Banner flying operations with Sky Ads

Banner flying operations with Sky Ads by Phil Buckley. Photos Phil Buckley and Gary Briggs.

Earlier in 2018, DUAN visited MurwillumbaIMG_5729h, NSW based aviation business Sky Ads owned by Gary Biggs. This small niche business fulfills a very unique function for customers who seek towed aerial/visual advertising or special occasion banners to make an impact. Such a unique business is still very relevant in the modern age of digital/online advertising, magazines and newspapers.

DUAN spoke at length with Gary and also observed him planning for towing operations along with flying a demonstration flight to show what it takes to tow banners safely and effectively.



Gary became involved with aviation age 16 when he did a TIF on the 13th of January 1980 in a Cessna 152 VH-SPR. At that time the aero club at Murwillumbah had 2 C152’s the other being VH-TEB and were part of the Cessna Pilot Training System.IMG_5720\


Gary’s training in the 1980s consisted of a combined text book, audio visual and flying system. Gary says “One would study the big text book through the week, then arrive at the airport an hour before a lesson. I would then sit down in front of the special Cessna Display and watch the audio visual presentation then fly the aircraft to practice the ideas in the presentation – so it was integrated in that way.”

Gary advanced quickly over the next few months to solo status. Gary stated that training “Must have worked ok, because I took my first solo on the 6th of April 1980 with 9:45 hours of flight time! or maybe I just had some really good instructors”. He recalls that “Kelvin Clark pushed me hard but also gave a 16 year old the confidence required to fly”.


“I remember the day Kel told me to pull over on the side of the strip. I thought I had done something wrong and was about to get a bollocking. Then to my amazement, Kel undid his belt and jumped out. He shouted to me go do a circuit and park back at the bowser. “You can do it, you have done it heaps of times, just do the same as you just did” and with that, he walked away.”

Gary then taxied out to do his first solo flight and remembers that “So off I went and did just like Kel had said – the same as the time before. It was not until I was on the downwind leg that I had time to realise what I had done. I was sitting there in a Cessna 152 looking across at the town from 1000 feet in the air.”

“I remember thinking to myself “I got this up here, now I have to get it down” Looking across at the empty seat where the instructor usually sat, it dawned on me that no one else was there. And it really was up to me. Fortunately, the base turn came up before self-doubt could take hold. Things became busy, as they do from the base turn, and before I knew it I had landed.”


After soloing Gary kept building his time up with more training. The main challenge he faced was getting to the airport for his weekly lesson. At his age of 16 he could fly an aircraft, yet he could not hold a driving licence, so to get to the airport he had to take the local bus –  Garys says “The bus stopped at every little village to pick no one up. The 20 minute trip from Tweed Heads to Murwillumbah took an hour and a half, and then I have to walk 3 kms from the highway to the strip. There was only one bus on Sunday so I left home at 6am to be ready for my 12 o’clock lesson.”

Gary discussed his efforts to make the training happen, “I had a part-time job for 8 hours on a Saturday – it took 2, 8 hour shifts to pay for 1 hours flying – but with extra work during the school holidays I managed to do 1 hour per week until October when with 42 hours under my belt I managed to pass my restricted private license.”

As Gary was determined he aimed for unrestricted training straight away. Gary recollects “The longer flights were too much for the finances of a 17 year old but my parents chipped in by subsidising the longer flights 1 for 1 – If I had saved enough for an hour they paid for the second. I managed to lift the cross country restriction without too many delays by April 12, 1980”.


Gary’s last year at high school (year 12) in 1981 meant his flying took a bit of a back seat but Gary says “I did pick up a night rating and was doing my commercial subjects on weekends. I remember one time when my aviation commercial subjects clashed with the Higher School Certificate (HSC) Trial exams. I had completed the course for two subjects (Engines, Systems and Instrumentation and Aeroplane Performance and Operation)”.

Garys related his horror at finding out that “Examination date was the same week as the Trial HSC and the times clashed. I related my predicament to the teacher who was running the HSC and to my amazement and eternal gratitude Mr (Percy) Roberts took the times of my commercial exams and rescheduled the entire schools exam program so I have a free morning to do systems and a free afternoon when Performance was to be held.”

“So I did Engines, Systems and Instrumentation in the morning in front of the Department of Transport (DOT) as they were then and drove to school (I had a license by then) to do English in the afternoon. The processed reversed two days later sitting Maths in the morning and Aeroplane Performance and Operation in the afternoon.”

