First Family of Flight
Last fall, on the busy San Clemente Pier in Southern California, there’s no indication that summer is over. The sky is clear except for a small plane pulling a banner ad that’s attempting to trigger a stampede of people to buy deodorant, soft drinks and maxi pads.
Twelve thousand feet in the air, Greg and Stephen Stinis, the father-and-son aviators who own and operate Skytypers, the nation’s only aerial messaging company of its kind, look down on what passes — if you’re being generous — for the competition. From this height, the banner above the Miramar Air Show looks like little more than a fat gnat. “It’s so small,” says Greg. “And it’s a static sign. It never changes. Nothing exciting about it. I used to do stuff like that, but I graduated.”
Far above the competition, the Stinis men fly lead in a fleet of five royal blue Grumman American Tiger AA-5Bs. Greg, 76, keeps a steady hand on the controls. Stephen, 42, navigates and controls his patented Sky BillboardTM computer system, which sends signals to the other planes to emit puffs of biodegradable smoke, creating dot-matrix-style messages that are visible up to 15 miles away. He also communicates via radio with the four other pilots, calling out turns and formation changes, from a tight V for travel to a straight line when messaging. At times, the planes get as close as 18 inches from each other, making synchronicity incredibly important.
“The key to formation flying is discipline,” says Stephen, who often hires pilots with military experience. Constantly looking out the side of the bubble-glass canopy at your wingman is essential. When messaging, the fleet must arc its skytyping for terrestrial onlookers, which requires skill, as the planes all fly at different speeds, based on their position, to keep straight.
“It’s a constant dance of foot movements, hand movements, throttle movements,” says Skytypers pilot Torrey Ward. “In the course of a sneeze you look back and see you’ve moved several feet.”
Today the air is calm, but everyone has to be ready when things gets “gnarly” and the planes jump around. That’s after ensuring that they’ve all been properly rested, fed and hydrated. Because while oxygen pressurization isn’t needed at this altitude, failure to care for your body can lead to hypoxia.
For the Stinis men, the thrill of formation flying is a high that they chase. Greg is “pretty much retired” these days and no longer has to pilot planes — he chooses to, flying in from Las Vegas to join his son on “missions” or “activations.” Beyond the adrenaline rush, there lies a story of a family that has endured by embracing innovation as they buck convention. There are any number of other careers that could’ve changed the course of the family business as the advertising industry evolved, but it turned out that flying planes as a family is just too much damn fun.
In 1932, Pepsi-Cola, then a little-known beverage company, hired decorated Navy pilot Andy Stinis to build brand awareness via aerial advertising of its name. In 1946, Stinis developed “skytyping,” an advanced method of skywriting that used multiple aircraft to render more complex messages. He started with nine aircraft before managing to trim the operation down to five, the minimum needed to produce capital letters. He secured the patent for computer-controlled skytyping between multiple aircraft in 1964, with his eye on developing a legacy his son Greg could continue.
“My dad was taking me up in the air when I was still in my mother’s womb,” says Greg, who took a fleet to the West Coast in 1965 and stayed, eventually taking over the company in 1979. “When I was 2 or 3 years old, he would babysit me by putting me in the airplane with him.” When Stephen was born, Greg carried on the tradition, taking him along on jobs every weekend to share his joy with the next generation.”
“I grew up in the back of a plane,” says Stephen. “Eventually he put me to work: ‘Here’s a rag, start polishing,’ kind of like Karate Kid—wax on, wax off. It’s funny because I started a detailing company when I was 14. I thought, hey, doing a car has got to be easy compared to doing an airplane.” That same year, as enamored with flight as his father and grandfather before him, Stephen began taking pilot lessons. At 17, he got his pilot’s license, a move that upped his game overnight.
“It was cool to pick up girls and say, ‘Let’s go fly,’ ” Stephen explains. “They’re like, ‘What? You fly? You don’t even have a driver’s license. You don’t even have
a car!’ ”
While flying gave Stephen an edge in the dating scene, it imbued his dad with an undeniable coolness. Around Los Angeles, people knew he was the one behind those messages in the sky. At a time when Greg could make handshake deals directly with CEOs of companies,
he worked with Anheuser–Busch, Miller Brewing Company, Coors, Universal Pictures, Coppertone and even Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, convincing the shot callers to do business simply by making “something spectacular in the sky that they would enjoy looking at.”
