What is it like to tow a banner with an airplane?
Answer by Thomas Zerbarini:
Towing a banner is a challenge and a blast. It was a great way for me to build a lot of experience with low level operations and high drag low speed flight.
The best aircraft that I have experience with are the Piper Super Cub. It’s high lift low airspeed wing is excellent. With a 180hp engine, you can pull most any large panel banners.
I have most of my banner time in highly modified Cessna 150/152, C152 Texas Tail Tragger, and a 1960’s C182. I have a little time in the Super Cub and the Decathlon.
When I was banner towing my first year, the owner gave me the C182 as my bird. He did not trust anyone else to fly it except him and myself. (Even though I wanted to fly the much cooler tail draggers, It was an honor to be recognized as a skilled pilot and trusted with the most difficult aircraft to master). The C182 had double oil coolers, low stall “droop wings” installed and extended range fuel tanks 8:20 minutes flying time.
The C182 aircraft was in two accidents by previous pilots due to the heavy nose and forward pitching moment of the aircraft when towing a banner. To further complicate things, the aircraft was modified to pull the biggest and heaviest banners. When placing a heavy and high drag banner on the aircraft, the quick release mechanism becomes very difficult to release. To release the heaviest of banners required two hands to pull the cable. Letting go of the control wheel with the continuos forward pitching moment required a smooth touch to execute properly and safely.
Takeoff: the takeoff is straight forward and the same as any other takeoff. The difference is that we have a tow rope attached to the rear of the aircraft and capture “grapple-hook” at the other end of the rope. We secure the hook to the cockpit window for takeoff. Once airborne we toss the hook out the window and it dangles behind and below the aircraft.
Pickup: The pickup is my favorite maneuver. The pickup can be done immediately after takeoff, or a full traffic pattern flow to position the hook through the pickup trap. the objective is to “fly” the hook through the trap to catch the banner rope suspended between two poles. The pickup should be a smooth V shaped maneuver, not a violent high speed pitch change. We enter the trap at about 80–90 knots. With a successful pickup, we’ll lose about 15–25 knots due to the weight and drag. It is important to have proper speed to pick-up and climb out so as not to drag the banner across the ground or stall the aircraft once the weight and drag is placed on the aircraft.
The absolute most critical thing to do during the pickup, is to keep the ball centered in coordinated flight. When you are transitioning from an accelerating decent to a rapidly decelerating pitch up moment you will experience extreme left yaw tendencies requiring substantial right rudder input. (Torque factor, P factor and increasing thrust) Most pickup accidents are accelerated stalls due to inadequate aircraft coordination-keeping the ball centered.
Flight: Flight is very stable and smooth. With all that drag the aircraft flies very well. The only nusance is the requirement of continuous right rudder beyond most rudder trim systems. Many pilots bring a 2×4 to help with the continuos need for rudder input. Most of the time since we are so low, we are always looking for drop and landing areas in case of engine problems. We never want to hurt anyone on the ground and 300 – 1000 feet AGL is not much time to find a safe landing zone. (That’s 300′ over a beach only.)
Drops: Drops are usually uneventful and simple. Just factor the wind and don’t drop to low or too high. Weekend air traffic is the highest threat during these operations. As I said above, the C182 was a bear during drops because of the pitch forward and hard to pull release cable.
Landing: Landings are straight forward as well. We typically land just after the drop if there is enough runway, or we’ll execute a full patter for small airstrips or traffic conflicts.
Banner tow flying was one of the most fun experiences in flying I’ve ever had. It’s not for everyone and can be dangerous for those who don’t receive proper training. The cool summer flying, the camaraderie we banner dogs had and the great pay made it worth missing all those summer beach weekends.
Thanks for the question. I enjoyed sharing my experience with you.