A Danville pilot was behind, above and inside the skywritten smoke messages that transfixed hundreds of thousands of people on the ground during the recent New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Nathan Hammond, a pilot, mechanic and, for the eastern half of the United States, skywriter for the Arizona-based company Oliver's Flying Circus, trailed smoke to create inspirational messages: smiley faces, peace signs, hearts and words such as jazz, amen and — an extra challenge — transform.
New Orleans entrepreneur Frank Scurlock conceived the idea and hired Hammond to create the fanciful, fleeting art.
Scurlock, whose family runs a bounce-castle manufacturing and rental company, said the messages were simply his way of reminding people that goodness can flourish in a world that seems increasingly marred by violence.
"This is just a simple way for people to just look up in the sky, and say, 'Wow, what a great world that we live in,' and a chance to believe and have faith in not only today but in the future," Scurlock said.
Hammond flew his plane from Kentucky to be in New Orleans for Jazz Fest, which ran for seven days over the course of two weekends. The festival ended Sunday.
"We're out here just kind of spreading the love, over the top of New Orleans," he said.
Often, Hammond's work involves advertising and marriage proposals, but there also are air shows.
Scurlock's request was unusual. The entrepreneur hired Hammond for 10 days, three flights a day.
Hammond said Wednesday during a telephone interview that his father, Bill, used to be a skywriter. Hammond, 33, apprenticed under his father and the owner of Oliver's, Suzanne Asbury Oliver.
Hammond flies an experimental Super Cub airplane. He said the flying has to be intuitive so the skywriter can concentrate on the intricacies of creating the text.
"That's the biggest fear of the skywriting pilot, that we spell something wrong," he said.
He credits his English teachers with his perfect spelling record in the sky.
Sometimes, though, Hammond said he takes a moment during a flight "to get the big picture again, and then go back and finish."
Writing the message is one level of difficulty, but that's not all Hammond has to worry about during the smoke-message process. He also has to consider the position of the sun, whether the clouds are threatening to block the message, and how to best use the wind to his advantage.
Hammond has to keep his wits — and spelling skills — about him when he's flying in tight loops or barrel rolls.
He estimates that the letters are about a mile tall, and a single message can stretch for 10 miles.
On the ground in New Orleans, festival goers were transfixed.
"I've seen him all week," said Mary Mouton of New Orleans. "I've taken pictures of him every single day, and enjoyed him and wondered who did it. Every time they would start a word, we'd try to figure it out before they finished what it is."