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Pilots Win O.C.'s Battle of the Banners

Huntington Beach backs down from its ordinance regulating advertising flights.

November 11, 2002|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

Bob Dobry may be the most watched airplane pilot in Southern California. For nearly two decades, he has flown above crowded beaches, parade routes and even the World Series, towing banners that hawk everything from fish tacos to the L.A. Kings.

But until the city of Huntington Beach tried to restrict his banner-towing business -- complaining it was noisy and a visual blight -- Dobry was a fairly anonymous businessman, an unseen pilot hauling messages seen by thousands up and down the coastline.

"Noisy? My airplane?" said Dobry, a bulldog of a man with brush-cut hair. "If we were at the Huntington Beach Pier we would only hear a hum as one of our planes went by, compared to motorcycles, trucks and the pounding surf, which are a lot noisier."

Dobry and others who live off aerial advertising found their business lives in jeopardy after a federal appeals court in January upheld Honolulu's right to ban banner-towing airplanes, opening the gate for other cities to ground banner businesses. Feeling it had the ammunition it needed, Huntington Beach passed its own ban last summer.

But before Huntington Beach could enact the ban, an anti-abortion group sued the city, contending the ban violated its 1st Amendment rights by depriving it of the right to have its messages dragged through the sky.

Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration made it clear that it -- not cities such as Huntington Beach -- has full authority over airspace. The FAA said it wanted to clarify ambiguous statements in its handbook that may "have been misinterpreted" to recognize the ability of state and local governments to regulate banner-towing.

"The FAA maintains that we have the authority to administer airspace control," said Jerry Snyder, an FAA spokesman in Los Angeles.

As a result, Huntington Beach plans to repeal its ban at a Nov. 18 meeting. And Dobry can fly again without fear.

"I'm disappointed," said Huntington Beach Councilwoman Connie Boardman, who pushed for the ban. "It just killed me to vote to put it on our agenda to repeal, but the legal reality is we don't have an enforceable item."

"Hey, the city got trumped by the FAA," said an upbeat Dobry. "Game over."

The FAA clarification deletes a requirement that operators of banner-towing planes "acquire knowledge of state and local ordinances that may prohibit or restrict banner-towing operations," Snyder said.

Honolulu has yet to react to the FAA's position that it has the authority to police the skies, said Lorrie Chee, a Honolulu spokeswoman.

For Dobry, it's been a tough 18 months. His company, Aerial Promotions Inc., based at Long Beach Airport was closed for nearly five months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks when the government cleared the air of civilian aircraft like his. And he was grounded again for four weeks on the one-year anniversary of the attacks.

"It's been tough on the pocketbook," Dobry said. The threatened ban hardly lifted his spirits, or his bottom line.

At 47, Dobry has spent a career inside a cockpit and has flown 4,000 hours towing banners. His dad, an aircraft assembler for McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach, first interested him in aviation with model airplanes as a young boy, and "I've been hooked ever since."

He has eight airplanes and 14 pilots. Ground crewman Sareth Toch also paints and sews the nylon banners that weigh 60 pounds and are 36 feet tall and 100 feet long.

With an estimated 25 banner airplanes operating in Southern California, Dobry's operation is one of the largest. He declined to provide rates, but banner advertising companies earn an average of $500 to $2,500 a day.

They fly small airplanes, usually two-seater Bellanca Scouts, known more for utility than beauty. When towing, the craft putter along at about 40 mph, typically 500 feet over the ocean or 1,000 feet over land, under FAA rules.

Other than taking off and then snagging the banner, it's pretty boring work because of the low speed, pilots admit. But aviators are always in search of ways to log flight time and get paid for it, said Joel S. Warner, one of Dobry's pilots, who lives in Huntington Beach.

"None of my neighbors have ever complained about the banners. But they do complain about those noisy police helicopters," Warner said. "I personally thought the city's ban was a folly because of the FAA's control over airspace. To me, this ordinance [was] not worthy of the council's time."

Warner said he loves to fly and enjoys the precision it takes to snag banners at the airport. During a recent flight, Warner circled the airport and unceremoniously tossed a grappling hook connected to a tow line from the cockpit window. Then he took the craft down to 15 feet while flying about 90 mph.

His target: two tall poles about 30 feet apart with a towline stretched across, resembling a goal post. The rolled-up banner was 350 feet away.

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