Banner-towing Plane Crashes Are Not Unusual in California

AUGUST 9, 2015

Planes towing advertising banners have crashed 25 times in California in the last two decades, and more than 62% resulted in injury or death. Accidents involving "banner towing" are tracked by the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board.

Aviation experts say banner towing isn't necessarily dangerous, but planes fly at low elevations usually above crowded areas and the drag from towing a banner can put strain on the single-engine planes. Aerial banners are typically used for commercial advertising.

On Sunday the pilot of a banner plane was killed during a crash at Compton/Woodley Airport. Enkone Goodlow, an artist who rents a hangar at the airport, said he and some spectators had watched the pilot repeatedly try to hook a Bud Light banner. The banner was tied to a mastpole on the ground and the pilot would fly by and try to snare it with a grappling hook dangling from the plane before pulling up.

"Usually, people get it the first time if not the second time, but it took [the pilot] seven times," Goodlow said. "We thought it was not normal. I wondered what was going on when after the seventh successful hook, all of a sudden, his plane nosed to the ground. We ran full blast toward it, thinking we could pull him out." But they were too late. With the plane engulfed in flames, Goodlow said, he jumped on an airport-based firetruck and headed to the crash scene.

In May 2012 a Cessna 150 towing a banner crash-landed in San Diego Bay because of a mechanical malfunction. No one was injured. According to reports from the NTSB, which conducted an investigation into the incident, "Both occupants reported that they did not have time to troubleshoot, due to low altitude."

Reports of incidents during flight show that banner-towing can distract other pilots. Following a 2003 incident near Pearland, Texas, a pilot told NTSB investigators that he had been distracted by banner-towing activity adjacent to the runway while he was attempting to land. The pilot landed at the edge of the grass runway and struck a ditch, causing substantial damage to the plane.

Some cities, including Huntington Beach and San Francisco, have tried to ban aerial ads in recent years for safety reasons or aesthetic purposes, but dropped the efforts in fear of lawsuits or pressure from the FAA, which regulates flight activity.

Ian Gregor, public affairs manager for the FAA Western-Pacific Region, said in an email that the agency requires all pilots or companies to meet certain standards before banner-towing flights can take place. An inspector will examine banner attaching devices or hitches to ensure that release cable mechanisms are functioning. All pilots must have successfully completed a banner-towing training program, have a reliable record of past flight experience, and be able to demonstrate a sample banner pickup to an FAA inspector, Gregor said.

Banner-towing planes usually first take off without the banner, then loop back around to the airport and align the plane between two poles, where the banner tow rope is suspended. If done correctly, a hook behind the plane latches onto the rope and pulls the banner into the air.

Source: Los Angeles Times