When Suzanne Asbury-Oliver’s father received a Father’s Day gift of a ride in a sailplane, he naturally took Suzanne with him. Upon landing, her father proclaimed his love of flying and enthusiastically asked when Suzanne could begin taking lessons. She began flying gliders at 14, and first soloed when she was just 15 years old. By the time she was 18, Asbury-Oliver had her powered-aircraft instrument rating, commercial certificate, flight instructor, and instrument-flight instructor certificates, as well as a multiengine rating. She had become an aviation professional.  

Suzanne Asbury-Oliver is an accomplished skywriter. (Courtesy of Suzanne Asbury-Oliver)

Asbury-Oliver searched for a way she could do what she loved, fly, and make a living. At the start of the 1980s the major airlines were in trouble and there was little opportunity for public aviation careers. When she saw an advertisement put out by Pepsi-Cola for a skywriter, Asbury-Oliver first thought it would be impossible to get the job. But she realized there probably wasn’t anyone more qualified, so she inquired about the position and was promptly put in a plane with the current Pepsi skywriter. Asbury-Oliver was almost instantly successful and worked with pilot Jack Strayer for a year before he retired and she became head skywriter. Suzanne and her husband, Steven Oliver, became America’s only husband and wife professional skywriting and aerobatic team. 

Asbury-Oliver wore this flight suit. (Smithsonian Institution)

Skywriting is not only a time-honored advertising tradition, but one of the most exciting and influential forms of advertisement. Though it is rarely used today, skywriting is very impressive and effective. The Pepsi-Cola company has used the skywriting advertising technique since 1932, and it is perhaps the only company that still employs skywriting today.

Asbury-Oliver's Travel Air D4D "Pepsi Skywriter" is on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. (Smithsonian Institution)

Asbury-Oliver has been skywriting messages across the skies above the United States and Canada for Pepsi since 1980. From the open cockpit of the famous 1929 Travel Air biplane, the Pepsi SkyWriter, Oliver created thousands of letters 3,048 meters (10,000 feet) above the earth for Pepsi Cola. While she has logged over 5,500 flying hours, her personal favorites are those spent in the Travel Air. She remarked about the plane that, “I fell in love with the open cockpit flying. Most pilots stare out at the sky through two layers of dirty Plexiglas, but in the open cockpit plane, there is just the sky, the wind, the cold, the ground, and me.” Touring North America from coast to coast, Asbury-Oliver, now flying a modified De Havilland Chipmunk, skywrites over 500 messages in more than 150 locations each year. She remains the only professional female skywriter in the world. 

This content was migrated from an earlier online exhibit, Women in Aviation and Space History, which shared the stories of the women featured in the Museum in early 2000s. 

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