NY Times News Article-With Aerial Banners, Taking Grievances to the Skies

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Ashley Chalmers, owner of Jersey Shore Aerial Advertising, with one of the aircraft he uses to tow aerial banners and a message he has flown, intended for Mayor Bill de Blasio. Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times

Banner-toting airplanes, though sometimes loud, are usually not heavy on commentary; they are better known as a flashy way to propose marriage or promote happy hour at a local bar.

And protests, more often than not, take to the streets rather than to the skies.

Recently, however, the two have converged. Starting in December and continuing through last week, five banners blaring criticism of the mayor and support for police officers have been towed over the Hudson River. That followed several banners sent airborne over New Jersey by New York Jets fans pleading with the team’s owner to fire John Idzik, the team’s general manager.

In an era of microtargeted digital ads that can reach millions of carefully chosen eyeballs, the idea of paying a gas-guzzling aircraft to tow a few words for a short window of time might seem antiquated. But those who have recently done it said it was a way to send a conspicuous message that drew widespread news coverage. It was also relatively inexpensive, especially when multiple people shared the cost, as was the case with both sets of banners.

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Jason Koeppel, of Hackensack, N.J., is part of a group that paid for a banner calling for the firing of the New York Jets’ general manager, John Idzik. Credit Yana Paskova for The New York Times

A group of retired police officers, calling themselves Retired N.Y.P.D. for a Safe New York, have claimed responsibility for the last three of the anti-de Blasio banners. Their leader, who identified himself only as Captain Dave, said he was an officer for 21 years. He requested anonymity for privacy reasons, he said, not because he feared retaliation from the mayor’s office.

He said that he and his partner, known as Lieutenant Zach, decided to buy an airplane banner after they saw the first two that went up, which said, “De Blasio, Our Backs Have Turned to You” and “De Blasio, Apologize to the NYPD!!”

Those two banners followed the killings of two police officers in Brooklyn on Dec. 20. Many officers, faulting the mayor for what they felt was his critical view of the police, turned their backs as they stood outside the funeral homes during the mayor’s eulogies for each officer. One banner was sponsored by a retired Westchester County corrections officer, Michael Sheehan. The sponsor of the other banner has not been publicly identified.

“We wanted to send a stronger message than they did,” Captain Dave said. So their banners have called for the mayor’s resignation. The most recent one said: “De Blasio Get Off the Pot. Resign. We ♥ NYPD.”

The mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment about the banners. A Jan. 15 poll, however, suggested that voters were largely on the mayor’s side in his rift with the police, with 67 percent disapproving of the back-turning incidents, and 52 percent saying that police discipline had broken down.

(As for the possible double entendre in the last banner, Captain Dave said that would be a misreading. They were not referring to any drug use by the mayor, he said. In any case, the mayor has said that he has not smoked marijuana since college.)

The police group paid for its banners through online fund-raising among its members. A single banner cost $1,000 for a 2 1/2-hour ride over the Hudson River.

All of the anti-mayor and anti-Idzik banners were flown by Jersey Shore Aerial Advertising, out of the Central Jersey Regional Airport in Hillsborough, N.J.

The owner, Ashley Chalmers, said most of his work came from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and he mostly flew over beaches on Long Island and in New Jersey.

Mr. Chalmers, who flies an American Champion Citabria (“Airbatic” backward), said he did not usually carry political messages, or wade into social or athletic controversies.

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A banner sponsored by Michael Sheehan, a retired Westchester County corrections officer. Credit Jersey Shore Aerial Advertising

“But sometimes I do get calls around Election Day, for banners that say, ‘Vote for this guy or that guy,’ ” he said.

Mr. Chalmers said he did not like to take sides. “I’m just the messenger,” he said.

Banners, typically made with five-foot-high letters, attach to planes with a deft bit of aviation and a few interconnected mechanisms. Planes typically do not take off with the banners attached, because the letters could be damaged or caught in a snare. Instead, the planes grab the signs midflight.

As the plane approaches the ground at around 80 miles an hour, the pilot passes above two five-foot-high poles that hold a rope the banner is attached to. A hook that is tethered to the plane snares the rope, and then the whole message trails the plane as it ascends back into the sky.

Flying a plane up the Hudson River poses some challenges, because the skies over Manhattan are restricted airspace. So are large stadiums during major sporting events like football games, because of a federal rule enacted after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Planes can, however, fly over team training facilities, or over pregame tailgating parties up to an hour before kickoff, which is what Mr. Chalmers did for the Idzik banners, which included the messages “Jets: Rebuilding Since 1969,” a reference to the Jets’ only Super Bowl victory; and the plain-spoken “Fire John Idzik.”

The banners were paid for by two different Idzik groups, which eventually pooled their resources. Jason Koeppel, of Hackensack, N.J., a founder of one of the groups, said that members of the other group flew a banner in the late 1980s to get Joe Walton, head coach of the Jets, fired.

Mr. Idzik and the team’s head coach, Rex Ryan, were fired on Dec. 29 after the Jets finished in last place in their division, so Mr. Koeppel said they did not have any more flights planned.

“I think we were successful,” he said.

As for Captain Dave, while he said he did not expect Mr. de Blasio to resign, he would like to see him apologize to the Police Department.

“I’m not sure what we’ll do next,” he said, “but the banners are an incredible way to attract media attention.”

Correction: January 22, 2015
An article on Monday about the recent use of aerial banners to broadcast criticism over the New York region referred incorrectly to the sponsorship of a message demanding that Mayor Bill de Blasio apologize to the New York police. He is Michael Sheehan, a retired Westchester County corrections officer; it is not the case that the sponsor’s identity remained undisclosed. Because of an editing error, a picture caption also misidentified that banner’s sponsor as Retired N.Y.P.D. for a Safe New York. And because of an editing error, a picture caption in some editions described incorrectly Ashley Chalmers, the owner of an aerial advertising business. The photograph, of Mr. Chalmers standing by his plane, showed him displaying a banner with a message for the mayor, not preparing to fly it.
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