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    This year will be Red Calvert’s 30th consecutive Derby at Churchill Downs — 1,000 feet in the air. For three hours at a time, Calvert and about ten other pilots will zip around the Downs, mimicking the horses’ loop, towing banners for the likes of Kroger and Geico. “We get to see the horses,” says Calvert, who co-owns the aerial advertising company Pro-Air Enterprises. “But we can’t tell who’s who from up there.”

    The danger is in the hooking. Two seven-foot poles hoist the 100-foot-long billboard, using rope attached to its corners. Calvert then flies his single-engine Cessna low to the ground, snatching the rope onto a hook mounted on the plane’s belly. He estimates that his team misses three hooks out of 300 tows. And he has only seen an engine stall once during the hooking process. Hook, line and sink — the engine quit and the pilot landed straight ahead in rough ground. “It hurt the airplane, but he just walked in the office and got him a Coke and sat down,” Calvert says.

    When Calvert completes his three-hour ring around the Downs, he returns to Bowman Field, letting the banner fall from about 30 feet off the ground. Pilots repeat this process three times during Derby Day. Calvert, 79, has logged over 11,000 hours since receiving his aviation license when he was 16, after working for a year at the airport in his hometown of Indianapolis. “I didn’t log too many when I was learning,” he says. “I had to learn pretty quick.”

    This originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Jennifer Kiefer's picture

    About Jennifer Kiefer

    Germantown transplant. Louisville native.

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