Flying the Crops

San Diego County in Southern California is an ag pilots dream: with agriculture that ranges from thousands of acres of mountainside avocado and citrus groves, to flowers, potatoes and wheat.
San Diego County in Southern California is an ag pilots dream: with agriculture that ranges from thousands of acres of mountainside avocado and citrus groves, to flowers, potatoes and wheat.
The old image of the whiskey-drinking, cavalier ag pilot, flying an open-cockpit bi-plane and buzzing the landscape, is an outdated stereotype thats about as far from the truth as you can get. aerial applicator Bob Hoag

Aerial application has a long and fascinating history. What began decades ago using whatever aircraft and equipment were at hand has evolved into a highly specialized sector of the aviation industry. No longer dominated by the stereotypical devil-may-care crop dusters in silk scarves, the aerial application industry today relies on advanced technology and a skilled, professional workforce. 
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Ag pilots are true partners in modern agriculture, which is primarily about yield: maximizing the amount of crops that can be grown and harvested from a plot of land. The ag pilots specific role here is to help the farmer achieve those high yields while also aiding profitability and sustainability by protecting crops from insects, diseases and other pests.
As well as being a fulfilling role, it is also one of the most enjoyable and interesting in aviation. For the six years Ive been an ag pilot, theres never been a morning when I didnt look forward to climbing into the helicopter and starting my day. And while aerial application is not a get-rich-quick industry, it does offer professional and financial rewards to those who are willing to rise to its challenges. As such, Vertical wanted to share this overview of the industry with those among our readers who might be interested in joining it (and with anyone else who might be curious about one of the helicopter industrys oldest sectors). 

Author Jason Colquhoun shares more about aerial application in this documentary produced for the California Agricultural Aircraft Association.

