Those magnificent men in their writing machines!

Those magnificent men in their writing machines! As the daredevil art returns after a long ban, JANE FRYER reveals the heroic history trailing behind it…

  • Skywriting is a process which originated in the skies above the Western Front
  • British airmen used paraffin oil to create smoke trails to signal to troops below
  • Captain Turner and Major Jack Savage turned it into a commercial enterprise

For over a year, Royal Air Force Captain Cyril Turner practised in his modified Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a fighter: looping, climbing and flipping, two miles up in the sky.

First, he perfected the straight stroke of the letter ‘D’. Then, the swirl of the ‘Y’. Next, he tried grouping the letters ‘ail’ and ‘ily’.

He could only see the previous letter, or part of it, from the cockpit, so it was hard to write in a straight line, almost impossible to separate words, and the ‘Y’ was particularly tricky to pull off when flying at 100mph.

Oh yes, and it was all written backwards.

Which is why, as he told the Daily Mail at the time, he used the sun as his guide.

‘I fly directly towards it when I make the straight stroke of the ‘D,’ ‘ he said. 

Skywriting is the process of releasing smoke via a small aircraft during flight to form letters in the sky. Pictured: Skywriting in East Hampton, New York, in the 1940s

Royal Air Force Captain Cyril Turner practised the art of skywriting in his modified Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a fighter

‘I am too busy concentrating on the correct tracing of the letters to trouble much about the actual flying of the machine. I don’t bank correctly always, for example. 

In making the ‘D’, I kick the rudder hard and so turn more sharply than I would do if I made a correct bank. This improves the appearance of the letter.’

But, eventually, after thousands of hours of practice, he mastered it and, one blue-skied day in May 1922, tried out his new skill above London and the south coast, trailing a ten-mile plume of smoke behind him.

The crowds beneath were entranced.

‘A thousand fingers pointed to the sky where, gleaming white against the soft blue heaven, an aeroplane was seen wreathing in its flight a silver curl of smoke,’ recalled one witness.

In Margate, residents and holiday-makers rushed outside to join the crowds. Bathers looking upwards collided with each other in the water, boatmen stopped rowing and taxi drivers stopped their engines.

In Southend, the whole eight miles of seafront were crowded with thousands of visitors, and all eyes were turned skyward to see the wonderful writing.

‘The impression it left was one of amazement, for nothing could be seen in the sky but the letters traced in smoke,’ said one onlooker. ‘The most successful free exhibition,’ cried another.

Captain Turner was poised to become the first pilot to bring commercial messages to the skies. 

Days later, he produced his first official airborne advertisement — two words in vast, silvery letters in the blue skies above the thousands of ecstatic race-goers at the Epsom Derby: ‘Daily Mail!’

The art originated in the skies above the Western Front when British airmen used paraffin oil to create smoke trails. (Stock image) 

The ‘ink’ used in skywriting is a mixture of light paraffin oil and water which, when pumped into the plane’s exhaust, heats up and turns into a smoky vapour. (Stock image)

There has always been something magical about skywriting — words created in the sky by agile and talented pilots who, somehow, while flying at high speeds, mirror-write messages in the sky.

Letters that hang, swirling and shimmering in the breeze, before vanishing into thin air.

So what a perk, at an otherwise grim time to learn that, after a six-decade ban, skywriting is now set to make an unexpected return to British skies.

Even better, it could help our increasingly beleaguered aviation and advertising industries.

Proposals have been published by the Department for Transport (DfT) to amend aviation regulations to reintroduce it for advertising purposes, state events, airshows, birthday celebrations and marriage proposals.

The result could generate about £4 million a year in revenue but, more importantly, Britain would finally be back in step with much of the world for a skill we invented.

It would also allow our pilots —some of the best skywriters in the world — to work here, not America, China and Australia. (Just last week, one skywriter wrote ‘WASH HANDS’ in 600-metre letters high in the Sydney sky.)

Skywriting originated in the skies above the Western Front where British airmen used paraffin oil to create smoke trails, which they used to signal to the troops below.

There are environmental worries over skywriting which include increased CO2 emissions and the risk of abusive or inappropriate messages. (Stock image)

But it was our very own RAF airmen, Captain Turner and Major Jack Savage who, in the post-war years, turned it into a lucrative commercial enterprise. 

After all that inaugural Daily Mail excitement, they took the business to New York where Turner scrawled a huge ‘Hello USA’ in the skies above the city and sparked an entire industry.

