Friday, July 04, 2014

Matt Applegate, Aerial Sign North: Wrangling Words in the Sky

The noisy yellow plane circled like a bird of prey and then dived on its target: an advertising banner folded neatly on a sandy field next to a modest runway in Lakewood, N.J., near the Jersey Shore. 

The pilot, Matt Applegate, swooped down at 90 miles per hour toward the banner’s towline, strung five feet off the ground, on Monday. 

A grappling hook dangled from the rear of his plane, and by shooting suddenly skyward, Mr. Applegate swung the hook deftly into the banner line, like a rodeo wrangler. 

Yanked sharply upward, the banner — an advertisement for the Headliner, a nightclub in Neptune, N.J. — fluttered to life as Mr. Applegate towed it toward Point Pleasant and then up the coastline for beachgoers to see. “You only have a split second to hook it,” said Mr. Applegate, 44, who owns Aerial Sign North, a banner-towing service based at Lakewood Airport. 

The airport has one runway, a windsock and a trailer that serves as the airport office. Mr. Applegate has 10 planes and 15 pilots, including 10 weekenders who travel from as far away as Chicago for the work, some of whom stay in an RV off the runway. 

On sunny summer weekends, Mr. Applegate and his pilots are picking up and dropping off signs all day long, ads for clients ranging from national companies to local bars, or personal messages like proposals and birthday greetings.

Some are flown locally, but others are towed the entire length of the Jersey Shore and Long Island, from Cape May to Montauk Point.

Mr. Applegate’s fleet consists of yellow Piper J-3 Cub single-seaters, vintage planes that he has modified for towing banners. He has elongated the wings for a slower flying speed and installed stronger engines to tow large, billboard-style signs.

He has also removed the engine covers and mufflers to make the engines louder. “The whole game,” he said, “is getting the people on the beach to look up.”

With all interior amenities removed, the plane is essentially a frame with a fabric skin. Even the ignition is discarded, so that pilots start the planes manually, with a strong pull on the propeller.

The door is removed, so pilots can easily check the hook line and easily escape if the plane has to land in the ocean.

These planes are flown at 300 to 500 feet, too low for parachutes to be effective, Mr. Applegate said. In case of engine failure, he tells his pilots to put the plane down in the water, never on the beach. “You might have some guy as pale as me laying in the sand who you can’t see,” he said.

New pilots learn things like avoiding kites, because the string can burn into and cut a banner line, said Mr. Applegate, who began as a ground worker at age 10 for his grandfather Frank Cummings, who started the business in 1964.

Young Matt earned his pilot’s license by age 16 and embarked on a barnstormer’s life: flying the Jersey Shore in the summer and resorts in South America in the winter.

While dating the woman who became his wife, Christine, Mr. Applegate finished a skywriting job over Manhattan and then left a heart-shaped design in the sky above her house.

“After that,” he said, “she was hooked.”

There have been rough times in the air, he said, including an engine failure while he was towing a banner for Contemporary Motor Cars over Monmouth Racetrack.

Mr. Applegate said he dumped the banner and landed on the first fairway of the Old Orchard Country Club, to the amazement of a foursome playing the hole.

“They were clapping for me — I told them to play through,” recalled Mr. Applegate, who replaced the engine the next day and flew the plane off the fairway.

It was a motorcycle accident in 1998 that nearly cost Mr. Applegate his flying career. His left leg was amputated and his left elbow — his “throttle arm” — was shattered. But after getting a prosthetic leg and having his elbow fixed, he was recertified and returned to the air.

After flying on Monday, he checked in on his sign-makers: his three daughters — Brooke, 16, Sydney, 13, and Piper, 8 — who aspire to tow banners.

They were breaking down last weekend’s signs and assembling new messages from the large, nylon letters strung on fiberglass rods.

“It’s ‘Happy hour’ one week, ‘Marry me!’ the next,” Mr. Applegate said of typical messages on signs.

He holds Sunday evening competitions among his fliers that include a $5-per-pilot pool to see who can drop the banner closest to a given mark on the ground.

And for every missed banner pickup during the summer, the pilot owes $1 toward the end-of-summer party. His pilots take the competitions seriously.

“Have you ever met a pilot without an ego?” Mr. Applegate asked.

Story and Photo:

1 comment:

  1. Ground crew is paid min. wage, and is provided no shelter while out in the blistering summer sun for up to 12 hours a day! The truck and trailer used are to bring the banners back and forth are junk!The truck has no brakes, so you have to use the parking brake to stop. He buys beer at the end of each day, instead of paying better wages. He is cheap! if there was no ground crew the signs would still be on the ground! Thanks ground crew for making me look good! look behind the scenes and give credit to the real people who make banner towing happen! if Ya don't treat them right, they leave! high turnover rate.