By TRACY T. THURMAN
An ag pilot’s day starts early, just as the sun lifts itself above the horizon. It’s cool in the morning. The air is clean and crisp. Standing on a dew sparkled grass runway watching the landscape emerge into the light of a new day is part of an ag pilot’s daily commute.
The morning calm however, is soon broken by a demanding shout. “Clear!” The ‘tick tick tick tick… whirrrr…’ of a turboprop engine coming to life shatters the serenity and the work day has begun.
All across the country, on air strips in rural valleys and farmlands, the same procedure is repeated. There are millions of acres that need to be planted, treated, and protected. Before most people have had their first cup of coffee, the men and women of agricultural aviation are in motion doing just that.
Ag aviation, aerial application, crop dusting — whatever the terminology used — is an integral part of food and fiber production. Whether it is seeding a new grain crop, applying fertilizer, or pesticides, the ag pilot’s job is one that carries great responsibility and requires a high level of skill, knowledge, dedication, and stamina.
The work starts at first light and will continue until it’s done. Many times that means the last landing will be under the falling veil of dusk. It’s long days in a hot cockpit. It is not uncommon for a pilot to make dozens of takeoffs and landings every day during the peak of the season.
Ag pilots work in acres, not hours. There are no schedules. Work depends on the needs of the farmers. You fly until the flying is done. Ag pilots learn to eat their lunch in the cockpit.
Night operations are prevalent in the South west and Central California and gaining interest in other parts of the country. It is a different aspect of the industry with its own set of circumstances and procedures, yet the practices and results are the same. Helicopters also play a major role in this industry and the role of the rotor wing is growing larger every year.
Ag flying is one of the last bastions of grass roots, revenue producing aviation. It is stick and rudder, intuitive flying where a pilot must know his machine intimately and the area he’s working like the back of his hand.
It is also a business with inherent risks. These risks are mitigated by training, professionalism, and experience. Quality equipment that is reliable and well maintained is a must.
It is an industry that works within its own ranks to teach new pilots and keep the old hands current and up to speed. Ratings and endorsements are good, but the only necessities are a commercial license and lots of tailwheel time. A low-time pilot with 500 hours in a Citabria will be more qualified than a high-time ATP with none.
Agricultural aviation has come a long way since the days of converted World War II surplus trainers. It’s a cutting edge industry with purpose built aircraft that on the top side of the fleet can cost in excess of $1.5 million with a useful load of more than 9,200 pounds.
The latest in GPS guidance technology and computerized delivery systems are now common place and the venerable old radial engines that earned their way for generations are in their last chapters, gradually fading into history as they are being replaced by more powerful, lighter, and enormously expensive turboprop engines. The old “round engines” are the Harley Davidsons of the skies however, so it is certain that they will never be completely gone.
This is a business that is difficult to get into. There are schools that offer training for careers in ag aviation. The truth is that even with formal training the door is hard to open. It takes a lot of hard work and determination to work your way into a crop duster seat.
An operator will usually require a new pilot to work a year or two on the ground, loading and wrench turning, learning the business literally from the ground up. Those first couple of years will tell a lot about a potential ag pilot. His attitude is generally what will put him in the cockpit or send him down the road.
The money is good in this industry. A pilot in his first year will likely exceed what a five year airline pilot will make. It is not uncommon for an experienced pilot to exceed the $100,000 mark.
If you’re thinking of becoming an ag pilot for that reason alone though, look elsewhere. This is not a job that a pilot can do just for the money and those who attempt it fail. It requires a dedication that most occupations never approach.
Flying is only about 20% of the job. Knowing the chemicals, the fields, the crops, the conditions required for applications and the timing in which they need to be done are only a few of the things an ag pilot needs to know and continually learn. He needs to be as devoted to agricultural production as the farmers themselves. The paycheck is more or less a by product.
The insurance companies have enjoyed a great deal of authority in the last several years. It is very difficult to get a new pilot covered in a turbine powered aircraft and quite expensive in a piston driven bird, but it can be done.
The pilot roster is growing grey. The average age of an ag pilot is between 50 and 60 years old, with many still flying into their late 70s. Part 137 of the FAA regulations places no age limit or duty day restrictions on ag pilots.
Of course, with the bureaucratic tendency to continually add more rules and limitations, the industry keeps a wary eye on Washington. Thanks to the National Agricultural Aircraft Association and the different state organizations, there is a collective voice in the halls of congress and state capitols. The NAAA is a valuable resource of knowledge and training material. Anyone interested in this business should look them up and request the information offered.
Agricultural aviation is challenging and rewarding. Though we have evolved into an advanced modern industry, we still carry the DNA of our barnstorming forefathers. That is to say that we live and work in the environment that is the breadbasket of America, small towns and rural lifestyles. We are professional yet informal; disciplined, yet adaptable. It’s a job where the money can be good, but it’s one that you have to love to be able to do.
It’s a way of life more than it is an occupation. It’s a world of flying, doing a necessary job that benefits mankind by helping to feed, clothe, and fuel an ever-growing world.Tracy Thurman, from Visalia, Calif., has been an ag pilot for more than 12 years.