The next day, he wrote ‘CALL VANDERBILT 7200,’ the telephone number of the hotel where he was staying. Legend has it that, over the following two-and-half hours, the hotel’s operators fielded 47,000 phone calls.

Within 10 years, skywriting was the biggest thing in advertising, far cheaper than radio and used to sell everything from cigarettes to Pepsi, and send love messages from wealthy suitors.

Soon, the mere sound of a low-flying aeroplane would see city-dwellers rush to the window to see what message it carried.

By 1940, it was one of Pepsi-Cola’s major advertising methods — that year alone, the company commissioned 2,225 flights. The same year, during the Roosevelt-Willkie presidential race, New Yorkers were messaged, ‘no third term’.

During World War II, the Germans even used skywriting to spell out surrender appeals above Soviet and, later, Yugoslav troops.

In 1969, during the Vietnam War, Yoko Ono and John Lennon commissioned a skywriter to create a message over New York City: ‘War is over if you want it — happy Christmas from John and Yoko.’

But while it thrived elsewhere, skywriting has been banned by our government since 1960.

In part, for health and safety reasons, but more as a pre-emptive response to the possibility it could have been used to spread communist propaganda at the height of the Cold War.

Happily, neither concern still applies, and thanks to lobbying by transport minister Grant Shapps (himself a pilot), an end to our antiquated ban looks in sight.

We just need a few incredibly talented pilots who also happen to be decent spellers.

Nearly a century after Captain Turner was looping and banking, the skill needed is still extraordinary, and the process is similar. 

The ‘ink’ is a mixture of light paraffin oil and water which, when pumped into the plane’s exhaust, heats up and turns into a smoky vapour, hanging in the air between 7,000 and 14,000 feet up. 

Skytyping — where planes flying abreast puff smoke at intervals to form letters — is different. And neither should be confused with banners, which are trailed behind light aircraft.

Naturally, leaving a message, however temporary, in the sky is very expensive. Compared to the £500 or so it costs to hire a plane to pull a banner, it costs thousands for letters that last barely four minutes, if you’re lucky.

(Though they won’t get tangled in your propeller and nearly kill you, as happened to poor old Nigel Farage when his UKIP banner brought his plane down on the day of the 2010 General Election.)

Success — crispness and legibility of letter and duration of display — is subject to the vagaries of the British weather. Optimum conditions are calm, blue skies. Too much wind and all those carefully flown letters blow away.

There are also environmental worries, which include increased CO2 emissions, safety concerns and the risk of abusive or inappropriate messages. After all, once a message is 2.5 miles up in the sky, it is there for all to see.

Indeed, while plenty of romantics have proposed or declared their love with heart-warming messages, not everyone has embraced skywriting’s celebratory side.

When his wife ran off with someone else, millionaire John Everson paid a pilot to skywrite ‘Cindy Everson is a sex cheat’ in the blue skies above Houston, Texas.

In a similar vein, Dirk Delahune, of Chicago, paid for ‘Marla Delahune is a tramp’ to be trailed across the skies after he caught her in bed with her tennis coach.

Which, as well as humiliating poor Marla, must have been rather eye-catching for everyone looking up in Chicago that day.

But the DfT seems to have all that covered.

‘Offensive or otherwise illegal content could be subject to general criminal law,’ it writes in its online consultation document.

Even better, the environmental concerns are negligible. Partly because smoke used to create the messages is a refined, non-toxic, and inherently bio-degradable white mineral oil, but also because the planes used have minimal impact on the environment.

So hurrah! Finally, some good news that would surely have sent the late Captain Cyril Turner looping the loop, and will hopefully cheer the rest of us up a bit, too.

Even if, for the foreseeable future, rather than ‘Karen, I love you’ and ‘Bobby, will you marry me?’ our messages are more likely to say: ‘Wash your hands!’ and ‘Has anyone got any loo roll?’


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The Artist Behind Those Viral "Smiling Jesus" Drawings On Instagram Says She Is Giving Back To Her Virtual Community

The day after Christmas, a small-time YouTuber named Brittani Boren Leach went to wake her 3-month-old son Crew up from a nap and realized he wasn’t breathing.

Over the next week, the heartbroken young mom from Texas chronicled her son’s fight for life, and his eventual death, on her public Instagram page. In just a few weeks, her follower count swelled to more than 900,000 people who prayed for her, cried with her, and posted tributes to her baby.

