Fifty-five-year-old Dobry, owner of Aerial Promotions Inc., says his company’s 12 planes tow 80 percent of the aerial billboards you see in Orange County’s skies.
Dobry is as colorful a presence as a flying billboard rippling past the sun. The “Top Gun” hair. A dog named Boomer. And the belief that a pilot needs to “check his ego at the hangar.” Known as “Banner Bob,” the Huntington Beach native has spent the last 25 years flying banners promoting everything from rum to fish tacos. Think it’s easy to pull a 50-by-100-foot banner with a single-engine plane at near-stalling speed? Think again.
What’s with that hair-raising hookup?
After takeoff, you throw a cabled hook outside the window so it swings down and hangs behind. Then you fly low between two poles at 90 mph, veer up sharply, and snag a rope between the poles, which is attached to the banner that’s rolled up on the ground. You go as high as you can as quick as you can. The banner rolls out ever so slowly. You don’t even feel it when you pick it up.
How do the banners stay straight and readable?
That’s classified data. [Laughs] There’s a lead pole with a weight on the bottom. When the sign comes off the ground, gravity takes over and keeps the banner straight. We actually angle the banner toward the audience by using a little fin that acts like a rudder.
Speed and altitude when flying a banner?
Forty mph, so you have 30 to 35 seconds to look as it passes. We stay 500 feet above water and 1,000 feet above land, per FAA regulations.
How challenging is the wind?
With Santa Anas, you can get 30- to 40-mph winds. Sometimes you need to fly your plane sideways against the wind just to go straight. Other times, the ground seems to move forward because the plane is getting blown backward. We can actually hover the airplane so it doesn’t move. The ground speed is negative.
How do you land with such a massive banner?
You don’t. You pull a lever to dislodge and drop it on a field before landing.
What led you to become an aerial banner pilot?
I used to fly radio-controlled planes with my father. At 18, when I was
still in high school, I just went for it. I went to an airport and started taking lessons. I began the business at 29 as a part-time gig, and then it just exploded. Now I have a dozen planes, all Bellanca Scouts, which are perfect for banner flying. With all humility, I can say we’re the second-largest in the nation. It wouldn’t be possible without my crew and loyal clients, most of whom have been with me for many, many years.
How do you maintain client loyalty?
Always give them a little more than what they paid for. If the beaches are empty because of bad weather, I won’t fly. I’ll refund my clients or reschedule. Treat customers as you’d like to be treated.
Is aerial banner advertising expensive?
It’s very inexpensive compared with TV, radio, or print. Pricing depends on numerous factors, such as flight location, length of the flight, banner size, and lettering.
Most fun banner?
KROQ-FM had me fly banners like “Pilot Is New” or “Pilot Is Drunk.” Then there was the time we had eight planes flying 35-foot heads of Judge Judy up and down the beach. That was pretty cool.
You make your own banners?
Yes, we do it all in-house. We can turn it around in 24 hours. … Everything from “Will You Marry Me?” to divorce banners.
Most memorable moments?
The 2002 Angels’ World Series. There were 20 other banner planes flying around—a beehive. [The FAA has since banned banner planes near stadiums.] The most touching, though, was when Dennis Quaid had me fly a “Happy Birthday” banner for Meg Ryan in November 1998. They were waving up at me from the beach. He later called to say how she cried her eyes out. There’s something magical about putting a name or a personal message in the sky.
You must see quite a bit from that cockpit.
People having sex on boat decks. Ladies flashing me. I’ve seen it all. Dolphins and sharks, whales occasionally. Surfers waving. One time, people were waving their boat oars: I looked down and saw six bare butts staring back up at me. I’ve never been bored flying.
2870 E. Wardlow Road, Long Beach, 562-492-1018 www.adsthatfly.com
By Michael Lucien and Lisa Lynnette / photograph by Joseph Escamilla
This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue.