Suzanne Asbury-Oliver performed skywriting—writing a name or message with smoke from an aircraft against a blue sky—for the Pepsi-Cola Company for 25 years. Pepsi-Cola has used skywriting as a form of advertising since 1931.
Asbury-Oliver began flying gliders at age 14 and soloed at 15. She became the pilot for the Travel Air D4D Pepsi Skywriter in 1980 and flew it until it was donated to the National Air and Space Museum in 2001. At the time of the donation, she was the only professional female skywriter.
The Pepsi Skywriter is one of more than 1,200 Travel Air open-cockpit biplanes built between 1925 and 1930. Travel Airs were popular and rugged aircraft that earned their keep as utility and record-breaking workhorses and saw service around the country as crop dusters, barnstormers, and as private planes for the sportsman pilot. For 40 years, pilots flew the Pepsi Skywriter across the United States for the Pepsi-Cola Company delivering a unique form of advertising known as skywriting.
Three future giants in the aircraft industry, Lloyd Stearman, Walter Beech, and Clyde Cessna, came together as young aviation enthusiasts in Wichita, Kansas, to build the Travel Air. During 1923 and 1924, Stearman and Beech worked at the Swallow Aeroplane Manufacturing Company as chief designer and vice president/test pilot respectively. The Swallow aircraft met with success, but Stearman and Beech lobbied to try a design with a steel tube, instead of wood, framework. When management declined, Stearman, Beech, and William Snook left Swallow to start their own company, and brought in Clyde Cessna, a successful farmer who liked to build airplanes. They incorporated the Travel Air Manufacturing Company in January 1925 and immediately designed a three-place, open-cockpit, fabric-covered biplane with a Curtiss OX-5 90 hp engine. Stearman had the steel for the tubing tested to his satisfaction at the Agronomy Department at Kansas State Agricultural College, as there were no aviation standards yet in place. Steel tubing braced the cockpit and steel wires braced the fabric-covered spruce spar wings and ribs. Steel was also used for the rudder and elevator leading and trailing edges, and the horizontal stabilizer leading edge, while the vertical stabilizer was spruce. Spruce strips were used to fair the outside of the fuselage and the turtledeck was spruce. Beech wanted redundant control cables running from the cockpit back to two elevators control horns. The landing gear was a standard duralumin speader bar between vees with bungee shockcords.
Travel Air #1 had a striking look with its fully enclosed cowling for the OX-5 engine, balanced ailerons on the upper wing that overlapped around the edge of the wing, and a blue fuselage with silver wings. Ira Beach made the first test flight on March 13, 1925. Travel Airs performed well in the 1925 Ford Reliability Tour and National Air Transport purchased a Model B for its airmail contract work. OX-5 A and B models became Model 2000s in March 1928 with ATC number 30. The Wright J-4 and J-5, significant radial engines that dramatically improved the performance and reliability of aircraft, were then offered on the airframe and, after 1928, those aircraft became the Model 4000. The 4000 found popularity with better performance and versatility through a wide variety of engine, wing, passenger seat, and landing gear combinations. The Speed wing, for example, was a shorter wing with a new airfoil that made the aircraft faster and required a recertification of the airplane to a D-4000. Ted Wells, later the designer of Beech's Staggerwing, owned the first D-4000 that also sported the first NACA cowl built by Travel Air. By early 1927, both Stearman and Cessna had left Travel Air, leaving Walter Beech in charge, and the newest Travel Air was a cabin monoplane. In 1929, Beech allowed the large Curtiss-Wright Company to absorb the company as a division, but it could not survive the depression, and closed in September 1932.
In 1929, NC434N, serial number 1340, was built as an E-4000, meaning it had a J-6-5 engine and most likely B wings (not the original "elephant ear wing). The D4D model officially arrived in February 1930 with a Wright J-6-7 (Wright R-760-ET) 240 hp engine (the second "D" in D4D) that improved the cruising speed to 110 mph with a range of 520 miles, and the aircraft's ceiling rose to 14,000 feet. N434N received the Speed wings and J-6-7 engine in 1930 and was recertificated as a D4D. Andy Stinis, of the Skywriting Corporation of America, purchased the aircraft in 1931 and flew it out of Floyd Bennett Field, Long Island, New York.
Skywriting, defined as the process of writing a name or message with smoke from an aircraft against a blue sky, began in England after World War I, the brainchild of Major John C. Savage, RAF. His first successful demonstration was at the Derby at Epsom Downs, in May 1922, when Captain Cyril Turner wrote "Daily Mail" above the track. Turner then came to the United States in October 1922 and wrote "Hello U.S.A." above New York City. Allan J. Cameron, along with Leroy Van Patten established the Skywriting Corporation of America at Curtiss Field, an American branch of the Savage's original company. They acquired the patents for mixing the writing gas the United States, and, although it was nothing more than light oil fed through the exhaust system, they controlled the market for years. In 1923, using the Skywriting Corporation, the American Tobacco Company launched the first and very successful skywriting advertising campaign for Lucky Strike cigarettes. Pepsi-Cola Corporation became one of the longest-running contractors of skywriting; in the late 1930s and mid 1940s, it contracted or owned a total of 14 aircraft. In 1940 alone, it contracted for 2,225 writings over 48 states. Andy Stinis flew for Pepsi-Cola from 1931 to 1953.
In 1973 Alan Pottasch and Jack Strayer of Pepsi began a search for old skywriters and found N434N still with Andy Stinis. They intended to display it at the Pepsi corporate headquarters in Purchase, New York, however, Strayer, a former skywriter, soon persuaded Pepsi to install navigation and communications equipment and tour it once again. In 1977, Strayer hired Peggy Davies as a second pilot and then, in 1980, when Davies became a Pepsi corporate pilot, Strayer hired Suzanne Asbury. Pepsi also gave the aircraft a bright red, white, and blue paint scheme. Strayer died in 1981 and, in 1982, Steve Oliver joined Asbury as a second pilot for the Pepsi aircraft fleet that included N434P, another 1929 Travel Air. In 2000, Suzanne and Steve Oliver suggested that the aircraft should be retired for safety's sake, and Pepsi-Cola Company donated it to the National Air and Space Museum. The Pepsi Skywriter is currently displayed at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport.