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Meet the pilot who drew a giant ballerina with his flight path
A guy from Raleigh tracked his plane with GPS to create a 25 mile-long dancer, along with other pieces of invisible sky art. He never intended for anyone to find out about them.
Last month, a Rabbit Hole reader who goes by @hotcakes_33 on Twitter tipped me off to a piece of art that was 25 miles long, 11 miles wide and entirely invisible to the naked eye. What you’re looking at above is the track of a flight path posted by the aviation site Flightradar 24. According to that site, a Piper PA-28-161 that belongs to the Wings of Carolina Flying Club took off from of Raleigh Executive Jetport in early April. Over the next hour-and-a-half, that plane made precise turns and drew a ballerina in the retiré position.
Sky art is increasingly becoming A Thing, with pilots drawing words, queens, and even kangaroos (the last one was a celebration of the final flight of the last remaining 747 in Qantas’s fleet). But in North Carolina, there were questions that the blog didn’t answer about the giant ballerina. Like, who drew it? And how did they do it? And why?
Turns out, the pilot himself started replying to the original Flightradar 24 tweet. His name’s Thomas Larsen. He’s 34, and lives in South Raleigh with his wife and two daughters. He drew the ballerina, he said, because his youngest daughter had started taking ballerina and tap lessons this year. “She loves dancing and performing in front of people. Her joy reminds me of how I felt about flying when I was her age. I wanted to capture it as a reminder to myself, and to support her in my own unique way.”
This is just the latest piece of sky art that Larsen has created since March of 2022. He’s drawn a cat. A Venus fly trap. A giant “100” for a family member’s 100th birthday. A gnome. His intention wasn’t to get attention. In fact, barely anyone knew he was creating sky art until Flightradar somehow caught on. I talked to Larsen last week, and he told me how he does this, why he does this, and what his fellow pilots think of him now. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
RABBIT HOLE: Tell me about yourself. What do you do, and how does flying fit into your life?
THOMAS LARSEN: I’ve loved flying since I was probably six years old. I was originally gonna be a professional airline pilot. It was kind of my career goal until the end of high school, but the airlines were not doing so hot. I had a conversation with my parents and they encouraged me to pick a more stable career path, so I went into finance and accounting. I currently manage a team of data analysts for a legal and integrity department, looking for fraud or corruption within the company I work for. My job is rather challenging. It’s something that sometimes keeps me up at night. So flying is basically a very expensive hobby and something I do to get away and unwind a bit.
RABBIT HOLE: Have you always flown, or did you pick it up again more recently?
LARSEN: I got my pilot's license at 17, and I flew as a hobby through college and even a couple of years after. But then, you know, I got married a couple of years later, had a couple of kids, and stopped. I ended up kind of going inactive for about 8 or 9 years until I moved to North Carolina about five years ago. About two years ago, I decided to start flying again. There's a great flying club down between Raleigh and Sanford at the Raleigh Executive Airport. Great place. Great aircraft. It was just the right time. I had the time, had the money, and had the desire to get back into it.
RABBIT HOLE: When did you decide to start doing the, I don't know, what would you call it? Like, it’s not skywriting. It's a different thing. But like, uh, the drawing or the … whatever. What would you call it?
LARSEN: I sort of call them Etch-a-Sketch flights. Yeah, I don't really have a clean, easy way to refer to it, to be honest. But that started kind of on a whim last year about this time. I don't know, the thought just came to me. Every now and then you see something come through an aviation newsletter. Or some random posting of someone who went and made these pictures.
I'm not an acrobatic pilot. I'm not a military pilot. I don't do amazing, interesting things. And that was one of the first times I thought, Hey, I think I could probably do something like that. So I put together a little design and I flew it. The first one was kinda kind of rough. It was a bit different than my normal routine of just going up and practicing some maneuvers and coming back. It kinda had more of a mission element to it. It was a little bit fun. And so I decided to keep doing it when the inspiration hit me.
RABBIT HOLE: How was it rough the first time? What went wrong, or what was hard to do?
LARSEN: It's really challenging. One of the things that you practice in your primary flight training is what they call ground reference maneuvers. You’re usually either making a circle around something on the ground, or you're making a box, or you're flying in “S” shape over a road. It can be tricky because, you know, in an airplane, your reference isn't really the ground. It's the air around you. So if you're flying 50 miles an hour and the wind is pushing you 10 miles an hour, you're actually going 60 miles an hour over the ground. And so the trickiness of doing any kind of ground reference maneuver—including these pictures—is that you're constantly having to adjust what bank angle you use and how quickly you turn the airplane. If you have a tail wind, you gotta turn quicker or else you're gonna blow past your line. If you're going slow, you actually have to turn a little bit less aggressively so you don't turn too sharply. So keeping that balance in a very dynamic environment like the sky is the part that was very surprising at first. It wasn't as easy as I thought it would be to accommodate for the wind basically pushing me around.
RABBIT HOLE: So in general, like how do you do it? Like how do you design it? Fly it? How do you know if you nailed it?
