up with his first banner flying for The Federated Group, a direct competitor of University Stereo. I had purposely scheduled the two planes to be in different areas, but Chris got Dave on the radio and suggested that they fly in formation. #1, I never scheduled tow planes to fly in formation unless it was a customer request, and #2, I never would do so with two competitors banners. As it was, the young lady who ran University Stereo saw the formation flight and cancelled a full season contract on the spot. Being it was Dave's first flight, he had no idea that the suggestion was a absolute no-no. While Chris remained a good friend, I had to eventually can him.
This is the only picture I have of him. We were at Thompson's field near Lake Elsinore testing my invention to reel out banners from the airplane. Chris went on to start the rides business in a Pitts at Orange County airport, and from there migrated to Hawaii where did the same thing as a side line. An unfortunate accident in a Pitts while performing aerobatics claimed his life.
The "rides" business started one day when Meadowlark had an open house. I started giving rides around the patch for $5. The number of people lined up for a ride was so great that the organizers of the event extended it for the following day. I raised the price to $10 and still had a full day of work. This was mind boggling! I started offering rides every weekend and the price finally got up to $25, which included a trip up to the Queen Mary and back. This always put a few hundred dollars extra in my pocket every week when the sun was out. Eventual I started going to airshows and giving rides. On one such event at Chino, I made my first ride at 8 AM and never shut the engine down until 1PM when the actual airshow started. I remember grossing $1,200 dollars that weekend (a goodly sum in 1979). The rides lasted until the final day when a propeller malfunction and a stiff crosswind caused Bessie to ground loop. I had sent Jim Stillinger up for that last ride, and with his banner tows of the day, his total tailwheel time was 103 hours, just meeting the 100 hour minimum set by AVEMCO. One may wonder why I would jeopardize my insurance by using a pilot with low tailwheel (conventional gear) experience. The fact is that Jim was a 15 year veteran as a Navy pilot and had 3500 hours in jets. But he was an extremely well skilled and trained pilot, so handling Bessie was no big task for him. There was a Navy veteran who came by routinely and bought rides for his friends and this particular day he brought his two teenage daughters. When the crash occurred I was "Johnny on the spot" to make sure that the passenger got out safely. I had always heard the story about pilots who flipped their airplane over and survived only to suffer a broken neck when they released their safety belt and fell to the ground. I personally held both of them for the exit. This guy was so nice that he asked me when the airplane would be back in service for more rides!
Bessie had done her job in getting the SkyAd business up to full steam. Whenever I talked to a potential customer, they always asked about the "big red biplane". While Bessie brought me fame and fortune, she also caused some conflicts. My competitors were flying the usual assortment of Cubs, Citabrias, 150-150's, etc., equipment that was less expensive, cheaper to operate, and requiring less pilot experience than did the Stearman's. So the price of a job was usually set by the lowest bidder, and the customer would tell me that I could have the job if I flew it with the "big red biplane". So for many jobs I ended up flying Bessie or 66 Nasty at rates less than they should have been getting. I sold 66Nasty in 79' to get money for my Lear Jet rating. When Bessie was flipped, I made no effort to repair her.
Bessie and 66Nasty opened many doors for me. I flew them in some movies, and sometimes just ferried them to where Art Scholl or Frank Tallman would fly them. In any event, I got a front inside seat to the "in set". At one time after a "shoot" I took the director for a ride and convinced him that he would like a Stearman better than a Waco. He had told me that he wanted to get a biplane. He did get a Stearman and little did I know that his best friend was Steve McQueen. When Steve decided to learn how to fly, I was asked to instruct him. I decided the trip to Santa Paula would take up too much of my time to be involved. One of the most outstanding events besides the movies and TV works (which were always fun; see "The In-Laws" with Falk and Arkin) was when a guy came by the ramp one day and made some unusual requests. He told me that he wanted to jump from one airplane to another, and wanted to use my Stearman. I never go to movies so the name of Dar Robinson meant nothing to me. He introduced himself and his wife, Darla. To make a long story short, he did perform the first ever feat of jumping from one airplane to another. The directors had to force him to wear a parachute while doing this stunt; he wanted to do it without one. Part of my bonus was that Dar did a stunt in a movie and used my name and social security number so that I could qualify to get into the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). I flew up on filming day with Frank Tallman, and while we were "buddies" he never offered to help me get in the inside for movie flying work. I did get to have lunch with Lee Marvin who hosted the show. Not too long later, Frank crashed in the same airplane returning from a trip. I enjoyed the brief time I had in knowing him, and the privilege of being able to drop in from time to time to see him at his office at Orange County airport. Bessie also got me introduced to one of my TV idols, Jack Kelly. I could be found every Sunday evening at 7PM on Channel 7 watching Maverick. I never fantasized that someday I would be more than a "drinking buddy" with the guy who starred in my favorite TV show. Coincidentally, one of the most famous stunt pilots of all time had his hangar right next to mine. Joe Hughes was famous for his wing walking stunts in the Super Stearman.