Looking back Gary would not recommend this approach to anyone as the afternoon exams suffered as a result. Gary states “I just missed out on a pass in English and bombed Aeroplane Performance and Operation. Never mind I passed Aeroplane Performance and Operation next time round in November and after all, flying is what matters.”


In 1982 Gary and his mate John partnered up to purchase IML Aerial Advertising off one of Gary’s old flight instructors who had been doing banner towing since 1979. Gary says “We renamed it in 1983 to SKY-ADS and began business working hard to keep up the lease payment on the Aircraft.


John moved to America some years later, to further his aviation career, so I purchased his half. Nowadays John now flies 757’s for United and I am still flying banners. He might have more hours but I have done more flying.”


Sky-Ads operates from MurwillumbaIMG_5768h airport near the Queensland border. The Murwillumbah Airport is a small field surrounded by crops – cane fields, the town and the nearby mountain ranges which provide a scenic backdrop to flying operations. Gary says “Unlike helicopter advertising, which is very speed limited, our aircraft covers all the Gold Coast beaches. Twice in a single two hour session, giving a repeat exposure to maximise our customer’s ads impact. All at a fraction of the operating expense of a helicopter, creating the best value aerial advertising available.”



Gary has amassed a few hours flying and his most memorable flight experience so far when he when he did a bit on charter flying many years ago, mainly in Cessna 310’s and Beechcraft Barons. Gary recollections are “I was doing work in Central West Queensland; I was heading for a two horse town called Muttaburra, about half an hour north of Longreach in a Baron. The stopwatch said thaIMG_5760t I should be there, I could not see anything but then I saw this huge runway, with a huge cross strip. I thought I had stumbled upon Australia’s Area 51.”

“I did a circuit and landed on the runway without a white cross. After taxing to the deserted parking, I shut the old Baron down. Got out looking around expecting to see aliens or something, I just could not work out why there was such a long strip in the middle of nowhere. After about a minute at the deserted place we had landed on this old 1940’s black telephone began to ring with the old fashion bells. I nearly jumped out of my skin with shock. I gingerly went over and answered “Hello Its Longreach Flight service here…. Would you like to cancel your SAR”.After gathering myself I answered “Yes Please” Apparently I was 2 minutes late – Flight service in those days was very helpful. After a bit more poking about we headed out the gate towards the few houses that made up the town – looking back, there was this faded old sign “Welcome to USAF Muttaburra”. Apparently, it was a satellite base to Longreach during the war.”

Gary also has some favourite aircraft over the years he has flown and told DUAN “Apart from my trusty Citabria which is great fun to fly locally, my favourite aircraft used to be a 310 particularly the R model with the 285 hp motors.

“Close second is a Baron again the C or E models with the IO540 motors. I just love these motors – they can be difficult at idle and startup – but when they are running on take-off power they just sing. They always feel so dependable in the climb and cruise. There is the added advantage of doing 3 miles a minute – made navigation easy in the days before GPS.”

“Shame to see so many of these wonderful machines not being able to fly because of the current costs of running such an aircraft (Fuel and Motors mainly) $60,000 for an engine overhaul and there are two of them $120,000 and you only get 12 years now – that’s an even $10,000 per year for motors even if you only do 1 hour per year – that’s a very expensive hour.”


Gary tells DUAN that he has always enjoyed helIMG_5740ping businesses get people to enjoy their local facilities and helping people on holidays on the Gold Coast find out what’s on. Gary fills a niche spectrum of their advertising channel with his banner towing operations.

Gary explained more about his customers, “Sky Ads has a range of customers varying from Romeo wishing to propose to Juliette through to dealing with companies helping reinforce their media campaigns by having a visual message in the air where many more people can see it. If it was on the ground only a select few people may see an advertiser’s message.”

Gary’s most memorable message flown is one where he recalled, “I got a late night call from the producer of the movie “Coolangatta Gold”. They had done the first marathon that day, but the movie needed a stadium full of extras to shoot scenes for the movie.He asked me to fly a banner which read “FREE CONCERT SURFERS BEACH 8AM“. So that was flown from 6am to 8am and the stand at the finish line of the race was full by 8am. The movie did some takes – the actors read their lines and there was a concert after.


Gary told us how a non aviation hobby plays a crucial role in banner flying operations. He has water-skied from a young age and has always enjoyed moIMG_5736ving on fluids. Gary said “I think the same sensations are at play when you fly, the moment when you feel that the aircraft is ready to fly. It rotates and climbs away floating on the air fluid moving passed. Such a lovely sensation especially when lightly loaded”.

