Signs in the sky

Last modified: 7/7/2012 12:00:00 AM
From 800 feet in the air, the Atlantic Ocean that laps at the New Hampshire shore is the color of green sea glass. From 800 feet in the air, the beaches at sunset look deserted all the way from Rye to Ipswich, Mass. The mansions look like detailed plywood miniatures and the marshes like nubbly green wool.

At 800 feet in the air, Gene Gray's cubicle might be tiny, but it has one of the best office windows in the world.

"It's a great view, and it's always changing," he said during a recent flight, laughing.

His graying ponytail, cut-off T-shirt and white Hulk Hogan-style moustache give him the aura of a biker, but his laugh is youthful, eager and full-bodied.

Gray, who lives in Billerica, Mass., operates Sky Line Ads with his fiancee, Paula Maynard. If you've been to the beach in New Hampshire or Maine in the past six years, you've probably seen Gray. Or at least, you've seen his plane and its eye-catching cargo.

From the night's entertainment options and the phone number for a Jet Ski rental company to countless proposals of marriage and even one "Do you want a girl puppy or a boy puppy?" Gray tows banners for businesses and individuals, anyone with a message they want to get across.

It's a job that comes with endless hours and uncertain costs, but it's a way for a boy from New Jersey to make money doing the thing he loves.

"Flying is freedom," Gray said. "You feel like a bird. The visibility, the view, there's all sorts of reasons to love it. They're endless, but it's mostly the freedom and the peacefulness. When you're flying for fun, you can just float around. You can go places other people can't go and see things from a different perspective."

He first caught the love of flying when he was a kid in New Jersey. His grandfather worked as a mechanic for United Airlines at LaGuardia Airport. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Gray and his brother and cousins could just walk through the airport out to the tarmac, visit the mechanics and play around the planes. He's the only one who has taken to the skies since then, though.

He got his pilot's license in 1989 and worked at a car dealership to earn money for more flight time. In 1998, at age 42, he was getting ulcers and aches and pains from the stress of work. Maynard encouraged him to quit, so he did, and got a job running the ground crew for a banner towing company in Lawrence, Mass. Owning their own business was always something of a dream for the couple. In 2006, the company he worked for put one of its SuperCubs up for sale, and Gray and Maynard bought it for $50,000 with a loan from her father. A few months later, another banner company closed and sold them a used set of red letters, 5 feet tall each.

"You can work your butt off working for a company and in the end it doesn't matter, they'll throw you to the side," Maynard said. "The times when it's not busy, we have time to spend with our parents and the kids and the grandkids. Right now it might be tougher, but the times when it's not busy, it gives you flexibility."

They're looking for another plane now, hoping to double their business and give Gray more time to meet with clients while another pilot flies. But planes have gotten a lot more expensive since the pair opened their own business.

SuperCubs on the market today are $100,000, and out of reach for now. "You have to really love doing this, because you're not making money doing it, and you put a lot of hours into it at a time," he said.

Take Thursday, for example. Gray went to sleep about 2 a.m., after a long day flying over the Esplanade in Boston, advertising a local car dealership to the July 4 crowds. By 11 a.m., he was back in the air, towing a banner for Canobie Lake Park up and down the coast a few times. After a little more than an hour, he turned around and headed back to the Hampton Airfield.

The airfield truly lives up to its name: There's no paved runway, but just an open field with grass, clover, rocks and a groundhog or two. He traded in one banner for another, and then another, and then another, until 6 p.m.

Today, he expects to fly 11 hours, and since 1998, he's flown 4,000 hours, he said. The plane eats 10 gallons of fuel an hour, fuel that costs more than $5 a gallon in Hampton and sometimes almost $8 a gallon at Massachusetts airfields where he might need to stop and refill during days towing in Boston.

On days when Maynard is busy shuttling one or another of their parents to a doctor's appointment, Gray gets help from a 15-year-old "airport brat," a kid working odd jobs to earn flight time with any pilot who will take him. On Thursday, the boy showed up just before sunset with a remote-control airplane. He looped-the-loop, he gracefully slid the plane to a stop in the grass, and he wobbled and bobbled it a few times.

An hour later, back in the air, Gray pointed at the line on the GPS device he keeps on the plane's dashboard. A thick black line traces up and down the coast, marking the steady, unvarying paths he flew that day towing banners.

As Portsmouth's skyline poked up above the evening haze, kayakers who looked like skinny sea turtles paddled their way out of the bay dividing Seabrook and Hampton.

"See all that green space?" Gray asked into the intercom, pointing at a marsh on the GPS. "Sometimes, I want to go out there and write my name with the line on the screen. I'd have to double back and do lots of circles, and it would be crazy.

"I'm still a kid at heart."

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SpalermoNews.)




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