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T-shirt, shorts, and a view of the beach. Now that's a flying job!

Scroll down for the audio interview!

Mike and I have been chatting about banner towing for a year or so, but I never thought I’d have my first conversation with an experienced banner tow pilot while flying an F406 in Unalakleet, Alaska!

After our realization last summer that we should be providing some guidance for the less grizzled pilots out there, I’ve been keeping an ear open when the younger crowd talks. So while hanging out with Jim and Ferno in the Era Alaska terminal in Unalakleet this past Fall, I paid attention when their fresh faced 207 driver started talking. When he started talking about having been a banner towing pilot, I knew there was something interesting to dig into.

On the next slow day I dragged him, kicking and screaming, over to the BSSD (Bering Straight School District) hanger. It took a few cups of coffee to get him talking and he wanted to remain anonymous, but I finally dug some good nuggets of information out him. In fact, I think it’s a great interview. One you’ll definitely want to listen to if you’re looking for a low time pilot job.

It appears that most banner towing jobs are seasonal, although there may be some year round opportunities in the southern states. Most banner towing outfits will and do hire low time pilots. He worked the summer months for Paramount Air, a banner towing operator in New Jersey. As you’ll hear, it was a really fun job.

Paramount Air in action

A Banner Tow Pilot's Office

The View (where's Snookie?)

It’s important to have a tailwheel endorsement and some tailwheel time. Like the glider towing jobs, the insurance companies mandate the amount of tailwheel time you will need. This pilot got hired via fax and phone, but he was bringing 700 hours or so to the table. If the ink is still drying on your license, you’ll almost certainly need to show up in person. It would be even better to start building a relationship while still working on your ratings. When you’re done with your commercial you can show up and start working.

The housing for these banner tow pilots was rustic, but free!

Not all banner towing operators are as big as the one this pilot worked for. Early in my flying career, when I flew skydivers near Seattle, I met a guy who towed banners on the weekends over the city. I didn’t think of it then, but in retrospect I bet I could have done some part time work for him if I’d just gone over and asked. I might have made a few bucks, built a little more time, watched the Seahawks lose from the air, and had some fun.

After we finished talking about banner towing jobs, we moved the discussion onto working for Era Alaska. We chatted about how he got hired by them, what it was like flying in the right seat of the Caravan, and the living conditions in the pilot quarters, among other things.

Hopefully you’ll find the information in this interview useful. We hope it will answer some of the questions we’ve been getting about good jobs to look for when you’re a low time pilot. We also hope it will answer some of the questions about getting on with Era, and what the flying and living is actually like in Western Alaska.

In this interview you’ll hear about banner towing jobs:

  • Why tail-dragger time is a ticket to better flying skills.
  • How he got his first banner towing job (and what luck had to do with it).
  • The importance of knowing (or getting to know) an operator you want to work for.
  • The value of internal recommendations in getting hired.
  • How you can target a job like banner towing and start working toward it, even before you have your Private.
  • How banner towing can be lucrative compared to other jobs for low-time pilots (especially during the busy season).
  • The rustic (but free) living conditions he experienced in rural New Jersey (only 15 minutes from the now-infamous Jersey Shore).
  • Why most banner towing operators don’t fly early in the morning.
  • Formation flying with banners!
  • What training to be a banner towing pilot involves.
  • “Hung banners” and other abnormal scenarios.
  • What the saying “It’s all about advertising” means to a banner towing pilot.
  • “Whoops …” (some unexpected proof that aerial advertising is effective)
  • Why banner towing planes need constant maintenance.
  • Why towing banners is a really fun flying job that doesn’t feel like work.
  • The answer to everyone’s biggest question: “Can you really see anything when you fly over a nude beach?”
  • How a boom system works (and what happens if you land with it down).
  • How a hook system works.
  • The best ways to get into banner towing, and what operators are looking for.

You’ll also hear about what’s it’s like to work for Hageland Aviation/Era Alaska:

  • How he got a job flying for Hageland Aviation (Era Alaska).
  • The benefits of Era’s co-pilot program (in spite of the very low pay).
  • Why having tailwheel experience can help you in Alaska (even if you’re flying a nosewheel airplane).
  • Why, “if you’ve got a good solid background in flying and a desire to be up here, it’s not at all beyond your reach.”
  • What your real job is as a co-pilot on the Caravan (hint: the flight will still go, even if you don’t show up).
  • The challenges of flying as a co-pilot in a single-pilot environment.
  • What captains are looking for in co-pilots, both in the cockpit and on the ground.
  • Why it’s important to be comfortable living in a communal housing situation (and why many older pilots have a tougher time with it).
  • What it’s like for female pilots to fly in Western Alaska (hint: if you have brothers you’ll be well prepared).
  • The best way to get hired if you’re a low time pilot.

Interview

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Right-click to download the MP3 file (1 hour 2 minutes – 57 MB)

Did you like this interview? Scroll down to leave your comments and questions!

Operators

Paramount Air Service

Era Alaska

We’ll be creating a Banner Towing Operator Directory soon!

Banner Towing Training Programs

Here are some companies that offer “banner towing training programs”  (although many pilots say they’re not worth it, since most operators will train you themselves to do the job):

Aerial Banners Inc.

Banner Tow U.S.A

Other Resources

Information for Banner Tow Operations (FAA PDF)

Videos

Some videos of banner towing operations:

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8 Responses to “Interview: From Banner Tow Pilot to a Job with Era Alaska”

  1. Josh says:

    I heard the first half, then had to get to A&P class. Now I’m ready to hear the rest. Great interview, sounds like you two had a lot of fun with it.

    Your fan,
    Josh

  2. Jim says:

    Aiden, I like your site and I particularly enjoyed this interview and the attached videos. I’m a Beaver pilot in SW Alaska, and Paramount Air was my first commercial job. I remember the first time Jim showed me the technique to pick up a banner I though he was insane. It was a great place to learn about flying low and slow, and the owners and the guys I worked with were all great folks.

    • Mike Singer says:

      Hi Jim,

      Glad you liked the interview and the videos. Seems like a great job for the right type of pilot who just wants to get up there, actually fly the airplane, and get paid to do it!

      Mike

  3. Gareth says:

    This is the kind of fantastic down to earth fun kind of flying that it’s almost impossible to imagine being able to do in the US when you achieved your JAR ATPL at age 40+ in the UK. I think I’m suffering a mid life crisis, I should have done this 20 years ago!

  4. Matthew Bethke says:

    Hey, I was wondering. Does the copilot live fulltime out in the bush, or is he/she on the same kind of two-week-on-two-week off schedule as the captain. Is there the chance to work another kind of job to make up for the low income for a year?

    Thanks!

  5. Paace says:

    Hey Matt. I worked for Era as a copilot for a short time in the caravan. We were on the same two week on and off schedule. I had a part time job at ohare for my two weeks off.

  6. Jimmy says:

    Mike,

    Great interview about Paramount!!! Worked there in the summer of ’07. Loved it and had a blast with the guys I worked with! Flying UAV’s in Afghanistan right now but looking to come to Alaska to look for a job next spring! Again a great interview!

    Jimmy

  7. John Kaufman says:

    Paramount is a great place to work for I worked for them 2011 and part time 2012, and the pilot being interviewed was a college friend that got me the job there. A great place for any low time pilot looking to build time to work and you will never have as much fun getting paid to fly. The challenges of this job will make you become a better pilot and you get to work with some of the best crews available.

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