Production companies used Skytypers’ planes in movies and to advertise features like Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Jaws 3-D (1983). Greg secured his Screen Actors Guild membership and in one memorable incident clashed with Steven Spielberg on the set of the period comedy 1941 (in 1979), because he refused to endanger lives by running through a crowd at full throttle in his plane.
“It put my dad on the top of the totem pole growing up,” says Stephen. “He doesn’t want to brag too much, but he was the man.”
Despite mingling with celebrities, Greg’s highlight is creating the Olympic rings over the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the 1984 Olympics. “Our interlocking rings were shown to 2.5 billion people,” he says. “That was quite a feat to get it just right. If I was just two seconds off on making that turn, the circle would either be 400 feet too big or too small. They had to be right on the money. The difficult part was they released 5,000, five-foot metallic balloons right at that moment and they were right in our way. But you couldn’t flinch. You just had to do it. Otherwise the circles would be all messed up.”
Stephen worked for his father in his teens and continued to help out while in college, but his mother urged him to “go get a real job” and forge his own path, so instead of following immediately in his father’s footsteps he began a career in corporate finance. He ultimately worked his way up to vice president and chief information officer at Thornton Capital Advisors but felt limited. “I hit a ceiling and I was sick of making other people rich,” he says. “But I was always passionate about flying and skytyping and I wanted to make it better.”
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Skytypers’s messaging utilized an antiquated computer system that read preprogrammed, hole-punched ticker tape. The company also had no web presence. Stephen — who had grown up using PCs in the late ’80s and early ’90s — had spent his free time during college developing a new Wi-Fi-enabled computer skytyping system with his cousin. He saw an opportunity to improve the business, preserve a family legacy and follow his passion. In 2004, at age 30, he patented his computer system, brought his own money to Skytypers to add a new fleet of airplanes and came on board officially as president of the company.
“I realized if I don’t do anything, then there’s nothing to go forward with,” he says. “It’ll just die away.” His innovations breathed new life into Skytypers. At a time when people increasingly wanted instant gratification, his system allowed for spontaneous messaging, be they love notes, congratulations to the winner of a sporting event, scores or news.
In its essence, skywriting remains a novelty and an archaic form of advertising, but with Stephen’s advancements it actually complements the social media age well. “We can trigger hashtags in the sky to get people outdoors to interact on the internet,” he says. For the release of Katy Perry’s 2016 single “Rise,” Skytypers repeatedly wrote #RISE in the sky above Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Las Vegas, creating a buzz online.
“As we’re doing this, people are freaking out. What’s this mean? What is this about? You go on Twitter and it’s going viral. We can get things going [on social media]. That’s what the future holds with skytyping.”
“Your typical television commercial is what? Fifteen seconds long? And they’ve got to say so much in 15 seconds,” says Stephen. “Our typical messages lasts from five to seven minutes, but every three minutes we’re creating a new message. A captive audience sitting at the Rose Bowl is gonna see [everything] that you have to say, which is huge.”
“And we’re cheap,” adds Greg. “A lot of TV and radio [costs] $15 to $20 per thousand people — we’re $1 or less.”
“And it’s always gonna be awe-inspiring,” says Stephen.
With no children of his own, he worries about continuing the family legacy. Still, he’s not so focused on tomorrow that he fails to appreciate this wonderful moment, sharing the joy of flight with his father, who plans to fly as long as he can.
“It’s surreal. It’s one of those things that I’ll always look back on as it goes forward and he’s not around anymore,” says Stephen, choking up. “These are the best times, with my father and me and growing the company together.”
After advertising over the air show, Stephen and Greg will swing the Skytypers fleet around and head back north up the coast to Chino Airport. After landing, everyone will reconvene at Flo’s Airport Cafe for lunch while scouring social media for photos of their work.
But before that, there’s a small matter of self-preservation to tend to. Love of family and flight is powerful, but that alone won’t keep Skytypers airborne. As the fleet passes by the San Clemente Pier, Stephen straightens everyone out once again and the planes begin puffing. The human specks below behold and snap pictures: #SKYTYPERS.
In time, the smoke will dissipate, but it’s already done its job, making the rounds online.
The word is out.