February 07, 1983 12:00 PM

It peaked in the 1930s, and today the art of skywriting—scripting a gossamer message in the air with a trail of vapor from a nimble little plane—has just about gone the way of the quill pen. Almost all such advertising is now done by squads of craft that fly straight and punch out letters scoreboard-style. A few traditionalists remain, however, and one of them happens to be Suzanne Asbury-Oliver, 23. She takes off three or four times a day in her open-cockpit biplane, a 1929 Travel Air named Nancy, to write “Pepsi” in mile-long letters. “Flying is my natural environment,” says Asbury-Oliver. “It’s when I come down and get into a car that I get scared.”

Chosen over 3,000 other applicants for the Pepsi-Cola Co. skywriting program in 1980, she has no home base and travels all over the country, living out of a suitcase. Last year she married another pilot, Steve Oliver, 36. They met in 1981 when both were working the Kentucky Derby—she plugging Pepsi, he towing assorted promotional banners. They now tour together, accompanied only by her part Beagle named Charlie Brown.

As a kid, Asbury-Oliver flew sailplanes with her father, a Forest Grove, Oreg. doctor. She soloed at 14, got her license to fly power planes at 16 and now holds an airline transport pilot’s rating. Skywriting is tricky, she explains. Because her audience is on the ground looking up, she “must write a mirror image” of her message. She also has to watch the sun’s position and the wind direction to keep her ad visible and prevent it from drifting away. Though she’s survived two engine failures—by gliding in—she cites only one real crisis, which occurred one day over Chicago. Soon after she’d begun trailing vapor (created by dripping oil on the hot engine manifold), air control radioed that a 747 was headed her way. Terrified, Asbury-Oliver kept writing while watching for the jetliner. Only later did she realize she had encouraged Chicagoans to drink P-P-E-P-S-I.

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