With the sale of 66 Nasty and the crash of Bessie, a complete change came over the SkyAd business. The aura of the Stearman biplanes was gone, as was the rides business. But now the business had become a real business; one that had the capability of making substantial money. I had been leasing airplanes and pilots for some time now. Tom King was now providing three airplanes and pilots. Bob Posey had two Cubs. Mike Fagan had his Cessna 172. There were others that came and went, but the time had came for me to create a fleet of banner tow airplanes that I owned and had control over. I searched and searched for the perfect tow plane for the money and came up with the most unexpected selection: the Piper Milkstool (Tripacer).
My other two websites have pretty well covered the details that were taken in establishing the Sky Ad fleet: Meadowlark Airport Airplanes I have owned but what changed dramatically was the fact that now I had to establish a flight crew for the airplanes. This is what changed the atmosphere around the Sky Ad campus. Previously, for the most part, at the days end the pilots and pilot/owners would fly back to their home bases. There was always a small cadre of people staying over after the days work, but nothing like it was to become. I think that this is where the story gets more interesting.
Previously my tasks were to (1) find new persons with suitable airplanes and qualifications to be a banner tow pilot. (2) Train them, and once I had done that, the biggest part of my job was done. The problem came in scheduling work. Some of my owner/operators were very diligent and reliable, others were not. Mike Fagan was a pilot in the Marine Corp, and I believe he did his banner flying out of the love of doing it. Sure a few extra bucks helps pay for having an airplane, but first and foremost I think he really enjoyed the flying. Quite a change from flying the jets he flew. Tom King was more in it for the business end of it. He had a family to support and flying for me was a job that brought in the dollars. Tom now has one of the most successful banner tow businesses in SoCal. Bob Posey was an adventurer. The stories I could tell. Bob is one of the most talented pilots I ever flew with. A Vietnam veteran helicopter pilot; a guy that could get the job done regardless. Last I heard he is a Captain for a major airline. If I had to pick out the most spectacular flying trip I made, it might be the one we took in his Cub and landed on the beach on Santa Cruz Island. I didn't believe his story about abalone piled three deep on dry land, but it was true. We took off on a direct course from Meadowlark to the Island, however after passing the shoreline at LAX, the clouds were totally obscuring the water. By compass and clock we found the Island and the necessary hole to let down in. There were so many abalone that it was incredible to think about it. I ate one raw while there, and we brought back about 75 cleaned. At one point while wading in the shallow pools I stepped right off into a 12' deep hole and lost my bag of abalone and my glasses. The water was so clear that I could see my glasses on the sand. All I had to do was to dive back in and retrieve them.
The early Sky Ad headquarters was a small office conveniently located next to the luxurious men's and women's rooms adjacent to the world famous Meadowlark Cafe. One of my Stearman students was a fellow by the name of Frank Delgado. Frank was a master carpenter, and customized the room into a functional office. The banner stock was stored in a wooden hanger at the far east end of the airport. I parked my 19' trailer in front of the hanger. It wasn't much, but it provided a place to gather after work. Sitting here from the left is Mike Fagan, Rick Altenberger (standing), Jim Stillinger, Tanya Reis, Bonita Kent, and Phil Albee. Rick flew in with this very impressive seaplane. The 19' trailer was eventually replaced with a 35' Spartan (built to aircraft standards).
With the addition of the Tripacers in 82' came a long list of banner tow pilots. Some had just recently gotten their Commercial rating. Conrad Nielsen started with me and stayed until the end. Mike Fagan stayed until he was reassigned to an eastern station. Robin Waldner and Dave Roseberry were Flight Instructors at the local school. John Wells was one of my first pilots.
