By Ben Joravsky
It was the first inning of a meaningless game in a miserable season that really ended weeks ago, when from out of the skies over Comiskey came a plane bearing a banner, like a cavalry rescuing the faithful with comedic relief.
"Hey, Jerry," it read, "the next stadium's on you."
A few innings later the plane returned with another taunting message: "Wake up, Reinsdorf: You're the problem."
Though pleasing to fans rankled at owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who gave up at midseason by trading starters for bush leaguers, the banners couldn't have pleased team officials. To their credit, the Sox made no attempt to stop the pilot, who circled Comiskey for 30 minutes, not that it would matter had they tried. Sark Boyajian has become something of a legend among local fliers: a death-defying banner tower who's not afraid to stick it to the mighty.
"I'll fly just about any message so long as it's not vulgar or risque," says Boyajian. "They can't stop me, though some try. The First Amendment applies to the sky too."
By his own account, Boyajian is an unlikely pilot or constitutional crusader. A 66-year-old chemist, with eight grandchildren, a house in the south suburbs, and a dry-cleaning business on the far south side, he served in the army, not the air force, and didn't learn to fly until he was well into his 30s. It was only about ten years ago that he took up banner towing.
"I can't put my finger on exactly why I do what I do," he says. "I suppose it's because I like to do things different--I don't follow the norm. I guess there's a bit of the showman in me. I love it up there, all alone over a ballpark or whatever, with all eyes on me because everybody wants to read the message. People always ask me, 'Are you scared?' Believe it or not, the answer is no. I've had brushes with death outside the airplane--TB, cancer, a triple bypass. I guess my time's not up yet. I just keep on going."
Nonetheless, Boyajian doesn't minimize the dangers he faces in his two-seater (he knew two pilots who died in crashes while trying to hook banners to their planes). The moment of maximum vulnerability, he says, is during pickup, when "you come in as though you're landing. Behind you are the grappling hooks on 30-foot steel cables. You precision fly across two goal posts about 15 feet apart and you hook your banner. The tow rope's about 250 feet long and the banner's 125 feet, so you're carrying a big load.
"The real dangerous thing is that you have to fly so slow. Normal air speed's anywhere from 120 to 140 miles per hour, but banner towing requires a very slow flight, maybe 50, 40 miles per hour--you're on the edge of being still."
For his efforts, he charges $325 for 15 minutes of flying, $425 for 30, and $545 for an hour. He does 300 or so banners a year, including promos for TV stations, radio personalities, and car dealerships. A favorite message is the wedding proposal. "I do about 50 wedding proposals a year--it's big business. I've flown them by the Sears Tower, Wrigley Field, and the beach. I give a guarantee--if she says no, don't pay me. I've always gotten paid, so it must work.
"One fellow, a state trooper, had a girlfriend who wouldn't accept his proposal no matter how hard he tried. He had wined her and dined her and taken her on a trip to New York City and still the answer was no. Now, as an aside, personally, I wouldn't have married this woman. I mean, you'd have to be an absolute fool to marry a woman so indifferent to your pleas. But, anyway, he calls me up and says, 'I want it to be special.' So he's got it all set up. He arranges for me to be flying over this stretch of I-65, the interstate in Indiana, as he's tooling along in his red convertible with the top down. It's a gorgeous, blue-sky, sunny day, and I'm flying over him, on the passenger side, towing a banner that says, 'Will you marry me?' He doesn't say a word--he just tells his girlfriend to look out the window. She sees the message and says, 'Yes, I will marry you.' Man, that was a testy job. I sure hope that guy's having a happy marriage."
The political banners are a relatively recent phenomenon. The most controversial was for the eyes of President George Bush back in the early 90s. "It said, 'Iran contra haunts you,'" recalls Boyajian. "I hired someone to fly that plane and the Secret Service forced him down. They approached him by helicopter and said, 'You're in restricted space.' Well, the fact is they hadn't issued a restricted space warning so he had every right to be there. He said so, and they said, 'Land now.' They forced him down and held him for about five to six hours--they gave him a psychological test and a medical exam. It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened for my client--we got coast-to-coast coverage. The party that hired us was elated."
He's also managed to offend Democratic politicians. "I was flying a banner that said, 'Hilary, you have the right to remain silent,'" says Boyajian. "Hilary Clinton was at the lakefront to watch the air show. As I was heading back to Gary [the airport] I got a call from the tower at Meigs. They said, 'You can't come back, we're restricting all air travel.' Someone must have gotten to them because it hadn't been restricted when I went up. They couldn't just keep me out--that would be discrimination. So they had to keep everyone out."
He got into more trouble with the Democrats last summer, when the convention came to town. "Someone hired me to fly a lighted sign over Navy Pier saying, 'Don't take dirty money from the tobacco industry.' Somehow Rush Limbaugh got wind of it and he mentioned it on the air--that night the FAA put a restriction on night flights one mile over Navy Pier. They took away my First Amendment rights. They took control of the sky and there was nothing I could do about it.
"Actually, the FAA's usually pretty good about this sort of thing. The guys at the airports are all on my side--they love this stuff. One time I was flying an anti-Ameritech banner over their pro golf tournament out at Kemper. The union paid for it--it said something like, 'Ameritech is unfair to its employees.' Well, someone called the FAA and said, 'Make that guy land,' and the FAA said, 'No way, he's not doing anything illegal.' I stayed up there for an hour. And do you know that the camera couldn't pan the ball 'cause they were afraid of capturing the message up in the sky."
Another popular target is Bears owner Mike McCaskey, adopted by fans as the most convenient scapegoat for the team's ineptitude. "I was once flying an anti-McCaskey banner over Soldier Field and I heard that McCaskey himself called Meigs and asked them to make me land," says Boyajian.
The anti-Sox banners were paid for by an anonymous group of fans whose antipathy for Reinsdorf goes back to the time he muscled the state into paying for a new park by threatening to move the team.
Unfortunately for those Sox fans, last week's signs didn't draw much media attention. They weren't mentioned in the Tribune, the friendliest media outlet to Reinsdorf (basketball writer Sam Smith recently touted Reinsdorf as the NBA's best owner). And the only play they got in the Sun-Times was a gentle chiding by columnist Phil Rosenthal, who wrote: "If Sky Critic is so smart, how come he's paying to fly a sign around a half-empty stadium?"
The FAA says it does not restrict the messages banner pilots carry. "I don't think the FAA is interested in what they tow, although they have to obey the standard rules of operation," says Donald Zochert, an FAA spokesman. "The issue has come up. I remember people were yelling about condom ads being flown over football stadiums. But I don't think any action was taken."
Team spokesmen have little to say about Boyajian or his banners. Bears spokesman Bryan Harlan says he knows nothing about McCaskey, or any team official, asking Meigs to ground Boyajian. Asked if he had any comment at all about Boyajian, Harlan said, "I don't know. No, no comment." (White Sox spokesman Rob Gallas was out of town and unavailable for comment.)
Sox fans will get another chance to view the anti-Reinsdorf message come September 13. That's when Boyajian's due to fly another banner over Comiskey, this one unfavorably contrasting Reinsdorf with Bill Veeck, his much-beloved predecessor.
"I feel for those Sox fans who love their team so much, but I really have nothing against Reinsdorf. He's doing a lot better job than the Cubs, though personally as a Chicagoan I object to the fact that the state subsidized the stadium. No one subsidized me. The Sox shouldn't take it personally. It's all in good fun. I'd even fly their banners--so long as it wasn't vulgar or included profanity." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Sark Boyajian photo by Randy Tunnell.