The visiting medical student from Missouri gazed into the eastern sky, puzzled. The puffs in the sky were too white to be smoke and too uniform to be clouds.
"What is that?" asked Taufiek Alhadi.
Within about 2 1/2 seconds, a capital M had emerged over Ocean Boulevard. Then an I, then a double L. At 10,000 feet up, somebody was advertising beer in puffy but typewriter-perfect letters, each one as tall as the Empire State Building.
"I've never seen anything like that before," he said. "How do they do that?"
They do it by flying five World War II training planes side by side; the vapor pattern is controlled by an airborne computer, which tells the planes when to contribute their dashes to the dot-pattern message in the sky. The process, which is patented, was invented in 1949 by Andy Stinis, whose fleet of skywriters advertised Pepsi-Cola, and refined by his son, Greg, 45, president of Skytypers Inc. Their squadron of planes is based at Long Beach Municipal Airport.
How it works is a closely guarded secret. But refinements that Greg Stinis says are "just around the corner" will allow a client to update a message by telephone after the planes are in the air.
"I'll be able to fly over Dodger Stadium and announce the score of games in progress," said Stinis.
Nor will Stinis say what Skytypers use for "ink." Conversation about the puffy white stuff begins and ends with the fact that it is a "biodegradable vapor."
Whatever they are made of, the 1,260-feet-high letters are far more legible than conventional skywriting, and they can be typed faster and last longer. Stinis said that his firm and one associated with him in New York are the only ones that do "skytyping." He believes his secrets will one day make him a millionaire.
"I have something spectacular and unique," he said. "I can put a billboard over the beach that is visible 15 miles away."
Stinis, who lives in Cypress, does conventional, single-plane skywriting too. Hearts, happy faces and tick-tack-toe games that go up over Long Beach "for the fun of it" are his. He estimates that conventional skywriting is practiced by only three or four other pilots in the United States.
To the five Skytypers creating the beer ad over Long Beach, Alhadi was invisible and Ocean Boulevard looked like a dirty shoestring.
And to the Skytyper pilots, the 40 or so messages that puffed out of their planes during Grand Prix weekend all looked alike: giant dashes of vapor, they could have been the dotted line down the middle of some invisible street.
From the sky, the writing is illegible.
Fly 300 Feet Apart
The skywriting team flies identical SNJ-2 Navy training planes wing-tip to wing-tip, about 300 feet apart. Servicemen call it a "fingertip" formation.
During World War II, some of the Skytyper pilots used the formation defensively: It was difficult for the enemy to sneak around and attack. All except Stinis are former servicemen.
Today, the squadron flies five abreast to lay down long, even puffs of vapor.
Formation flying takes concentration, the pilots said. But not as much as it did in wartime.
"It's a piece of cake," said pilot Paul LaVars. "There's nobody shooting at you."
A retired engineer, LaVars has been with Skytypers for 14 years, but that isn't the only reason he is familiar with the company aircraft. Forty-four years ago, when LaVars was a Navy trainee preparing to go to war, he received his first instrument rating in a nearly identical plane.
Stinis' father bought the planes after World War II, for less than $1,000 each. Today they are museum pieces, the only five remaining of 59 manufactured. Originally, they carried two men. All but one have been converted into single-seat planes. The battleship-gray planes with blue, white and red striped wings are picturesque: Paramount Pictures rented them for the television miniseries "The Winds of War."
The same five planes, and Skytyper technology, were used to skywrite the "Welcome" sign and five interlocking rings over the Opening Ceremonies of the Summer Olympics.
Moment of Glory
"Two and a half billion people watching, and the President of the United States sitting underneath us," Stinis remembered. For the pilots, it was a moment packed with glory, and with tension.
Making the rings interlock was the tough part. A pilot flying one mile per hour too fast or turning two seconds too soon would have ruined it. They practiced the routine for 18 hours in the air.
As it was, 2,000 five-foot-diameter balloons, released as part of the ceremonies, arrived in Skytyper airspace just as the planes were about to lay down the three-quarter-mile wide circles.
The pilots moved to avoid the balloons, and the rings interlocked anyway.
Not every Skytyper stunt comes off with flying colors, though.
Once Stinis, who flies the lead plane and controls the computer, reversed the signatures on skywritten marriage proposals. The first one, to Diane from Norman, was supposed to go up in the San Fernando Valley; the second, to Kathy from Dennis, in Santa Monica.