SkyTyping: It’s All Up in the Air

SkyTyping involves a team of six aircraft flying in formation releasing puffs of smoke in synchronicity.

Smoke is generated by paraffin oil injected into the aircraft exhaust. [Courtesy: SkyTypers Inc.]

"Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a message!"—and you can probably thank SkyTypers Inc., a bicoastal skywriting company for putting it there.

SkyTypers Inc. is a family owned company dating back to the 1930s. It began in New York, said Stephen Stinis, an accomplished pilot who has been the president and CEO of SkyTypers Inc. since 2004.

In a promotional video, the company proudly notes there are more astronauts who have landed on the moon or been to space than there are skywriters.

"My grandfather started the company,” Stinis said. “He began as a skywriter for Pepsi Cola. Grandad used a Travel Air and Curtiss Jennys back in the day. Post World War II he bought a lot of AT-6s and SNJs—we had 18 of them."

According to Stinis, the nature of the company took them all over the country, and it was a contract with Laura Scudder’s Potato Chips in California that changed everything.

"It was 1965 when dad and granddad came to California,” he said. “Dad saw the weather and said, 'We’re not going back to New York!'"

After some discussion, the decision was made to make the business bicoastal.

"We had six airplanes on the East Coast, six airplanes on the West Coast," Stinis said.

In the 1990s, the company started a joint venture in Japan that involved moving the West Coast fleet to Japan. The airplanes were crated and shipped to the country, but unfortunately the company there did not have the infrastructure to fly them. The runways weren't long enough, said Stinis. The aircraft sat, unflown for a time with the elements taking their toll, until eventually the Stinis family bought them back and set to restoring airplane No. 6.

These days, the AT-6 fleet lives on the East Coast. On the West Coast, they use a fleet of six Grumman Tiger 180 AA-5-Bs.

The smoke is generated by paraffin oil injected into the aircraft exhaust. It is different from the smoke used in air shows because the aircraft are higher and in cooler temperatures, resulting in a vapor fog that forms like a cloud and lingers for five to seven minutes. A typical message contains 20-25 characters.

According to a 1935 promotional film made by Chevrolet and found on the SkyTypers’ website, "Skywriting needs to be done into the wind so the letters won't spread too much and out of the sun so the people watching won't have the glare in their eyes."

Skywriting and SkyTyping are two different things, Stinis pointed out.

"Skywriting is done using one aircraft, and it's like handwriting on a piece of paper,” he said. “Skywriting is an illusion. It looks vertical, but actually we are maneuvering on a horizontal plane. We're up at 10,000 feet or more, which puts us above most airspace, so there are no restrictions from the FAA, (and) the airplane is traveling about 100 mph. Skywriting can be seen 15-20 miles away on a clear day because it is massive."

SkyTyping involves a team of six aircraft flying in formation releasing puffs of smoke in synchronicity.

"Think of it like a dot matrix printer," explained, adding that his father invented and patented the SkyTyping. "The aircraft all let out a puff of smoke at the same time, every four seconds. A typical 20-character message spans 5 miles in length."

Cost of Spelling It in the Sky

Per the company, SkyTyping has a minimum requirement per flight of 10 messages, and sometimes it will do add-ons of single messages at $2,500 per extra message.

The cost of the messages depends on location because the company has to factor in ferry costs based on distance and a per diem for pilots if they have to stay overnight.

"Costs start at $17,500 for 10 messages on the West Coast and start at $20,000 for 10 messages on the East Coast,” Stins said. “Skywriting is done with one airplane/one pilot and starts at $3,500 for one message, which is the same size of the skytyped message with each character 2.5 miles high."

According to Stinis, it takes about two and a half minutes to write a letter. It can be challenging, as everything is done with timed turns and coordination for wind drift.

[Courtesy: SkyTypers Inc.]

"Remember: Once you put the smoke down, it starts drifting," he said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic the aircraft often went up to put inspirational messages in the sky to thank first responders and the medical community for their actions during lockdown.

"It was something that I wanted to do," Stinis said of messages like "BE SAFE" that hung over both coasts. "I felt a duty to do that.”

The cost of putting up a personal message is $2,500, and it takes at least 10 messages per flight to get the team to launch.

The company handles a lot of personal and corporate messages, usually over large groups of people such as the Super Bowl, popular beaches, parades, and other special events.

"A blue-sky day gives you the best results,” Stinis said. “The message can be 3-5 miles away, but at 10,000 feet it looks like the message is right over the target although the pilots have made a 10-mile arc."

In addition to writing letters in the sky, the company also has the ability to produce simple pictures.

"We've done smiley faces, hearts, a peace symbol—we've even done the Playboy bunny in the sky for Hugh Hefner when he opened his mansion,” he said. “My dad did that one—the bunny had to be 5,000 feet tall.”

About the Pilots

The pilots who perform the skywriting and skytyping need to hold a commercial certificate with at least 750 hours total time. They also need to be experienced in formation flying. It is the latter qualification that is the hardest to come by, according to Stinis, unlike decades ago when most of their pilots were drawn from the military.

"Now most of our pilots are from civilian backgrounds who learned formation flying as a hobby,” he said. “We do training for safety and operations, and there are preflight briefings and debriefings."

The briefings are exceedingly important, said Stinis, since the nature of skywriting involves the aircraft flying wing tip to wing tip at the same altitude, "and that is not taught in any formation class.”

There are approximately 20 pilots on the roster now, with most having between 4,000 and 30,000 flight hours. They do it for the fun, not the money.

"There's something about flying formation with your buddies and getting paid for it," he said.

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Get the latest FLYING stories delivered directly to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter