Ever since a Wright Brothers biplane touting "Vin Fiz" soft drinks took off in 1911, companies have recognized the merits of advertising by air. Today, planes towing banners for everything from Verizon FIOS service to two-for-one drink specials are such a common sight that few folks think much about them until one crashes, as happened last weekend in St. Petersburg. Donald Thomasson, 70, a pilot for Aerial Banners Inc., was killed when his banner-towing plane nose-dived into the water near Albert Whitted Airport in St. Petersburg. It was the third fatality this summer in a niche segment of the advertising industry that has had more than 250 accidents in the past 25 years, but which continues to be an economical and effective way to reach the masses. After all, most of us look up when we hear an airplane. "People in America have always had a love affair with aviation, it's deeply rooted in our culture," said Wayne Mansfield, whose company, Aviad, has towed banners for Busch Gardens and other Florida clients. "So aerial ads are a very useful, very sensible sort of thing." Demand for advertising banners is usually greatest during the summer, especially on holidays. But Mansfield said one of his "better successes" came in Baltimore during the dead of winter. "We used to fly there in January, February and March, when people get sick. We did a banner for a hospital that said 'Get sick — dial a doctor' and it worked just great, so well that it was included as part of their marketing plan." The typical charge for a plane with a banner is $2,500 for four hours although companies sometimes base their pricing on the number of viewers. That can push the cost to several thousand dollars for a plane flying over densely packed beaches like those in New Jersey, which can draw throngs of 1.5 million in a single day. Now in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, the Vin Fiz Flyer of 1911 had the name of the popular grape drink painted on the bottom of its wings so people on the ground could see it. Planes began trailing advertising banners in the early 1920s, and Mansfield's own company started in 1952 with a surplus Army plane his father bought for $200. So popular did aerial advertising prove to be that by 2001 the Federal Aviation Administration had authorized some 600 companies to conduct banner-towing operations. Then came the 9/11 attacks. "Everybody was shut down for seven months," Mansfield said. The federal government just didn't know what to do about airplanes." The number of banner-towing and skywriting operations permitted by the FAA has plunged to 119. Today the industry, about $20 million a year, is dominated by just three big players — Mansfield's Aviad, based in Los Angeles, and two South Florida companies, Van Wagner Aerial Media and Aerial Banners. Aerial Banners, the only banner-towing company authorized by the city of St. Petersburg to operate at Albert Whitted, has flown from there since it bought a firm called Advertising Air Force several years ago. Aerial Banners still uses the Advertising Air Force name locally despite that company's troubled history. Since 1989, Advertising Air Force planes have been involved in at least five of the eight crashes of banner-towing planes that had taken off from Albert Whitted. None of the accidents were fatal until the Aug. 31 crash, which is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. Executives of Aerial Banners did not return calls for comment. Across the United States, at least 53 people have been killed in banner-towing planes in the past 25 years. In early August, a pilot and his passenger in upstate New York died when their plane hit a tree shortly after picking up a banner. Despite the recent spate of fatalities, "the safety record has improved," Mansfield said. In 2008 he drafted a voluntary code of conduct that seeks to upgrade the business in terms of safety and "ethical obligations" to clients and the communities in which they operate. According to FAA regulations, banner-towing planes cannot fly across a stadium and must stay at least 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle in a congested area or an open-air assembly of people, such as a beach. Pilots, who typically are paid $35 to $50 an hour, must have commercial ratings. Mansfield said his company has never had an accident, fatal or otherwise, but he acknowledges having to land on a golf course "more than once" when an engine failed. "It's probably fair to say that in any industrial activity, if you do it long enough there's bound to be some sort of incident. The whole idea is to minimize them." Although talk of outlawing banner-towing planes sometimes erupts after a crash, Honolulu is thought to be the only U.S. city to prohibit aerial advertising. The FAA recently overruled the 2005 ban, saying federal law trumps local ordinances, but Mansfield doesn't understand why anyone would want to fly there. The whole idea,'' he said, " is not to make enemies with people but to create good will for the client." His own company has been looking farther across the Pacific, to China, where it will help advertise an international chain of clothing stores new to the Chinese market. The potential is huge. China has 1.4 billion people and an increasingly ad-driven consumer culture. But all flights must be cleared by military as well as civilian aviation authorities. "It is not like open skies in the United States and Europe," Mansfield said. "You've got to get permission — a lot of permission — every time you fly." Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.