Thousands of miles away in Seattle, Ashley Harmon, a 41-year-old mom and illustrator, saw Leach’s posts. Her response to the tragedy was unique. She used Leach’s photos from Instagram to draw a portrait of Leach’s family. In the photo, she drew her interpretation of Jesus, holding baby Crew and Leach’s hand.

Harmon posted the photo on her Instagram, writing: “I can’t get @brittaniborenleach off my mind. Every post is more heartbreaking than the one before. Let’s keep sending her so much love and so many prayers as they continue to walk the path no parent should have to.” When Leach reposted her painting, the post got nearly 500,000 likes.

Certain pockets of Instagram often feel like one big community. Instead of chatting with neighbors and friends at the cul-de-sac BBQ, many modern women, especially young moms, gather and connect on the platform with like-minded women. So when horrible things happen to someone they follow, it can feel as if it’s happening close to home.

Over the past few months, tragedy has hit several women in the lifestyle, DIY, and “mommy blogger” community on Instagram and these stories have gone viral. Before Crew’s death, thousands followed the public mourning surrounding the sudden death of Olive Heiligenthal and prayed with DIY influencer Lindsay Sherbondy after her 7-year-old daughter got into a severe accident. This past month, thousands on Instagram have mourned alongside influencer Kassady Bingham, whose toddler son died of cancer.

If you’ve followed any of these events and the public expression of grief on Instagram, then Harmon’s designs are probably familiar. She has drawn portraits of all the aforementioned lost or injured children and posted them on her page after reading about them on Instagram.

While she has gotten criticized as being opportunistic or out for sales in her Etsy shop, Harmon says she truly just wants to help in her own way: through her art.

“I end up getting really invested in these people,” Harmon said. “[On] Instagram you can start really feeling like you know these people, and connect and talk…So it’s kind of being able to provide something for them that they want, even though it’s not been asked for, and you can connect. It all goes back to my way of trying to help. I feel like it’s what I can do.”

In response to the negative comments, Harmon insisted that she and others who react so publicly to these viral tragedies are just trying to help and pay tribute to those who have lost loved ones.

“I think it’s just that people want community so badly, they want to connect with people…I don’t know that social media is necessarily the best way to do it, but I think that’s where we’re at in the world,” she said. “I just think that’s why people use it the way we do.”

It’s true that Harmon’s business has taken off since she began painting and posting what she calls her “memorial portraits,” the ones that typically feature Jesus, the deceased loved one, and the family on Instagram. She’s from Arizona and studied art and graphic design in college. She worked for a few years as a graphic designer, but decided to stay home after having her daughter, who is now 16.

About four years ago, Harmon says a friend finally convinced her to open an Etsy shop to sell her art. She began working with watercolors, and one of her first paintings was a tribute to a friend’s mom, who had died unexpectedly.

“I was like, what can I do? I’m not very good at talking, I can’t find the words, but I can draw her something,” she said.

At first, she said her shop didn’t grow very fast — it took her until last summer to even hit 1,000 sales. However, her business began to gain momentum after she made and posted her first “memorial portrait” to her Instagram account for her Etsy shop in October 2018. She had actually drawn her first for her sister-in-law, but decided to post one she had drawn for her own family in honor of a miscarriage she had suffered in 2012.

In the post, she asked if she should start selling the drawings in her shop and got a good response, so she went for it.

Harmon said she doesn’t even remember how she came up with the idea to add a version of Jesus into the memorial portraits, or the signature hand-holding. However, she is religious and said the photos are her way of putting her beliefs into art.

“Jesus is holding them in heaven, it’s just a visual picture of that,” she said. “I’m just kind of providing that comfort and hope.” She said the hand holding is meant to represent a link between heaven and earth.

Harmon added that she doesn’t know if most of her followers are religious, and she has done all types of family portraits with and without Christian aspects. Some customers, she said, just request a family photo drawing with their deceased member added in. Others ask for other representations of their loss, like a family member with angel wings or a miscarried baby being represented as a star or a rainbow.

As for her version of Jesus, Harmon said she draws him based on typical depictions of him in popular art and culture. She has drawn him a few different ways, before settling on the one she draws now, which she calls “Happy Jesus.” She also said she changes his skin tone to try and match him to the race of the family, which sometimes brings “divisive” comments.

