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"Pilots Who Ply the Skies Dragging Ads Share a Goal -- Racking Up Air Hours"



Monday, September 3, 2001

For Beach Fliers, A Banner Summer
Pilots Who Ply the Skies Dragging Ads Share a Goal -- Racking Up Air Hours
By Jo Becker
The Washington (DC) Post


BERLIN, Md., -- The pilot checked the cable hooks of a red Bellanca Scout
two-seater that looks like it has seen better days. He carefully placed a
picture of a less than fully clothed woman on the instrument panel -- "to
keep me awake up there." Then he jumped into the doorless plane, the engine
coughed and sputtered, and he took off down a swath of runway cut through a
soybean field.

Swinging the plane into a graceful arc, he circled back, descended to about
10 feet and, at 85 mph, roared just over the top of two white poles planted
eight feet apart. The grappling hook that dangled behind the plane snagged a
rope strung between the two poles, the pilot jerked the nose up into a
55-degree climb and the advertising banner that he had picked up unfurled
with a snap.

Marlin Hottle, the man behind the controls, is a Pennsylvania pizza parlor
owner who doesn't really need the $7 per tow he gets to make this
potentially dangerous maneuver. Like countless barnstormers before him,
Hottle does it for the love of flying.

"Most of my friends think I'm crazy -- I mean, look at this plane," said
Hottle, 49, grinning through a long beard sprinkled with doughnut crumbs.
"But this is like summer camp for me."

For the next six or seven hours, Hottle and his band of cohorts from Ocean
Aerial Ads flew up and down the beaches of Maryland and Delaware, hawking
everything from lobster specials to MCI long-distance service.

Below them, hundreds of thousands of beachgoers huddled under brightly
colored umbrellas or sprawled on the white sand, enough oil slathered on
their bodies to make a dermatologist shudder. They headed to Bill's Sport
Shop, known affectionately among the Rehoboth Beach locals as the "Worm and
Perm" for its odd inventory of bait, tackle and beauty supplies. They chewed
the final saltwater taffy for the year and tried to make the last gasp of
summer last before returning to the grind after the Labor Day weekend.

"This is the last hurrah," said Kathy Nave, a Montgomery County teacher, as
she boogied Saturday night on the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk to the sound of
an Elvis impersonator singing "America the Beautiful." "Now I've got to go
back to school."

But for the seven pilots of Ocean Aerial, while Labor Day means going back
to a saner schedule, it also means having to say goodbye to the camaraderie
of summer, during which they've earned nicknames like Buzz Whacker and
razzed one another for "bustin' poles" or otherwise messing up the tricky
banner pickup.

They are a ragtag bunch from wildly different backgrounds, but they have a
common goal. Most of them are in it to build up enough hours to land a job
flying commercially. If they weren't dragging banners, they would have to
pay as much as $200 an hour to get the kind of experience they did this
summer.

There's Tom Henry, a Rockville auto mechanic with a neatly trimmed mustache
who works on Saabs during the week but comes here on weekends to fly a Piper
Cub "tail dragger," so-named because the plane's third wheel is under the
tail rather than the nose. He's logged almost 350 hours during the past few
months -- his favorites were towing "Will You Marry Me" signs -- and soon
can start applying for a job piloting commuter planes.

There's Celeste Bouchard, a 38-year-old United Airlines flight attendant
from Delaware and the only woman on the crew. From her first day as a
stewardess 11 years ago, Bouchard knew she'd rather be in the cockpit than
demonstrating safety measures and serving drinks. Two years ago, she decided
it was time to learn to fly, and she has spent most free hours since in the
air. As she charged her plane's battery wearing shorts and Teva sandals, she
bore little resemblance to the neatly coiffed women who locate exit rows for
airline passengers. But those days are not yet behind her.

"Some days, it's like I want to get these hours, get out of the back of the
plane, and get up there and fly," she said.

The rest of the pilots at Ocean Aerial are just as much individuals, from a
drifter who moves around the country in pursuit of flying jobs to Penn State
University freshman Nathan Kramer, 18, who is studying aerospace engineering
and wants to follow his father into the airlines. Most room together in a
nearby house the company rents for them.

Heading the operation is Bob Bunting, who got his start crop-dusting and now
presides over a spread that includes a pretty white farmhouse, a donkey
named Eeyore, and a stable of single-wing aircraft and biplanes in various
stages of repair.

Bunting, 44, commands his pilots from a desk in a hangar crammed with
everything from extra spark plugs to a dusty pinball machine. His wry sense
of humor belies the pressure of watching his pilots pull a stunt all day
long that leaves little room for error, and he's looking forward to shutting
down most of the operation this week and spending the winter scratching his
dog's belly.

"She missed -- the woman," Bunting cracked with a show of faux chauvinism as
Bouchard swung down and failed on her first attempt to snag a banner reading
"Gotta wedgie -- Read Captain Underpants on sale now." On a more serious
note, he added: "You have to love flying to do this type. It's so low-level,
it's really on the edge."

The planes are also light, the banners heavy and the initial climb after the
pickup so slow that pilots almost stall before leveling out and heading for
the beach. But it's that challenge that keeps Kramer coming back.

"I wish I'd grown up in the era where pilots flew from town to town, landing
wherever," he said. "But this is as close to real barnstorming as I'm ever
going to get."

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