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Letters in the Sky

GhostWriter shares messages over the EAA grounds

By Megan Esau, EAA Assistant Editor

July 23, 2018 - Every year during EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, hundreds of photos flood social media feeds that show a sea of airplanes on the grounds and big white letters in the sky that let people know where all the fun is happening: EAA.

The messages seemingly appear out of nowhere, but 14,000 feet in the air, Nathan Hammond is burning 2 gallons of smoke oil per minute and pulling up to 4.5g in his GhostWriter Super Chipmunk.

Nathan grew up around the airplane while his father ferried it all across the country for Steve and Suzanne Oliver, who flew it in air shows from 1988 until 2015 as the Pepsi SkyDancer.

When they retired in 2015, Nathan renamed the airplane GhostWriter, and has since performed everywhere from Alaska to South America.

Each letter takes about a minute to a minute and a half to write, and if the weather conditions are ideal, the message will hang in the sky for 20 to 30 minutes before it clears away to a blank canvas.

“The shorter the message the better because … you don’t want to lose the interest of the audience, and the shorter you can keep it, the better the message stays together,” Nathan said.

As for any special flying techniques used in skywriting, Nathan said they are a closely guarded secret.

“It’s a magic trick,” he said. “‘How in the world do they do that?’ One of the things that I think a lot of people don’t understand is we write everything flat. It’s not up and down. We’re not doing loops, we’re not doing rolls, we’re not aerobatic, but it’s all written flat on the horizon, and placement is key so that the letters are right side up and not upside down.”

One challenge skywriters face is that the physical demands the g’s place on a pilot’s body speed up their internal rhythm and can result in the letters being different sizes if the pilot doesn’t pace him or herself. Nathan’s go-to for keeping the rhythm? Music.

“I have this uncanny ability to sing the Scooby-Doo theme song — I can sing that song the same rhythm, the same tempo, whether I’m laying in bed at 50 beats per minute on my heart, or in the airplane at 130 beats a minute pulling g’s,” he said with a laugh. “I’ll sing that periodically as I’m skywriting just so that it gets me back into center.”

For Nathan, skywriting is all about sharing the magic with the community of people who seem to perpetually have their eyes on the sky.

“The best thing that I love is when somebody takes a picture of their airplane or them standing on the grounds at EAA with that big EAA written up in the sky, because to me, that just screams, you have arrived at Oshkosh,” he said. “There’s no question when you see somebody’s picture and there’s a thousand airplanes in the background and #OSH18 is written in the sky or EAA or the big smiley faces, it’s all about the people. That’s what I love about it.”

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