Since she began posting and sharing the photos, Harmon’s sales have slowly started to grow. She now has 52,000 followers on Instagram, and her posts have been liked thousands times. Her portraits, mostly featuring the smiling Jesus, seem to be all over Instagram’s explore page. Since last summer, Harmon said she doubled her total sales to almost 2,500. She actually had to temporarily stop accepting new orders because she couldn’t keep up with demand.

Now, she said, she gets requests from followers to make “memorial portraits” for different families who have suffered tragedies. When Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna died in a helicopter crash earlier this year, Harmon said she got dozens of messages asking her to draw a memorial portrait for the family.

However, with more attention comes more hate, though Harmon said she gets many more nice messages than negative ones. After Harmon posted her “memorial portrait” of Kobe and Gianna, she got comments accusing her of being “gross, “posting it too soon,” or “being in it for the publicity.”

Harmon said she saw a bunch of other fan art on Instagram before she posted hers, so she felt like she wasn’t doing anything wrong. She also said she is careful to not come across as “ambulance chasing.”

“I always try to remember people like to complain,” she said, adding, “You just can’t please everyone.”

Still, she is just as intrigued as anyone as to why people have the impulse to ask her to draw a portrait when they see a tragedy on social media.

“I don’t know!” she said when asked to explain the phenomenon. “It’s just back to…they’re wanting to provide comfort too, but they’re doing it through me because I’m the one who draws?”

Harmon added she only feels like her portrait for Kobe was a “public” post for a celebrity.

“Brittani, I know she’s got a lot of followers, but she’s just a mom,” she said.

Harmon said she has also spoken to Leach and Bingham, and they were thrilled with the portraits.

“It’s all been really, very positive,” she said.

But at the end of the day, Harmon said she is focused on creating a priceless piece of art for her customers — famous or not.

“My goal and my desire is to provide these people with comfort in their time of grief,” she said.

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  • Stephanie McNeal is a social news editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

    Contact Stephanie McNeal at [email protected]

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Those Viral DIY Hand Sanitizer Recipes Probably Won't Work

As fear over the novel coronavirus escalates, it’s getting harder to find even a simple bottle of hand sanitizer. On Amazon, many listings are sold out. CVS warns that customers may find empty store shelves.

“This demand may cause temporary shortages at some store locations and we re-supply those stores as quickly as possible,” a spokesperson for CVS told CNN.

As a result, recipes for DIY hand sanitizer are spreading online. Washing your hands is the best way to avoid transmission of disease—including COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus. However, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, advises using hand sanitizer made with at least 60 percent alcohol (ethanol/ethyl alcohol) when soap and water aren’t available.

Popular recipes circulating online include a combination of alcohol, essential oils, and aloe vera gel. However, you shouldn’t assume this method is safe and effective, says Birnur Aral, PhD and the Health, Beauty and Environmental Sciences Director at the Good Housekeeping Institute.

For example, a popular recipe circulating online suggests using 2/3 cups of either 99 percent rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol) or ethanol (ethyl alcohol or alcohol) as the main antimicrobial active ingredient, resulting in roughly 66 percent active content in the final product. However, there is a nuance in the FDA’s rule governing the hand sanitizer product category regarding the different actives recommended as being safe and effective, Aral says.

The rule states that the minimum recommended level for isopropyl alcohol is 70 percent in the final product as opposed to the minimum of 60 percent for ethyl alcohol. So if you use isopropyl alcohol at the recommended 2/3 cup level in the recipe, the active level would fall short of the recommended 70 percent, Aral notes. If ethanol is used instead, the recipe should theoretically meet the minimum of 60 percent required by the FDA rule.

Some recipes include essential oils, but the quantities are likely inconsequential in fighting viruses, Aral adds.

“These are added at such small amounts to the formula and their contributions to the overall antimicrobial efficacy of the proposed formula could be debated,” she says. “This should all remind us that we are not all pharmacists and we should perhaps leave making of hand sanitizers, which are considered OTC drugs as per FDA, to licensed manufacturers.”

Dr. John Whyte, MD, WebMD Chief Medical Officer, says that sloppy measuring or even bad math skills could lead to poor results.

“My biggest concern would be that people don’t follow the directions precisely, thereby making their homemade version less effective, or possibly ineffective,” he says.

And besides, hand washing is the most effective tool to protect against spreading viruses.

“I would only make my own sanitizer if there was no way I could buy it—there’s a reason why we have good manufacturing,” says Dr. Whyte.

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