Pilot Robert Franklin is photographed in one of his hangars at the Livermore airport in Livermore, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015. Franklin has been flying around various parts of the Bay Area pulling an assortment of messages and advertisements for more than two decades. Most recently he has been paid to fly around Levi's Stadium with anti-Jed York messages at 49er games.
LIVERMORE -- Years before the first airborne admonishment of San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York in November, pilot Robert Franklin took to the skies above the Oakland Coliseum with a stronger message for visiting quarterback Michael Vick, who had served prison time for his role in a notorious animal cruelty case:
"DOGFIGHTER GO HOME."
He's flown two banners over Levi's Stadium, paid for by frustrated 49ers fans. The first stated that "JED YORK AND 49ERS SHOULD MUTUALLY PART WAYS." The second simply read: "HOLD JED ACCOUNTABLE." Both were riffs on what the 49ers CEO has said in rare public statements.
Franklin will be back in the Santa Clara skies on Sunday, when the team faces the St. Louis Rams to end its miserable season, but he doesn't know what the message will say.
"They haven't told me what they want this time," the 67-year-old pilot said of the group of young die-hard 49ers fans who hired him to fly the banners. "But they're on the schedule."
Franklin's Aerial Advertising Services has been taking to the skies to slowly troll stadiums and other high-visibility venues for decades, and while the majority of the time it's to give a big company's ad maximum exposure, he's seen his share of custom messages edgier than the usual "WILL YOU MARRY ME" or "HAPPY BIRTHDAY."
There's been corporate shaming -- he flew "DON'T BE EVIL" over the Googleplex when folks were urging the company to leave the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because of that organization's policies. And a private party once hired him to ridicule another party's privates.
"A woman was breaking up with her boyfriend and was really angry at him," Franklin said.
Franklin said he'll fly nearly any message with the exceptions of those containing racial bigotry or obscenities. He has turned down money to fly a graphic anti-abortion banner, and called the private parts slight "marginal," something he took under careful consideration.
"And you wouldn't believe the number of people that called in after it flew and asked if it was about them," he said.
Graham Grealish hatched the Levi's flyby plan with his pals in the fall after York -- who replaced Jim Harbaugh, the coach who'd led the team to its last Super Bowl -- kept silent following another dismal loss. Grealish said they're tossing around some ideas for Sunday's banner. He said the banners, circling the stadium 1,000 feet in the air, are the best way to make sure their message is delivered to the notoriously secretive CEO.
"It's so easy for him to ignore social media and ignore the press, but when he's in a box at a stadium that cost $1.3 billion to build and there's a banner basically calling you out, it's the only media so far that Jed can't ignore," Grealish said.
Franklin, a former robotics and software engineer, is a strong free speech advocate, and he considers his service a vital last-ditch mechanism for someone who wants to get a short message noticed. Folks love seeing an airplane chugging by with a banner trailing behind it and naturally want to see what sort of message could be so important to get such royal treatment.
"The 49ers have quite a podium and lots of media capability," Franklin said. "But for $1,000, the anti-York banner certainly got everybody's attention."
He added that the first such banner he flew, on Nov. 29, earned some chatter from a CHP plane high above him that had been alerted by stadium security to the presence of an unauthorized sign. Air traffic controllers advised concerned parties to contact them directly, and nothing came of it, but Franklin still "found it sort of worrisome."
"Here we have a policing agency, and they want to sort of abrogate people's right to free speech," he said.
The 49ers issued a statement Wednesday that said their only concern about banner tows is "life safety inside and around the stadium."
"As long as an aircraft has been cleared as safe, we have no interest in the nature of the advertising or message displayed," read the statement. "In addition, the city and the team have received complaints from residents about low-flying planes and the noise they create."
Franklin's work as an engineer and consultant for Fujitsu had him traveling all across the West Coast, so he started flying a Cessna 210 in the late 1980s to get around "at the same pace as a commercial airline but without the stress."
After losing his job in the dot-com bust and seeing résumé after résumé rejected in favor of younger candidates, Franklin looked into aerial opportunities. The Castro Valley resident with a wife and grown daughter bought the Livermore-based flying-sign company in 2002. Just months later it took a major hit from new post-9/11 restrictions on aerial ads at major sporting events. While professional football, baseball and NASCAR officials said at the time that they welcomed the restrictions in the name of national security, pilot organizations said from the get-go that it was merely a maneuver to stave off unwanted, unsponsored and most importantly unprofitable advertising.
"I flew around stadiums for 25 years, and I defy anyone to find one instance where there was a problem with national security," said Jim Perry, who owned Aerial Advertising Services before selling it to Franklin.
Franklin said he's not a football fan, but he appreciates the sentiment of the banners. But he's not averse to being an advertising mercenary for the 49ers, either.
"If the 49ers wanted to fly a banner that said 'JED IS A GREAT GUY,' they could pay me and we'd do it," he said. "We'd have two planes flying up there."
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