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How Skywriting Works

        Science | Modern

Practical Beginnings of Skywriting

Skywriting dates back to World War I, when England's Royal Air Force (RAF) used it in military operations. Sources report multiple applications, including forming a cloak around ships and ground troops to block enemy reconnaissance, and writing messages to relay critical information to troops out of range of standard communications [sources: Popular Mechanics, Hartill].

After the war, a couple of RAF pilots resurrected the old military "smoke casting" machinery with the aim of putting it to good civilian use: advertising. In May 1922, Capt. Cyril Turner maneuvered a specially equipped scout plane to form the words "Daily Mail," the name of a British newspaper, over Epsom Downs during the Derby [source: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum]. And the skywritten ad was born.

Later that year, Turner went to America to demonstrate the new ad format, writing "HELLO USA" over New York City [source: Hartill]. People were intrigued. The following day, he wrote "CALL VANDERBILT 7200," the phone number of the hotel he was staying at. Over the next two-and-half hours, the hotel's operators fielded 47,000 calls [source: New York Times]. Proof-of-concept accomplished.

By the 1930s, skywriting was the biggest thing in advertising. Companies like Chrysler, Ford, Lucky Strike and Sunoco all got in the game. But it was the Pepsi-Cola Company, then a fledgling drink maker, that really ran with it [source: Kelly]. Skywriting was expensive, but not as expensive as radio advertising, and Pepsi maximized its ad bucks by heading to the skies [source: Olivers Flying Circus].

A smoke-written "Drink Pepsi-Cola" premiered over New York City on May 1, 1931 [source: Olivers Flying Circus]. From then until the early '50s, Pepsi ran thousands of skywritten ads, hitting almost every U.S. state, along with Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico and Canada [sources: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, LaFrance].

But the rise of television in the 1950s put a damper on skywriting's ad appeal. TV allowed companies to put their ads inside customers' homes, as well as match ads to target audiences [source: Hartill]. Plus, TV ads could air on rainy days [source: LaFrance].

Since the early '50s, skywriting has mostly been a novelty – a fun throwback to "simpler times." Very few pilots can do it. According to Cristina Domi of TheSkyWriters.com, there are only four professional skywriters in the world. It could be lack of interest; it's tough to make a living at it [source: LaFrance]. Or it could be that skywriting, it turns out, is really, really hard.