“I enjoy the stick and rudder flying. When you fly a banner you are really flying. Everything must be kept in balance. The tiniest turbulence needs to be corrected, the torque of the motor needs to be balanced with rudder constantly. You cannot just sit there and “go to sleep” so to speak.”

Banner specifications include:

Message Height 1.6 meters
Character Width 1.0 meters per letter
Aircraft to Banner spacing 50 meters
Max message length 35 characters inc spaces

Gary also explained the billboards products “Which are also flown are 6 meters in height, that’s about as high as overhead power lines. Flying billboards can be made to suit customers artwork proportions. Standard billboard sizes measure 6 x 12 meters, 6 x 18 meters up to 6 x 24 meters”.

Gary detailed how banner preparations are done “To arrive on time to any event you need to allow extra lead time or assemble the message the day before. I assemble a typical banner in around about two hours of bending and assembly.”


6m banner pole

Gary states “The banners are prepared from a large range of small or large sized letters, numbers. I also have a range of prefabricated messages ready to go, thus saving me time. The banners are connected by connecting each letter or number together via 8 loop straps on each side of a banner. I will connect all the letters or numbers that are required per the customer’s message and ensure no twisted or turning sections are visible. A spreader bar is connected to the front of the banner and has 2 sections an upper and lower bar to stabilise the banner in flight.”

“I then lay out the banner on the ground at the end of the airfield. When ready for flying operations I will taxi up to the banner, park the aircraft and then quickly hook the cable on to the rear of the aircraft.


The towing banner connector has an emergency release system if I need to disconnect the banner in flight.”


Gary when ready, proceeds with a startup away from the main airfield hangars and taxis to the end of the runway to hook the banner up to the aircraft.


Gary then rechecks all systems are functioning as intended, makes a departure call and then applies the throttle and rolls down the runway and soon after he is airborne, with the banner in tow.


Here is a video showing how Sky-Ads gets a banner IMG_5815airborne –

Gary gave us insights to some of the aspects of banner towing once he is airborne. Gary spoke about how “It is different from other forms of flying – normally when you climb you maintain a constant airspeed and the altitude does what it does. When you reach assigned altitude you maintain a constant altitude and the airspeed does what it does. When banner towing you must maintain a constant airspeed and altitude at the same time!”



Gary spoke some of the environmental factors and how he as a pilot has to think ahead and have patience – and perhaps perseverance. Gary said “For example when the weather is poor in the morning it is easy to pack up and go home. But more often as not it will clear if you go home, better to be patient and see what happens. If it does not clear it has not cost you anything, but often it will and you can get the job done.”

Murwillumbah airport can sometimes b31870374_2232197800140426_9020969151820201984_oe totally covered in by fog as shown by this photo from Gary.

Gary at time of publication was focused on making positive changes to the aerial advertising sector. Gary elaborated on this by saying, “I am lobbying for deregulation of the Aerial Advertising Industry from the restrictive state laws related to Major Events and Sports Stadiums”.

“I have had some productive meeting with the Shadow Minister; we have a draft submission almost ready to put to the Departments. I am hopeful that they will address the unintended consequences restricting Aerial Advertising Operators.” Sky-ads suppled these views of some of the banners they have flown.


Below is a new banner Gary has begun flying in 2018, which is a larger size at 108 m2 or 6m high x 18m long.

When Gary has finished his planned banner towing flight, he returns to the airport and comes in at a lower altitude and proceeds to drop the banner in a safe area.


Gary then does another circuit, landing safely away from the banner and then taxis back to the hangar.



After shutting down his aircraft, Gary then does a post flight check to ensure all is fine and no problems have occurred from the flight. He will then proceed to collect the dropped banner off the airfield. Gary says “This work is sometimes demanding although banners are very light, the work involves lots of bending. Assembly & retrieval involves careful attention in lifting, folding and placing it into the tray of the trusty old Ute”. His Ute is an Australian Made Jeep J10 called “Daisy” which does great work around the airfield. “Only 600 were built you know” adds Gary, quite proud of his piece of Australian Motoring History!


Gary then returns to his operations buildings and unpacks the banner, separates the letter and numbers and stores them again for their next flight.

DUAN kindly thanks Gary Biggs for hosting us at Sky-Ads and showing how a niche market operation, banner towing, is conducted and for taking time to explain some of the aspects of banner flying. You can see more of his work at website – and facebook –