Boomer Aviation tows the advertising line

Sandy Williams’ Boomer Aviation is the largest operation of its kind between Jacksonville and California, according to Williams. The three-generation aerial banner towing business is now in its 31st year of operation. Credits go to inspiration, business sense and perseverance — but also some luck and the attrition of the only competition.

Sky Writers Boomer Aviation has three decades of shooting for the clouds By Scott Jackson Originally published in the Feb/Mar 2011 issue of 850 Business Magazine

As time marches forward, the vestiges of a simpler time often fade away quietly. But with multi-story developments changing the skyline along Northwest Florida’s Gulf coast, it is heartwarming to glimpse an enduring, quaint remnant of our coastal culture — banner-tow aircraft.

Floating nimbly through the skies, often battered by wind and rain, these planes have turned millions of eyes skyward for nothing more than a pithy statement — in stark contrast to the fusillade of high-powered, techno-blitzing advertising that those same eyes are subjected to in all other aspects of their lives. Banner towing is probably the only type of advertising that can reach those sun-soaked visitors who, for a brief moment of time, can enjoy a respite from the omnipresent, sophisticated messages.

But as beautiful and simple as it may appear, the business of towing banners is one requiring exacting flying skills and attention to detail.

Sandy Williams’ Boomer Aviation is the largest operation of its kind between Jacksonville and California, according to Williams. The three-generation business is now in its 31st year of operation. Credits go to inspiration, business sense and perseverance — but also some luck and the attrition of the only competition.

The company operates a fleet of 14 aircraft with 10 pilots during the tourist season. Operations begin at a 22-acre grass strip south of U.S. Highway 98 in Navarre, where the Williams family sets up the banners via a 250-foot towline with a 20- to 30-foot loop suspended between two poles. In a manner similar to an aircraft-carrier landing by a Navy jet, the pilot flies through the poles and snags the towline while simultaneously accelerating and climbing — a feat requiring the utmost in concentration and skill. Sadly, the only accident the company has had was during this maneuver; in 1983, an experienced pilot was killed when his airplane stalled and crashed.

Williams recently set up another operations site at the new Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport north of Panama City.

Hitchhiking to Inspiration — The Beginning

Williams, 68, decided to go into the aerial advertising business when he saw his first banner tow aircraft after hitchhiking to Daytona Beach for spring break. He opened in 1979. But it wasn’t an easy start — and it admittedly took a string of miracles to get the business off the ground after he and his wife relocated to the Emerald Coast, leaving behind a 17-year career in the insurance business.

He began his quest with 4,000 hours of flying experience and a sales pitch to three nightclub owners in Fort Walton Beach, netting $1,000 from each of them.

The only problem: He didn’t have an airplane or a banner. And the clock was ticking. He had promised to get the banners airborne in one week.

Williams’ luck turned skyward when he was able to buy a Cessna 172 for $1,000 down, with the balance to be paid over the tourist season. He frantically obtained the lettering and devices to tow behind the aircraft, and things seemed to be moving along briskly until Williams realized that he had to have a certification from the Federal Aviation Administration office in Birmingham, Ala., before flying. But the FAA was not making another trip to the area until July. So, with his 11-year-old son Mike in tow, Williams flew to a compromise location at the Shelby County airport in Alabama, where the FAA gave him approval. That allowed him to get airborne just in time to fulfill his obligation — a responsibility that he has faithfully met ever since.

“In 31 years, we have never missed a flight due to maintenance,” said Williams, a tribute to his company’s customer focus, perseverance and attention to detail. Those characteristics have sustained the company through hurricanes, oil spills, volatile shifts in fuel prices and a troubling economy. Williams also is actively involved with tourist development councils and tourism promotional organizations.

The grounding of flying activities after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks posed a serious financial setback for Boomer Aviation because the company’s off-season business relies on flying during football games at Auburn, Alabama and Florida State universities. Williams agreed with the initial decision to ground all aviation but was dumbfounded as to the logic that kept banner-tow aircraft grounded when seemingly more likely aircraft could pose a threat.

“A student pilot with practically no experience could fly up and down the beach,” Williams said. “I had 30,000 hours (of experience) and wasn’t allowed to fly.”

The 31 years have not been without its close calls for Williams. In 1992, his aircraft’s engine quit and he had to make an emergency landing in Fort Walton Beach’s Beal Cemetery.

Building and Banking Experience

Boomer Aviation mandates that each pilot have at least 500 hours of flying experience, a commercial rating and a certification from the FAA for banner towing, as well as his own check flight before being approved for the job. Williams has strict standards for flying and can easily spot an infraction from his car or anywhere he happens to see one of his planes in the air. According to FAA regulations, the aircraft must fly no lower than 500 feet over water and 1,000 feet over land.

But this strict adherence to high standards has benefited pilots who have moved on to other flying careers. According to Williams, 125 pilots have worked for Boomer during the company’s existence. Sixty of them have moved on to flying corporate aircraft, and 20 eventually flew for the major airlines.

With more than 38,000 flying hours himself, Williams is now flying fewer than 500 hours a year. And he has delegated more responsibility to his chief pilot, Jim Jones, who has more than 12,000 flying hours. (He joined Boomer when he had only 200.)

Bill McKinnon, a retired Navy captain and F-14 pilot, has already experienced a full flying career and is simply enjoying keeping his hands on the stick. Regarding retired military pilots who have flown for Boomer Aviation, Williams noted that many of them ask him, “You mean you are going to pay me to do this? But I don’t need to be paid.”

Indeed, the sights to behold from above and along the shimmering, emerald green coastline at speeds of less than 60 miles per hour are something that few can witness. At this relatively slow flying speed, Williams notes, “We joke about bicycles passing us.” Fish spotting is easy, and the pilots often note the “shark convention” at the jetties in Destin during June and July. And if they observe anybody in distress, such as a capsized boat, the pilots can readily pass along such information to air traffic controllers, who then alert the Coast Guard.

Most of the banners towed advertise local recreation, dining or nightlife establishments, but Boomer Aviation sometimes gets a more personal request, such as a wedding proposal. The son of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones did just that with a banner flown past the Jones beach house in Four Mile Village. In one instance, Williams said actress Kim Basinger hired Boomer to tow a banner in New Orleans as a surprise birthday gift for her then-husband, Alec Baldwin. Williams’ company even towed a billboard replicating a helicopter that was used for target practice by a defense contractor in New Mexico.

Banner towing is a highly adaptable form of advertising, according to Williams. Customers can reach their target market and change their messages to reflect current specials and events. Some customers fly up to eight banners a day. Boomer has simplified the customer interface with its website at; a banner can even be ordered online there.

Williams’ wife, Bernice, and his sons — Mike, Mark and Matt — have all been actively involved in the business. Mike worked the business while getting through medical school and is now the chief of the emergency room at Fort Walton Beach Medical Center. Mark is running daily operations, while the youngest, Matt, is working sales. Mark’s 14-year-old son Noah, who builds the banners on the ground, brings the third generation to the business.

Together, this family has been a visible, timeless presence in the skies over Northwest Florida’s Gulf coast for more than three decades, enduring progress, disaster and the changing face of the coastline. Anytime you want to recapture a piece of our coastal culture, you only need to look skyward over the Gulf.