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Published Sep. 21, 2009

You've heard the drone. You've seen their fluttering letters over the beach, over Tropicana Field, over Tampa's Gasparilla festival. It's Advertising Air Force, the region's best-known advertising banner business.

The company has been a fixture in a hangar at St. Petersburg's Albert Whitted Airport for decades but got new owners last fall after founder Tom Merrifield died of liver cancer.

The company has retired its 1940s Piper Cub and relies on a 1960s, 1,200-pound, canvas-winged crop duster.

Nylon letters and numbers up to 7 feet tall cover the walls in the company's hanger. Hitched together, they spell out words and phone numbers of the restaurants, bars and other businesses that hire the company.

In most cases, pilots take off without the banners. Using a three-pronged grappling hook, the airplane swoops down in a field beside Tampa Bay and snags a rope connected to a banner that's been laid out on the grass. The tow rope itself is 260 feet long. Maximum banner length is about 250 feet.

The Times recently talked with president Kevin Wilson, 36, and chief pilot Tom Gibson, 47.

What's the strangest thing you've towed?

Gibson: We flew quite a few banners on both sides of the Terry Schiavo (end of life) issue. I've also towed my share of disgruntled-wife banners. Once I had to take a banner over the Belleview Biltmore Country Club in Clearwater every day. It said, "Martin, quit farting around." The woman's husband was playing golf there.

Wilson: I had a guy who ended up cheating on his wife, and he put up a banner saying he wanted her back.

Gibson: There's really no regulations about what a banner can say. It's self-policed. But it works. You tow a banner on the beach, people naturally look up. It makes an impression.

How is flying a banner different from regular flying?

Gibson: When you tow a banner there's a lot of drag. If you're too fast you tear up the banner. You fly at speeds right above a stall.

Wilson: A stall refers to air flow over the wings. We're not talking about the engine stalling out. It's a different thing entirely.

Gibson: I'm going anywhere from 40 to 50 miles per hour. Once the wind's blowing at 25 knots, we start to question whether we should do it. Generally speaking, it's rough on the banner. It's not an airplane issue.

How do you get into the banner towing business?

Gibson: It's all about flight hours. A lot of guys are building up time. They want to be an airline pilot, and you need a minimum amount of time in the cockpit. I just love to fly, myself. I live close to the airport. It's an excellent hobby that you can get paid to do.

Wilson:I was a helicopter crew chief in the Marine Corps. I needed some fixed-wing time. That's how I got hooked up in banners. My other job these days is flying corporate jets.

You've flown these things thousands of hours. What sort of odd things have you seen on the ground or surface below?

Wilson: Over the beaches you see sharks and big stingrays 200 yards from swimmers - or sometimes just 5 feet away.

Gibson: I've seen my share of boats washed up on the beach, but they're usually close enough that they can walk ashore. I also tow for the nude resort in Pasco County. But you've got to fly at 1,000 feet. At that height, you're like an ant even if you have no clothes on.

What's your biggest competition for advertising dollars?

Wilson: I guess TV and billboards would be your biggest competition.

Gibson:But it's hard to compare.

Wilson: Yeah, it's hard, but if you spend $10,000 on a billboard on Dale Mabry Highway, only people driving by see it. We have the ability to reach out and touch people.

Gibson: It's still just off center enough that people look up and say, "Wow, a banner plane." Sometimes you go up and down 32 miles of beach. Sometimes you concentrate on one strip like Clearwater Beach.

How dangerous a job is it?

Wilson: Florida's weather is predictably unpredictable. And maintenance is bare bones on these planes. It's a frame, motor and a couple of wheels.

Gibson: You'll occasionally see banner planes land in the surf or on a road. But 99 percent of the time, they've run out of fuel.

What does the service cost?

Wilson: We start at $350 an hour. The more you fly, the cheaper it gets. Some people charge per letter. We're just one price, even when we fly our big 7-foot letters. The busiest time for us is February to Labor Day.

Gibson: But sometimes when election time comes around, we'll get wildly busy, too.

Who are your biggest customers?

Gibson: We do restaurants, night clubs, Geico insurance, beach bars, personal messages.

Wilson: Once we were about to close and a guy called from the Vinoy hotel. He said, "I want to get married. Can you do it?"

Gibson: He wanted to propose in an hour and half and needed a banner to say so. It wasn't much time. But we did it.