Conrad Fagan & Waldner Roseberry John Wells Bob Posey
1983 was a very exciting year from three respects. (1) The SkyAd business was booming. (2) Bob Posey brought me a new pilot by the name of Bob Goubitz. Goubitz had grown up around banners in his native land of Holland. He flew with me until the end and was instrumental in the success of the business. We remain good friends today. (3) My old friend Walt Podolece gave me the FBO at LGB that he had inherited.
PWR was on the verge of a total bankruptcy although there was some $12,000 in the bank, but it had so many headaches that no one wanted to touch it. The FBO (Pacific Wing and Rotor, or PWR) was at one time the largest Helicopter school in the USA, and was the first dealer for Robinson Helicopters. It came with a small fleet of fixed wing aircraft on lease, and four Helicopters; a Bell 206-L3 LongRanger and three Robinson R-22's. One of the R-22's was 101WR, serial #3, the first R-22 to be sold from the factory. 101WR was owned by PWR, so I became it's owner by taking over the loan. The LongRanger was equipped with Moroccan leather seats, a bar, and was IFR equipped.
I soon checked out in the R-22 (my previous Helicopter experience was 20 years earlier in a Bell D-47), and was able to commute from Meadowlark to LGB daily. I had hired Tanya Reis to babysit the SkyAd business while I spent the majority of my time at PWR. It was a 7 days a week, 12 hours a day endeavor, but it was paying off in money and pleasure. I managed to get my 135 letter in a Helicopter and also some 100 hours of Turbine Helicopter. PWR was a certified 135 operation and as such qualified for the perks of commercial airlines such as low cost travel. I was Chief Pilot and Director of Operations. Besides the Helicopters I had a Cessna 210 and a new Mooney to use from rental fleet. It was an exciting venture.
Walt Podolece 68' 101WR at Meadowlark John Wells & I fly to Avalon for breakfast at Sally's
N2133B at work. Attila Gyuris in 9068S Bo Holstrom & myself "Uncle" Walt
The Robbie's were used primarily for flight training, but they also saw duty such as flying VIP's over boat races, search and rescue, cargo, photo shoots, news coverage, and banner towing. I even delivered a groom to his wedding in his backyard one time. Helicopters are fun! Bo Holstrom was to fly one of the Robbie's and "attack" me while I was flying a banner advertising the Rambo movie. Things went okay for a while and then I looked out the left side of the cockpit in time to see Bo make a very nice landing in the surf and totally disappear. Hovering downwind at low altitudes with a "heavy load" can cause a situation called "settling with power". He had unannounced invited his wife to accompany him on the flight. I never saw or heard from him again. I sold the business in December of 1984.
By 1985 the business was booming and I had all but ceased any leasing of tow planes. Two new pilots were added to the roster as new airplanes were added to the fleet. They were LeRoy Robinson (an extremely accomplished artist and surfer) and Scott Gibboney. Scott adopted TP#3 and LeRoy took over the Pawnee. By now John Wells was operating his own airline to Catalina with his Grumman Goose. The official uniform for banner tow pilots was whatever is comfortable. With Meadowlark being less than a mile from the ocean, swimsuits were often seen. And after a hard days work, a cool brew is the reward.
Goubitz & C.C. Steve & BG, CN LeRoy at work LeRoy after work John Wells in the Goose at L16
With the business of towing banners firmly established there was a new aura around the Sky Ad field operation. I had given up my small office next to the Meadowlark Cafe, and had brought in a 35' trailer built by Spartan Aircraft to replace the old 19' trailer. Eventually a 12'x35 annex was added on to the trailer. It was complete with a Swedish fireplace and comfortable furniture. Tanya Reis was handling all of the sales calls, and fixing lunches and dinners for the pilots. Almost every weekend was party time.
In 1986 George Heaven came back to work (he had been one of 66N's pilots) and he brought Kevin Page with him. I hired Brian Sheehy, Tony Castleforte, and the Doctor, Gerry Moore as new pilots. If there was ever an open slot, I could always see if one of the pilots on inactive status could take a flight or two.