LARSEN: It's quite a process. It starts with me and a little notebook of grid paper and a pencil, and I sketch out some designs. I'm not an artist by background or by creative measure whatsoever. So the sketches are quite basic, but they get the job done. Once I'm happy with the design, I will convert that into a digital format in a vector graphics program on the computer. Then I have a little process that converts that image format into coordinates, so that each point on the image where I need to make a turn becomes a coordinate on a map. Then I copy those coordinates into my iPad. I use a special program for pilots to do the navigational piece. And I basically put those coordinates into the iPad and it charts the route for me. Just like GPS in a car, a GPS in an airplane can track your position relative to the path that you've drawn. I just try to keep it on the line. So I'm making heavy use of GPS and technology to do the navigation piece. But I am hand flying the airplane. There's no autopilot involved. The airplane is not doing it itself.
RABBIT HOLE: You pretty much have to do it all in one line. Like you can't go back and do it again. There's no eraser. You have to do the path that you wanna do, or it just doesn't happen.
LARSEN: Yeah. There's been a couple of times where I've missed. In fact, my first attempt at doing the ballerina was a failure. I missed the turn around the nose and just totally blew it. So I kind of called it a night, came home and adjusted the path a little bit. I made it a little bit more feasible and easier to manage and I tried it again. But, yeah, you’ve gotta to do it all in one fell swoop.
RABBIT HOLE: How much margin for error is there?
LARSEN: It can vary a little bit. If I’m talking about something where there's not a lot of detail—like in the ballerina’s legs or arms—I can be off of the centerline a good quarter mile and you probably wouldn't notice. But when you're in the points of the image where you're making tight turns, where everything is really close together? You really have to be within a couple hundred feet or else it starts looking a little off. So there are times in the flight where I'm really focused on hitting it as accurately as I can, and there's others where I'm not as concerned and let it go a little bit further. I can take a deep breath and get ready for the next round of crazy turns.
RABBIT HOLE: How long does it actually take you to do these? And then what are you doing while you're up there flying?
LARSEN: So each flight usually takes between an hour-and-a-half and two hours. I have some control over the timing based on how much space the image takes up. I can adjust the size of the image to make it a shorter path, so to speak. Prep-wise, it's really a standard pre-flight for me. I make sure I'm not gonna bust any flight restrictions or anything like that. I get weather briefings. I pay particular attention to what the winds up in the air will be, because that will help me anticipate the turns better. Nothing too special there.
But in terms of what's going on in the cockpit, it's a lot of back and forth and multitasking because again, I'm constantly hand flying the plane, trying to maintain a single altitude. I’m constantly looking out the window for two reasons. One: I find it easier to fly the plane looking out the window rather than looking down at a GPS. Two: I need to be constantly on the lookout for other airplanes in case they're not on radar. But I’m constantly looking at the GPS. I’m checking how close I am to the line. Within about half a mile to a mile of each way point, I'm configuring some instruments in the cockpit to point me in the direction I need to go in next. It's a very work intensive process. I usually end the night very exhausted.
RABBIT HOLE: Are you doing this in the evening or after dark?
LARSEN: I do these exclusively at night. Part of it is so that when I do a proficiency flight, it's for me. I do them at night so I don't take away family time during the day. But also, there's not as many people flying at night, so it’s safer in my mind. There's less traffic to be worried about. Less things to run into.
RABBIT HOLE: This is not the first time that I've seen something like this. I've seen people do it on Strava. They’ll be in some city with a grid, and then they'll go run, and their path will draw some kind of picture. I've also seen this with aviation. So how many people are out there doing this? What's the community like of people that are doing this?
LARSEN: Great question. I'm probably not the best person to ask. I know there are others doing it. I’m not an overly open, sharing person, you know. I actually did not make this with any intention of being noticed. The first time my flying club heard about it was when they read the Flightradar 24 article and posted it in our club's Slack channel, right? I hadn’t even told anyone at the club that I fly at.
RABBIT HOLE: How did that conversation go when they all found out about the ballerina?
LARSEN: Well first, I don't know where Flightradar 24 found out about it. They obviously knew the airplane had done it. But they certainly didn't know who the pilot was. There must have been someone looking at ground tracks who thought Oh, that was interesting. When the club found out, they kind of posted an open message, you know, Hey, what's up, who did this? So I popped in and took the blame for it. There's a lot of interest. There were a lot of people that thought it was neat and wanted to know how it was done. I had a little bit of conversation digitally around that.
RABBIT HOLE: What's the next one you have planned?
LARSEN: I'm kind of sketching up a chisel with a little wood curl coming off the end. I aspire to someday know how to do woodworking. I’m not great at it today, but it's something I enjoy. So I wanted to do a little bit of a homage to, to kind of more classical carpentry or woodworking. It’s in my sketchbook at the moment, but I'm still working through designs.
RABBIT HOLE: Is there any kind of theme to what you draw?
LARSEN: It is really challenging to find something that speaks to me that you can draw without ever lifting up a pencil, right? The union of those is quite limited. If the inspiration hits me and I'm able to sketch out something I like, then I'll do it. It's very sporadic. It's really kind of on a whim. There's really not much of a theme to it except it's usually something that I've encountered or experienced, you know, in life and want to express it in a different way.
RABBIT HOLE: So now that you made it on to Flightradar and your club knows about this, are you just gonna keep on doing what you’ve been doing or are people asking you to help them figure out how to do it?
LARSEN: There's been a little bit of interest. I mean, obviously you're talking to me about it. I’m happy to talk about it. I’m kind of waiting for the classic 15 minutes of fame thing to calm down. After that, I'll just keep doing what I do in my newfound obscurity.