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A huge shark, dorsal fin slicing the surf like a Turkish scimitar, threatens to devour all bathers in its path. Wait a minute. Turn off the Jaws soundtrack. It's a clump of seaweed.

Doug Rangnow banks the Piper Cub J-3 over the Gulf of Mexico. The water, a bouillabaisse of greens and browns and leaping mullets and rafts of pelicans, looks close enough to touch. At 500 feet, Rangnow is flying high enough to see whatever there is to see. In turn, he is low enough to get the attention of everybody combing the beach.

Being seen is what it is all about. Several times a day, he and his airplane tow advertising banners over the gulf from Clearwater Beach to Pass-a-Grille. Like blankets, sunscreen and bikinis, the little ad planes are part of Florida's beach culture.

"This is the best job in the world," Rangnow shouts.

He shouts because the plane is open to the howl of the engine and the blast of cold wind. A bare-bones contraption, built in 1946, the aircraft lacks doors and glass and other luxuries. It has no heat, no electricity, no lights. The pilot carries a battery-operated radio just in case he needs to contact Albert Whitted Municipal Airport, the St. Petersburg headquarters of Advertising Air Force, a business started by his boss, Tom Merrifield, in 1978.

The planes tow billboards for clients that include beach motels, restaurants and strip joints. They advertise politicians and attack them. Banners entertain and annoy. Some folks still remember the afternoon they looked up and saw the infamous "Rubber Ducky Condoms _ The Fit That Won't Quit" banner.

Talk about sex and the city. Around Valentine's Day, romantic-minded customers with money to burn sometimes buy $300 aerial ads pitching woo to their beloveds. Wedding proposals and other promises of eternal bliss float behind airplanes like Cupid's kisses. Of course, in an age of disposable relationships, even failure is a business opportunity. More than one cheating Lothario has seen his deed _ and even his name _ towed over the beach.

Here's an ad that Rangnow has never towed:

"Hey, you. Doofus. Get out of the water! There's a shark behind you."

At least not yet.

Huffing and puffing

The engine on the Wright brothers' little biplane had hardly cooled when some genius decided to use an airplane to advertise a product. In 1909, a small aircraft was seen scooting among Manhattan's skyscrapers advertising a Broadway play.

By the end of World War I, the planes were a common sight along beaches in New York, New Jersey and California. In Florida, the trade began in earnest after World War II. As GIs bought homes, new hotels opened and tourists flocked south, businesses fought for attention.

In Miami, Arnold Butler started the Aerial Sign Co. with one plane in 1946. Today, his son, Jimmy, runs the company, with 50 planes that he dispatches all over North America.

But some things have changed little in the past half-century. Like many veteran aerial ad guys, Butler prefers the rustic to the shiny new. His fleet of 1946 Piper Cub J-3s, in particular, are more coveted for the work than an F-16.

"The J-3 is like an airborne tractor," Butler explains. "Whenever we can buy one, we buy one. Then we modify it." Like Tom Merrifield in St. Petersburg, Butler gets rid of extra weight, even the cowling that covers the engine. He lengthens the wings about 6 feet, to about 40 feet, to increase lift. He replaces the 65-horse engine with a heftier 150-horse motor. Including pilot, fuel and sign, the plane weighs about 1,100 pounds, roughly as much as a Harley-Davidson and a sidecar. Of course, these little planes could never keep up with a Harley.

"In modern society, everybody wants to go fast," says Butler, who began working for his dad when Truman was president. "Not us. Our whole objective is to go as slow as possible. We want to poke along so everybody can see the ads."

On a good day, a J-3 sputters along about 65 mph. When it tows a banner, the little plane huffs and puffs to manage 45 mph. In a head wind, speed drops to a crawl.

For a pilot such as Doug Rangnow, patience is a virtue, especially when a flock of pelicans sails past.

"The trick is going fast enough not to stall," Rangnow says, "but slow enough so you don't tear up the banner."

Born to fly

If you think he sounds like a grizzled veteran, like he has pounded down whiskey shots in the company of Chuck Yeager, you have another think coming. Doug Rangnow is a baby-faced man of 28 who got his pilot's license last summer.

But if intentions and ambition count for anything, he's a top gun. Both of his parents are Air Force veterans. As an infant, he admired airplane mobiles from the cockpit of his crib. Later, he drew pictures of airplanes with Crayolas and glued together plastic models. He dreamed of being an Air Force pilot, maybe flying an A-10/OA Thunderbolt II at 400 knots over enemy tanks, his finger on the trigger of a 30mm GAU-8/A Gatling gun.

Air Force pilots are supposed to have 20/20 vision. His wasn't. He got a business degree from Pennsylvania's Eastern University College and later worked as a human resources officer in a business here, a clerk in a business there, all the while dreaming of flying. Last year he took flight lessons. Now here he is, part of an old Florida tradition, wearing a flight jacket and feeling like an old-time barnstorming pilot or maybe a young Lindbergh. Every time he takes a banner up, he earns $12.

