BERLIN, MD. -- Banner pilots -- those folks in the little airplanes that buzz the beach with the latest in airborne advertising trailing behind them -- are after one thing: more flying hours.
"It's not a glamorous job. They're just trying to build a career as a pilot," said Robert P. Bunting, owner of Ocean Aerial Advertising in Berlin.
Weather permitting, the pilots make $10 an hour to fly daily between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., Memorial Day through Labor Day.
"This kind of flying is hours and hours of boredom and then you panic," said Jon R. Martin, 25, of Crowley, La. "After a while, flying gets secondary. You really don't think about it. It can be dangerous because you get complacent."
"It can get scary," said Eddie C. Cammack, 21, of Leonardtown, Md.
But every job has its perks to balance out the boredom, and the pilots are full of stories about things and people they have seen while buzzing the beaches from the Ocean City inlet to Rehoboth Beach, Del.
"The naked lady population has diminished this year," Bunting said. "We used to have quite a few wave at us last year."
"I saw a guy surf fishing with nothing on," Cammack said.
"A group of young girls were doing a water ballet with no tops on and they waved at me," said Thomas F. Griner, owner of Sky Banner Advertising in Selbyville, Del.
Griner said that banners bearing marriage proposals usually draw waves from the beach-bound couples. But on one occasion, when he was contracted to do four fly-bys of a marriage proposal, the response was different.
"The girl turned around and hit the guy in the chest, and then they sat down on the beach and began a serious talk. I didn't know whether I should do the other fly-bys, but since he paid for them, I kept flying," Griner said.
Bunting said his company recently flew a banner that read, "God Bless Ollie North," and beach-goers stood up and cheered.
"We had contracts for about three Ollie North banners," he said.
The prices average $150 a half hour for one to three tows of a banner, which is usually the cost for personal banners.
Griner said a man asked him a few weeks ago to fly a banner along Ocean City's coast that read, "Cocaine . . . Leave My City!"
"He slapped $1,000 cash in my hand and said, 'Fly me as many as you can with that,' " Griner said.
Griner said he towed the banner once a day for 13 days at 35 minutes per tow.
He has also been asked to fly an antinuclear banner along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.
"You can get shot down over there. We turned him down," Griner said.
The pilots are clad only in shorts and sneakers for comfort during the long hours in the air. Earplugs are a must in the noisy planes.
John D. Mergner, 22, of Fargo, N.D., a student at the University of North Dakota, admitted he had not seen much excitement all summer.
But the plane he flies was well-equipped to stave off boredom.
Just behind the seat was a small cooler full of soft drinks, a sandwich and snacks. He also had a tape player and headset to listen to Bruce Springsteen cassettes.
Another pilot, David G. Hopper, 23, of Marianna, Ark., grabbed a plastic bottle of frozen water.
"This will melt in a minute once I get in the air," he said.
The pilots take their food and anything else they will need during the day because they don't land when they change banners. They refuel about every two hours, which takes only a few minutes, and they may not get out of the plane.
Since banner advertising is seasonal, it is not surprising the young pilots come from all walks of life, building flying hours to make the transition to full-time piloting jobs.
Martin was running a pet shop and wants to be a crop duster. Hopper was helping his father on a farm. Tim Austin, who came from near Portland, Ore., was growing Christmas trees before he landed the job with Bunting.
Griner said he likes to hire young pilots with low flying time "so I can train them in my own way."
"This is seat-of-the-pants flying they'll keep with them for the rest of their lives," Griner said.
Bunting said, "It's hard to find pilots who can fly this type of aircraft. We call it tail-dragging."
Bunting uses small, single-engine, 150-horsepower, fabric-covered planes called citaborias, or airobatics spelled backward.
Griner uses Cessna 150s with modified engines for 150 horsepower.
The planes fly 500 feet offshore. Bunting's planes fly 200 feet above the water, and Griner's fly 500 feet above. The planes fly from 47 to 55 miles per hour.
A pilot needs 1,200 hours of flying time to be able to carry 12 passengers on charter flights. Banner pilots can easily accumulate 500 hours during one beach season. The hours, however, are also rough on the planes.
"When you fly an airplane 500 hours in a season, you have to expect something to happen to it. Most people don't put those kinds of hours on a plane in three or four years," Martin said.
"I had a partial engine failure and it was pretty unnerving. But I made it back, banner and all," Cammack said.
Bunting's pilots sometimes release colored smoke "for special effects" while flying.
Martin said he released smoke while circling a hotel in Ocean City and later learned someone called authorities and reported a plane had crashed and burned in the ocean.
"It's not meant to scare anybody. It's just an air show," Martin said.
The banners, averaging 35 to 40 letters each, take about a half hour to assemble.
Bunting said he has more than 4,000 letters in stock. He has a barn full of banners and letters, and his mother Betty oversees that part of the operation.
The banners are assembled, then laid out on the airstrip, which at both businesses is in the middle of farm land.
The pilots circle the airstrip, then come in low and hook the banners on a device on the plane while still in flight. When it's time to change banners, they fly over, hit the release mechanism and the banner drops to the ground. The pilot flies around to pick up the next banner.
Griner said that sometimes it can take two or three passes to pick up a banner and he gives bonuses to his pilots who hook the banner on their first try.