South Carolina Plane Co. Quits Towing Banners after 3 Crashes

August 7, 2008

A South Carolina company whose airplanes have crashed three times in two months in a resort area has quit pulling advertising banners behind its planes, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

On July 16, a Sky Signs plane crashed near Surfside Beach after the pilot dropped its banner over a golf course. A few weeks earlier, another Sky Signs pilot was able to free himself when his plane crashed in the ocean just off North Myrtle Beach.

Two months before that, a Sky Signs pilot walked away unhurt when his plane crashed in a neighborhood.

Federal authorities are investigating all three crashes in the Myrtle Beach area. None of the pilots was seriously injured.

Sky Signs surrendered its certificate of authorization to tow banners to the FAA on Aug. 1, agency spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said. The Conway-based company gave up its certificate without any prompting from federal officials, she said. Sky Signs’ planes can still fly but can’t tow banners.

Company officials did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

Since 1995, six planes registered to Sky Signs have crashed in the Myrtle Beach area, resulting in two deaths, according to FAA records.

In May 2005, a commercial flight instructor and a Sky Signs pilot died when their plane crashed after stalling during a banner drop in Conway. The National Transportation Safety Board determined the instructor was improperly supervising the student, who failed to maintain airspeed after releasing the banner.

At the time, Sky Signs owner Lep Boyd said commercial pilots often come to the company during the summer months to get experience towing banners. Boyd said they fly for his company because they can log many flight hours quickly in one tourist season and that experience helps when pursuing other jobs.

Before pilots can fly for Sky Signs, they must complete training that involves flying over a target area and practicing picking up and releasing the banners, Boyd said.

All of the planes involved in the Sky Signs crashes are at least 40 years old, according to FAA records, though that’s not necessarily an issue in the crashes, one industry expert noted.

“It’s not like a car, where you do a little bit of maintenance, you check the oil, the air filter, the oil filter, and off you go, and then in four years you buy a new one,” said Chris Dancy, spokesman for the Maryland-based Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. “These aircraft are maintained to federal standards.”

Each banner plane must pass at least one inspection per year, Dancy said.

Sky Signs must reapply for permission to tow advertising banners if it wants to resume its business.

The FAA will send inspectors to observe the one banner towing company still operating in the Myrtle Beach area, Barnstormers Flite Signs Inc., which recently experienced a crash of its own.

On Aug. 1, a Barnstormers plane went down about 100 feet from the shore near North Myrtle Beach after the pilot experienced engine trouble. That pilot was not injured.

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