What Happened to Skywriting?

How skywriting rose and fell, and why its instagrammability may lead to a resurgence.

<3 skywriting. (Reuters)

Skywriting is a rare art now. But less than a century ago, it was considered the future of advertising. The technique was relatively simple. Engine-heated paraffin oil mixed with exhaust to produce fluffy streams of white smoke that pilots loop-de-looped into letters on the sky’s canvas. (Pilots today are able to fly at a level altitude while skywriting.)

The result was unlike anything people had ever seen. In 1922, one pilot staged a "smoke casting" demonstration over Times Square, writing a giant phone number into the sky. (Operators at the hotel on the other end of the line said they received more than 47,000 calls in under three hours, according to a New York Times article that year.)

But as the practice became more common, people began the kind of handwringing that new technology so often prompts. Mainly, they began to wonder if maybe things were better before skywriting appeared. The New York Times called the practice “celestial vandalism,” describing a future in which the skies would be so smoke-choked that apartment dwellers on high floors would have to keep their windows closed. (One might argue that seeing Lucky Strike's letters in the sky was far less irritating than hearing them shouted repeatedly in television commercials, an approach that came in later decades.)

There was talk of cloud slicing machines that would allow for skywriting in any weather. Engineers worked to develop glowing letters for nighttime skywriting. Reporters predicted the skydrawing of elaborate illustrated ads, envisioning enormous shoes and automobiles splashed across the sky. Extraordinary palettes of colored smoke would brighten the sky in vivid reds and electric greens, they said.

Pilots dabbled in color but it never worked as well as simple white. And for all the hype, skywriting fell out of favor in a matter of decades. Americans may have been dazzled by what some called “smoke casting,” but it was no match for the broadcast technology that was being developed at the same time: Television. Clear TV reception was no guarantee in those days, but skywriting was completely dependent on fine weather. “We have to have blue skies,” said Suzanne Asbury-Oliver, an Oregon-based pilot who runs one of the last remaining full-time skywriting businesses in the country. “You couldn’t say, ‘I am definitely going to write at noon on Friday over Times Square,’ because it might be cloudy or it might be snowing. And even if you could, you couldn't really say how many people actually saw it.”

The allure of better reaching distinct audiences pushed advertisers to TV rather than to skywriting. Radio and print were already defaults. And there were other limitations to buying ad spots in the sky. In 1961, The New York Times described a skywriter who sloppily put out a message that didn't make sense, only to fly back up, strike a line through the thing, and begin again. There were few skywriters left by the early 1950s. But in the early 1970s, in a burst of nostalgia, Pepsi decided to start skywriting again with a single plane from its earlier fleet. That's how Asbury-Oliver got her start in 1980. The red, white, and blue biplane she flew for Pepsi is now on display at the Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center. “I flew that for 23 years for them, and it’s hanging up there just like I left it the last flight,” she told me. “It still has my cushions and my headset.”

Today, Asbury-Oliver flies her own supermodified De Havilland Chipmunk. She taught her husband how to skywrite, and business is steady. But Asbury-Oliver says she couldn’t recommend the work to anyone new to skywriting who might want to make a living at it. “We always have called it a lost art because it was dwindling when I started and it still is dwindling,” she said. “There's really just a handful of skywriters left.”

These days she's writes occasional marriage proposals into the sky and takes assignments from companies looking for unusual ways to advertise. “An ice cream company in Portland, Oregon, hired me with the intention of writing the longest message that had ever been written,” Asbury-Oliver said. “It was, ‘Cool Moon Ice Cream.’ I don’t think we’ve done anything longer than that since.”

The service is too expensive for most individuals, she says. Price varies but a typical job will cost anywhere between $5,000 and $15,000. And yet something curious is happening. More companies are again turning to skywriters, she said. Asbury-Oliver worked with car service Uber to produce on-demand skywritten love letters over San Diego on Valentine’s Day. (The whole thing was “kind of crazy,” she says, but Uber was “ecstatic” with how it turned out.)

“Within the last five years, with social media such as it is, the customer can see how much impact it’s making on the community,” she said. “It’s immediately posted on Facebook and Twitter and all over the place. That's helping us sell more skywriting these days.”

Mile-high letters stretched seven miles across the sky above Los Angeles, for example, could reach millions of eyeballs even before the message is amplified through social publishing, she says. Old-timey though it may seem, skywriting is integrated in the physical environment more seamlessly than even the sleekest of digital billboard screens. It offers the ephemerality of Snapchat with the promise of permanence and wider distribution across platforms like Instagram and Twitter.

Skywriting is expensive. There aren’t many people who can do it. And weather remains unpredictable. But could social media save the practice from oblivion? As the Times put it in its 1923 article about the future of the medium, “Stranger things have happened in the nuttiest of all possible worlds.”