The party begins Tony & Brian Kevin Page The oil shed Gerry Moore Brian & BG
CN at the Pong LeRoy Roseberry &BG LeRoy, Mariko & BG LeRoy Rockin Robin
Scott Gibboney Rod Worthington Tanya & Fred Turk Sandy Danny Mateus Rod Moore
One of the big projects that was accomplished was the construction of a flying beer can. I had bought the L19 to tow large loads and all that remained was to build a "CAN" that flew. The first results were disastrous. The first CAN flew no more than 10 minutes when it exploded over the stables across the street from Meadowlark. I heard that it thoroughly scared the horses. The remaining tests were conducted at Flabob and Brown Field. I was ready to throw in the towel when Conrad Nielsen asked for one more chance to change the rigging. That was on a Saturday afternoon. The following morning we had the first successful flight of a CAN, and I had a season contract with COORS for the next three years. It was the only clean flying "CAN" that I ever saw during my time in the business.
The next few years until the close of Meadowlark went very fast. New pilots were hired and trained and they made their own core group. Jim Walters, Rod Moore, Danny Mateus, Dean Johnson and Marty Eckman made the core of the group. BG and CN would fill in when they could. Occasionally there was the need for using leased aircraft. One such case was when a local radio station wanted eight airplanes in the air at the same time in formation.
Not enough can be said about the ground crews that I hired over the span of the business. Generally speaking they were all teenagers. Some worked a few weeks and others a few years. Hiring and training these crews created the heartbeat of the operation. Without the banners being built correctly and launched successfully, the business would not succeed. I worked these kids pretty hard, but it seemed that the investment usually paid off. A good majority of them would come back to me later on and thank me for the work ethic they learned while being on the ground crew. I think they liked the chance to associate with the pilots and participate in something viable and exciting.
While booking orders, billing clients, collecting payments, working on the airplanes, training pilots and ground crew were the daily chores at SkyAd, there was a typical daily break in the routine when the visitors would come by. There never was a day (or night) that many friends wouldn't be stopping by to visit. One of them was a neighbor by the name of Morrie Cain. He handled all of the logistics of public relations with the neighbors situated within 25 feet of the rear of my hangar. He also had a wealth of knowledge gained from a lifetime of working around airplanes. His help was invaluable from the day I bought the business. He rented me power and water for my trailer among other things. Hardly a day ever passed without a visit from him. Another person who appointed himself with a honorary seat at my location was Jim Minear. The only time he wouldn't make a daily appearance at the trailer would be when he was out of town. The constant entourage of visitors sometimes created a headache, but actually it enhanced the overall aura of just being there at Meadowlark and working. It was like getting to see all of my friends and acquaintances from all over on a continual basis. Jim and I made many trips to Mexico in a variety of aircraft ranging from a Tripacer to a Beechcraft D18. And Rod Worthington never lost his interest in coming back and visiting his "baby".
When Meadowlark closed, an era of biplanes and barnstorming closed also. Some said it was time that it did. But others of us regretted it. The SkyAd business continued on for two years operating out of LGB and Compton, but it wasn't the same without having the entire fleet of airplanes and being at Meadowlark. The party was over. To get into LGB one had to first come to the Security office and surrender one's drivers licence, get a pass for one automobile, submit a list of banners to be flown with their time, etc. The fun was gone. The business was sold.
The log books of the airplanes bought and owned after Bessie ground looped show a total of around 7,000 hours of flight time. This total does not reflect any time for the leased airplanes during the period from 1982 on. Nor does it reflect the time for the previous 5 years of the business which was mainly with leased aircraft. I once calculated that the total SkyAd flight time was around 15,000 hours of banner tows. Without the benefit of the early records, this remains an estimate. But it does represent an order of magnitude that can't be all that far off. To have done this without any loss of life, or significant loss of equipment must be some sort of record.
I recall once when a current United Air Lines Senior Captain who had a Stearman was asked if he would consider using it for banner towing. His reply after seeing my operation was that it "was an accident waiting to happen". That poor fellow did crash his Stearman later on while on downwind at Orange County airport after running out of gas. Sometimes things aren't what they seem.
I have added a link that shows my collection of newspaper clippings from 1976 until 1990 involving events at Meadowlark.
please see: Newspapers
For a very informative and interesting website about old airports, please visit Paul Freeman's: Abandoned and little known Airfields.
Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields
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Flying Trips into Mexico
Airplanes I have owned
The night the engine almost quit
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