By Britni Williams |
ELYRIA, Ohio — “Have a seat in my office,” Konrad Balunek said as he slid aside the door. He wasn’t dressed in what one would consider business attire. He wore faded blue jeans with a white T-shirt and worn, brown work boots. His office didn’t have the sterile feeling of a typical business office. It was quite the opposite—the room had character. Red nylon letters covered every free inch of wall space in the office and stacked upon themselves. An old aviation poster with fading pastel colors leaned against the wall, not far from his desk. In the middle the organized chaos was an Aviat Aircraft Husky A-1. That’s because his office is really a hangar at Elyria Airport and his business was aerial advertising, better known as banner-towing. He was at home in his make-shift office. Flying is in his blood, and he has dedicated his life to doing what he loves and reaching his dream of becoming a millionaire.
Growing up with aviation
Konrad wasn’t always so comfortable around airplanes—in fact it was the opposite. “That’s going to bite me,” he thought of airplanes, but they became his life. “It’s a pussy cat now.”Konrad was surrounded by aviation while growing up. His uncle, an eye-doctor, owned his own plane and had a grass strip behind his grandparents’ house. “How can you beat that?” Konrad reminisced. “He had a hangar and everything.”His uncle would use his tail-dragger type airplane to fly to medical conferences and anywhere else he needed to go for his career. “My first recollection of flying was going over to my grandparents,” Konrad remembered. “I thought everyone had an airport in their back yard. I didn’t know anything. ”Konrad’s father had a love for airplanes, too. Only he preferred his to be scaled down and made of tissue paper and rubber bands, but “they looked just like the real thing. ”Konrad says between his uncle and his father, he was “bombarded” with airplanes, models and their history, going as far back as World War II.
But growing up, Konrad didn’t think he’d be around airplanes as much. “The only people that fly are doctors, because that’s what I saw—attorneys, big business people who can own an airplane, and millionaires.”
Konrad’s mother helped him get into flight school at Lorain County Airport. Konrad’s career in aerial advertising started with a Miami, Fla., phone number scribbled on a pack of matches given to him by another pilot he met by chance while stopping for fuel. The only instructions given with it were “if you ever want a job, call this number.” At first he thought nothing of it, until the first snowflakes of the year began to fall in early October. He decided to take his chances with the phone number that promised warmer weather.
The number was for a multi-million-dollar aerial sign company. Konrad had always wanted to be a millionaire and he instantly knew this was for him.
Falling in love
Konrad and his wife Ingrid Balunek met in April 2001, partially because of aviation. “It was a semi-blind date,” Ingrid explained. “The captain he was flying with, when he was flying corporate, his wife worked for me. Actually, I almost didn’t go out with him because I didn’t like her husband.” But she gave him a chance anyway. They’ve now been married for three years.
Living the dream
“Everyone’s been pushing me to go to airlines,” Konrad said. “Airlines, airlines, airlines. No airlines for me. ”Instead, he chose to start his own advertising business, Aerial Adventures Advertising, with his goal to make a million dollars. “That’s where I’m headed,” Konrad said. “I’m serious. Everyone’s like, ‘You’ll never make a million in aviation.’ Well I know lots of people that have, and I like the flavor. ”He started his business out of Wakeman Airport in northern Ohio in 1997 after coming back from Miami. “I enjoy it every minute,” Konrad said. Of course, aerial advertising doesn’t come without its fair share of humorous stories.
One woman from Miami clearly sticks in his mind. “The lady lost her dog,” Konrad explained. “It was everything to her. She comes in with a pocket full of money: ‘You need to put a banner in the air that my dog’s lost, the collar, how to contact me.’ That damn thing flew for about a week or a week and a half. They found the dog.” Konrad said he’s flown marriage proposals, birthday banners and billboards, but some of the banners can be a bit odd.
“One we had to put up,” Konrad said, chuckling, “we went over to one address, and we just circled the house. I don’t know for how long. It was something like, ‘Randy, pay your gambling debt now! –Nick.’ What are you going to do? You know, we’re just the messengers.”
Konrad has one business strategy that he follows. “Fuel and maintenance is very expensive on airplanes,” Konrad said, “but if you can give back a little bit, it just comes back ten-fold. That’s the secret to business.”
Banner-towing hasn’t changed much since the 1920s, but the technique of picking up banners has been perfected. Banners can’t be attached to the plane prior to take off, so they are picked up with a grappling hook that is thrown out the window of the plane while swooping down at about 80 mph. The banner sits on pick-up rods that stand three or four feet from the ground. Catching the banner with the hook is a trial and error process. It can be fatal if not done correctly. If the grappling hook misses the banner and hits a hard surface, it can bounce over the plane and break through the Plexiglas window or put a hole in a wing. The rope could also get caught around the steering mechanism of the plane. If the plane swoops too low, there is a chance that the banner could get caught in the landing gear.
“When you’re in this business, you got to be pretty close to the Big Guy,” Konrad explained. “We have a pretty good understanding: I don’t do anything stupid, and He keeps me out of trouble. Every time I go out, I say a quick prayer.”
Despite the risks, Konrad loves what he does and Ingrid whole-heartedly supports his love for flying. “I don’t want to be a widow,” Ingrid said, “but you can’t ground a pilot, you just can’t do it.” For more information on Aerial Adventures Advertising check it out on the web, http://www.aerialadventuresadvertising.net, or call 1-877-204-5040.