The “Art” of Skywriting

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On May 14, 1915, aviator Lincoln Beachey, the official stunt flyer at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, died after crashing into the bay. “Art” Smith (who was racing his “Baby Cars” at the fair) was hired to take Beachey’s place and flew stunts in his own airplane for spectators for the duration of the exposition.

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Art Smith at the controls of his bi-plane, San Francisco 1915.

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Stunt pilot Art Smith was famous for his acrobatic flights and the use of flares attached to his airplane. After each performance he “wrote”  G O O D  N I G H T in the night sky. He created the display pictured above on the closing night of the International Exhibition in San Francisco in 1915.

Meanwhile across the pond, World War I was winding down and Major John Clifford “Mad Jack” Savage found himself soon to be unemployed.  Savage began his flying career as a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Flying Service, advancing to become a major in the new Royal Air Force. He tried his hand at being a journalist, writing for Flight magazine under the nom-de-plume of Oiseau Bleu (blue bird), but chafed at his earth-bound position and itched to get back in the sky.

Shortly before the beginning of the “Great War,” an accidental discovery was made. If low viscosity oil accidentally found its way into a hot exhaust it would vaporize, creating a dense cloud of white smoke, which was sometimes used to make smoke signals to ground troops and confuse attackers.

By 1921 “Mad Jack” Savage remembered using aircraft “smoke” in wartime and hatched the idea of making shapes and letters in the sky. Savage needed to find an ideal aircraft to perfect his new science of “sky writing.” He discovered that over 2,000 S.E.5As were available for purchase at bargain prices. He bought 33 of these discarded wartime fighter aircraft plus parts and extra engines.

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The Savage Wolsley SE5a sky-writer

He opened his new business at Hendon flying field north of London and advertised that “the S.E.5As were eight times stronger than was needed to endure the stresses of sky writing.”  Minor modifications were made to the airplanes to ready them for their new purpose. Camouflage colors gave way to a standard silver livery with proper civil registration.

His background in theater and his flair for promotion helped him bring skywriting to the attention of the fledgling advertising industry, when he sold an ad for a London newspaper and decorated the sky over the 1922 Epsom Derby with the words  DAILY MAIL. Virginia Woolfe, a famous novelist at the time, was seated in the V.I.P. section at Epsom Downs and wrote about the amazing skywriting event in the opening chapter of her novel “Mrs. Dalloway,” first published in 1925.

Flush with success, Savage crated up and shipped a few of his S.E.5As to New York.  Ex-RAF pilot Cyril Turner was in charge of the American contingent and wrote HELLO USA over the skyscrapers of Manhattan with the telephone number of the hotel where “Mad Jack” Savage was staying.  The “Mad Men” of Madison Avenue were astounded when they heard the hotel switchboard lit up with 47,000 calls fielded by 8 operators.

Savage was so encouraged he sent more S.E.5As to Europe where he found a ready audience and enjoyed more success.

Over the next two decades the skywriting industry grew exponentially.  Who doesn’t remember gazing skyward to see the letters P E P S I scrolling overhead, on some days getting snatched by an invisible breeze – or – L S M F T appearing in block letters, everyone knowing that meant “Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco.” By 1939 the sounds of World War II were rumbling in Europe and “Mad Jack’s” skywriting airplanes were wearing out.  It had been a good ride.  By 1949 he had only one S.E.5A left, which he preserved for posterity by donating it to a very grateful Science Museum in Kensington, London.  We earthbound mortals still have the opportunity to gaze skyward to see an extremely rare and original Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5A – an actual combat veteran from the Great War, very carefully flown on very special occasions – the only original S.E.5A still operational is housed at the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden Airfield in Bedfordshire. This Collection of aircraft and cars was started by Richard Ormonde Shuttleworth, a passionate racer and pilot. Based in the aerodrome, the Collection contains some of the last airworthy aircraft of their type remaining anywhere in the world.

Maj. J. C. “Mad Jack” Savage died September 17, 1945, but not before he also invented and built searchlights, using a revolutionary reflecting principal for projecting slogans on night clouds.  Although its use was banned in his native England he sold his invention abroad, and used its basic principals in developing military searchlights. Savage also pioneered crop spraying from aircraft and sponsored the Savage-Bramson anti-stall gear.

Lady Skywriter is grateful for the following resources:

The Scarf and Goggles Social Club

Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum 

First Skywriting Ad over New York’s Times Square

Air Classics Magazine, February, 2016 issue     “Great War Veteran”  by Philip Makanna

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