Owner’s Handbook: Cream of the crops

Light aircraft are trainers, check-runners, news gatherers, ambulances, taxis, tour guides, fire fighters, police patrollers and family haulers. That’s what general aviation is all about.

As aviation enthusiasts, I am sure we all share the same disgust when we hear the uninformed (mainstream media, non-pilots, etc.) make generalizations about aviation that are incorrect. Well, over the past six months, I have gotten an incredibly up-close and personal look into another industry that puts aircraft to work — and hard work, at that. This is the agricultural industry. And I found that my generalized perceptions about agricultural aviation were way off the mark.

Like all modern industries, today’s farmers use technologically advanced methods, equipment and products. These tools assist in providing food and fiber for the world’s growing population and protecting our natural resources. As part of this, aircraft are used to apply crop protection products in a safe, efficient, economical and environmentally friendly manner.

Without crop protection products to control insects, weeds and diseases, crop yields per acre would drop by more than 50%, according to the National Agricultural Aviation Association. It’s more than 1,250 agricultural operator members who accomplish more crop protection in one hour than ground equipment can in a day, the association claims.

The first misnomer is the use of the word “dusting,” because most applications are in liquid form. From its beginnings in 1921, aerial application has evolved into a highly technical industry that, in addition to controlling insects, weeds, and diseases that threaten crops, performs many other vital jobs. Aerial applicators plant seed from the air into flooded rice fields, and they spread rye grass seed in cornfields prior to harvest to prevent soil erosion. They fertilize and add nutrients to soil for healthy crops and forests. They also protect human health by controlling flies and mosquitoes.

One of the major misimpressions I had was of the equipment these operators flew. The majority of the ag operators now fly airplanes and helicopters with turbine engines. Not really having paid attention to the agricultural aspect of general aviation, my image of ag flying was one held over from my days with Cessna in the ’70s, of piston-powered Agwagons and Agtrucks. It is now common to see ag operators flying turbine airplanes with values pushing $1 million when brand new.

The nature of the aerial application business was far more high-tech than I had anticipated. The images of salty dog pilots doing low-level aerobatics, buzzing fields and dropping their loads was only minimally close to reality — “close” in that these pilots work it hard in their turns to get out, turned around and back on the field for another pass. It’s aggressive flying, to be sure, but just getting “close” for the pilot is not good enough anymore.

First, they have to be absolutely on target for each pass. GPS is a big player in this. Today’s ag aircraft are equipped with special GPS-based equipment that actually has the field loaded into it, and each pass is represented by an icon on the pilot’s screen. Additionally, there is a large box that actually sits outside the cockpit on the forward part of the cowling. In this box is a light-bar setup that the pilot follows to fly each pass perfectly on line.

Imagine flying a localizer approach at 130 knots and five feet off the deck. The approach must be perfect and, at the missed approach point, you either have to pitch up quickly or go under some wires, then do a tight climbing left 90-degree turn, followed by an even tighter 270-degree right turn, while dropping back down to five feet, while intercepting the light bars again to fly another perfect approach. Now, repeat this 100 more times before your day is over. If you screw it up and the chemicals drift — even just a little bit — to where they shouldn’t be, you’re going to face off with a very upset land owner as well as your insurance adjuster. Forget that a wire is there and the result is even worse.

Oh, did I mention that the speeds have to be on the mark, too? That’s because the chemicals are carefully mixed for a certain volume of application over each acre. Fly slower than target speed, and you put it on thicker than called for. Fly too fast and it goes on too thin. In either case, you have screwed up. Flow controls and precisely-calibrated spray equipment are only as good as the pilot flying the plane.

As an EMS helicopter pilot, I don’t have to know a thing about medical procedures to do my job. I don’t have any direct patient contact. Not so with ag flying. Pilots are required to pass extensive state tests for specific aerial applicators licenses. The pilots are responsible for taking care of their equipment and making sure that they understand their mission and the chemicals. And then they have to deliver the product accurately. If you think we have it tough being watched by the FAA, try adding the EPA, FDA, OSHA and DOT to the list.

This is one tough industry. These aircraft work hard. They fly all day and have to be worked on at night to be back at it the next day. The runways almost always are rough grass strips. In some locations, the flying is all year long and paced accordingly. In other places, the season may only be five months long, and the owners have to make enough money in those months to last all year. It’s a high-pressure, high stakes game.

This kind of pressure obviously is a big factor in the industry’s accident and drift incident chains. In the 1960s, the NAAA was established to foster industry development to the highest standards. As in other segments of the aviation industry (EMS for example), accidents in ag flying were frequent and often deadly. And just as in EMS and other segments, it was the industry itself that took the lead to fix the problem, rather than let the government step in and do it for them.

The NAAA then developed its PAASS Program (Professional Aerial Applicators Support Program), which is devoted to flight safety and minimizing off-target drift of products. Even with all the high-tech gear and more reliable turbine-powered equipment, it still comes down to the pilots, the mechanics and the human factors associated with the job. And when it comes to putting airplanes to work — hard work — I don’t believe there is any group of airplane owners tougher than the agricultural aviation operators.

Guy R. Maher is a business owner and aircraft appraiser with more than 12,000 hours in general aviation airplanes and helicopters. He is an independent buyer’s agent and flight instructor for type specific initial and recurrent training. He can be contacted through the above e-mail address, or by calling 704-287-3475.

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