"Well, it's a starting point," he says. "What I'm getting is the experience of flying."

So far his experience has been good.

He has yet to bloody his nose or dip a plane in the gulf.

A pilot is probably more likely to be nipped by a shark while swimming on his day off than to crash-land a plane in a school of hammerheads off John's Pass. But the truth is, flying a small plane while towing a banner is tricky.

Standing near the runway, Rangnow circles the little Piper Cub. He checks the fuel, he checks the oil, he checks connections. Wires tight. Wheels firm. Radio works. Then he stands in front of the prop and gives it a hearty turn. Yes, folks _ starting one of these babies is that basic. Bringing a 1946 airplane to life is not significantly different from yanking on the rope of a stubborn lawn mower. Both require elbow grease and patience.

The engine sputters to life. Like a young contortionist, Rangnow slithers into the cockpit. Through the portable radio, he chats with the tower, lines up on the runway. Thumbs up. Go! He releases the throttle and pulls up on the stick. No steering wheel on this plane.

Lickety-split, the old plane defeats gravity. The young pilot circles the airport, gets some height, then descends sharply.

He's focused on what looks like a track-and-field bar used for high jumping. In fact, what appears to be the bar is actually the end loop of the advertising banner. Swooping down like an osprey working a mullet school, Rangnow drops a hook, which snags the advertising banner loop. He pulls back on the stick, and the little plane rises like a rocket ship. Fortunately, he is not prone to motion sickness.

January is the slow time of year, and then things pick up in February, with a half-dozen flights a week. Business peaks during summer. In July, Advertising Air Force planes take off more than 100 times a week.

Things can go wrong. Over the years, the company's planes have ended up in the bay and in the gulf, on golf courses, in pastures and on the Eckerd College campus. In the 1980s, the company seemed almost snakebitten by bad luck. With the FAA snooping around, the city tried kicking Merrifield's operation out of the airport. But he survived _ as did all of his pilots _ even if his planes sometimes didn't.

"We've had some bumps and bruises, but nobody has been killed," Merrifield says. "You know, we fly so slow you can usually land pretty softly if you have to. It's not like you're in a jet."

Merrifield is only 53, but he seems of another era, the era of cigar-smoking businessmen who seemed to operate, literally and figuratively, from the seat of their pants. Growing up in Atlantic City, where his uncle rented beach chairs, he spent his teenage years putting together signs for an aerial sign business. After college, he sold used cars, but not enough of them. He took flight lessons, fell in love with the view and wondered if he could make money at it. He has found a way.

He runs a tight ship, as they say, getting his money's worth from two young pilots and a middle-aged woman who sews nylon letters into banners on an ancient sewing machine. Budget-minded, Merrifield hates waste so much that he usually doesn't use his gas-guzzling car to travel from the hangar to his airplanes. He rides his bike. Not one of those sleek models with a lot of gears, but one with fat tires and only one speed.

Slow.

Sort of like his planes.

Ignorance is bliss

Pulling back on the stick, Doug Rangnow coaxes the plane into a steep climb. Below is Tropicana Field. Then the YMCA. Cars stream west at 35 mph on First Avenue N toward the beach. Rangnow nudges the throttle forward. The little plane's speed jumps to about 50.

For a banner pilot, there are only two seasons, summer and winter. In the summer, a pilot wears shorts and a T-shirt. In winter, it's like an icebox in the windowless craft. He wears a heavy jacket to protect himself against the elements.

"At least the flying is usually smooth in the winter," he shouts. In the summer, pilots often contend with daily thunderstorms. Nearby turbulence can drop an airplane like a penny tossed into a well.

Below is the Intracoastal Waterway. Then the beach. Lonely fishermen cast from the jetty at Pass-a-Grille. Nobody's on the roof of the Hurricane Restaurant. No nude sunbathers on any sailboats. Behind the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa, tourists hunt for shells. Off Treasure Island, somebody flies in a parasail.

"It's beautiful up here," Rangnow shouts.

No stingrays cavort in the surf. In a few months, they'll be all over the place. Bathers will step around them _ and on them.

As the gulf warms, human bathers will have more company than just stingrays. From 500 feet up, Rangnow will see the other cast of denizens, manatees, dolphins and sea turtles. Rangnow also might be tempted to cue up the Jaws soundtrack on occasion. Sharks, he has discovered, aren't particularly bashful about approaching oblivious bathers.

"It makes you realize that sharks can't be that interested in actually eating people," Rangnow says. "Sometimes they get pretty close."

Ignorance is bliss.

"Even so, I'd like to yell down, "Hey! Watch it! Sharks! Get out of the water!' But I don't think anybody would hear me."

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727. His e-mail address is klinksptimes.com.

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