The Right Perspective
According to the National Agricultural Aviation Association, the worlds food needs will double by 2050. Of course, as the worlds population increases, the land available for farming will decrease. So, even if we consume less and each start to grow some of our own foods, crop yields for commercial farming will need to increase. Aerial application is considered one of the ways that crop yields can be maximized.
The aerial application industry is divided into two general categories: rotorcraft and fixed-wing. Each fills a particular need when it comes to protecting crops: airplanes provide efficient spraying of massive open fields, while helicopters are better able to work confined or sensitive areas, such as those near housing or wildlife habitats.
When it comes to protecting crops, there are specific times of year when issues of pest control need to be addressed. Crops are regularly inspected by entomologists or licensed pest control advisors to determine populations of specific pests that can cause economic damage whether insects, weeds, or various diseases or fungi. In the case of insects, beneficial insect populations are also noted so an integrated pest management approach that targets the detrimental insects, without harming the beneficial ones, can be utilized. As such, todays advanced pesticides are highly specific, and can be used to effectively target a single type of insect, fungus or broadleaf weed.
Aerial application is often chosen over ground application as pest populations can grow exponentially in a short period of time: aerial applicators can treat very large areas quickly and efficiently, thereby more effectively preventing yield loss. Ag helicopters, for instance, can treat several hundred acres an hour, while ag airplanes can do over a thousand. 
The Right Beginnings
As applicators, one of the questions we hear most often is, How do I get started in the business? Indeed, aerial application can seem like a difficult industry to break into, as it is one that mentors its own pilots into the field. And, as an industry, we are very protective as to who gets into our ranks the good of all of us depends upon the actions of our colleagues.
In the United States, aerial applicators are certificated under Federal Aviation Regulation Part 137, with additional pilot licensing requirements varying by state. California, where I work, is particularly stringent when it comes to licensing ag pilots, and has two licensing classes: an apprentice ag pilot class and a journeyman ag pilot class. Apprentice ag pilots must be directly supervised by an experienced journeyman ag pilot for at least one calendar year and a certain number of flight hours (50 for rotorcraft, 150 for airplanes) before they are eligible to become journeyman ag pilots.
While most other states do not have a formal apprenticeship requirement, it is typical for employers to require pilots to spend about a year working on the ground as mixers/loaders as part of their transition into flying crops. Unlike many helicopter sectors, flying in the agricultural sector requires a lot of non-aviation knowledge. Here, its not just about your wisdom and skill level as a pilot, you must also understand plant agriculture, crop protection products, insects, crop diseases and various associated regulations. For obvious reasons, a background in agriculture is a huge benefit, but its definitely not a requirement.
When I began my ag flying career, I went to work for my friend Bob Hoag, a 40-year veteran ag pilot and owner of Hummingbirds Inc. in Valley Center, Calif. I was fortunate enough to have met Hoag through a mutual friend in 2001, at a point when I had become disenchanted with my previous career in the film and photo industry. Hoag encouraged me to get my private rotorcraft certificate on my own, and then offered to help me with the rest of my training. I spent two years on the ground mixing and loading while he mentored me into the aircraft.
In a typical mentoring program, following your initial pesticide safety training you will be teamed with an experienced pesticide handler who will educate you on all aspects of the job, including advanced safety training, organization of the farmers application permits and the products to be mixed, and proper handling practices. The time spent working on the ground is a great time to study for and sit state exams for pesticide handling licenses. During this period, youll likely do little or no flying other than dual ferrying of the application aircraft. Once you pass the apprentice ag pilot exam in California or, in other states, once your mentor believes you have the appropriate knowledge base youll begin dual application training. 
Remember that a stock Bell 206 or MD 500 is very different than the same helicopter fitted with spray gear and operating at maximum gross weight. In other words, it takes time to get used to flying a helicopter so equipped. Consequently, youll begin by flying light loads with your mentor on the dual controls, learning proper patterns, timing and application techniques.
When I transitioned into the Bell 206, I flew about 200 hours of dual time with my California-licensed journeyman, and I was amazed at how much I learned each day. Entering a field at 70 miles an hour just mere feet over a set of powerlines, then dropping to an application height of two to three feet within seconds, is enough to catch most aviators off guard. Add in the requirement of doing this with full awareness of everything around you including field obstructions, performance limits, wind direction and proximity to sensitive areas, houses and people and it suddenly becomes a very full flight plan.
When your mentor is satisfied with your performance in flight, youll be ready to begin solo applications under their direct supervision. (From an insurance standpoint, having at least 500 to 1,000 hours of total time when you begin your initial solo application flights will be a huge benefit.) Usually, ag pilots in training will mostly apply water and nutrients, but also, some pesticides. Rarely, though, will they apply herbicides in their first few seasons, as most herbicides used on grain-type crops (designed to kill broadleaf weeds), can drift onto adjacent crops and cause costly damage when applied incorrectly. The potential for damage is even more severe with herbicides such as Roundup, which are non-selective, broad-spectrum herbicides designed to kill all weeds and grasses, and hence can only be applied by experienced ag pilots. As you gain practice, though, youll progress gradually to more complicated applications, including those in closer proximity to wires, difficult terrain and sensitive areas.
As you might expect, the flight environment in which we operate has several challenges, most notably the requirement to spend the majority of our time in the shaded area of the height-velocity curve. Like flying close to powerlines, it is an accepted risk, but one that can be done safely through sound maintenance, training and proper planning. That said, aerial application is not a job for the timid, or those who fly with their eyes in the cockpit if you spend all of your time staring at gauges, youll quickly auger in.
The Right Equipment
In aerial application, accuracy is of utmost importance. Aerial applicators use a special type of GPS accurate to less than one foot that records flight paths during applications and ferrying. 
The system I use is made by DynaNav Systems. Not only does it guide the applicator in lining up from the previous swath, it is linked to an onboard flow control system that controls the pressure of the spray boom output based on changes in groundspeed. For example, if Im making an application at five gallons an acre, the GPS unit sends ground speed information to the flow control unit, which adjusts the output pressure if I slow down or speed up. Using Google Earth, I can also create polygon field maps that are uploaded to the DynaNav computer, leading to increased accuracy. The maps can even be used for variable-rate applications, in which the GPS/flow control system automatically applies more volume in one area of the field and less in another.
Since agricultural GPS units record the entire flight path of the aircraft, they have also become great tools for aerial applicators that need to defend themselves against claims that their aircraft were operating where they shouldnt have been. Its the ultimate truth detector, observed Hummingbirds Bob Hoag. Its a great record for us and our customers, and also lets the regulators know we are operating properly, within regulations.
The most essential piece of equipment, of course, is the aircraft itself. Agricultural aircraft work in a somewhat hostile environment, and attention to maintenance is important not only for safety reasons, but for performance, as well. Having an aircraft go out of service during a busy time in the season can be disastrous; thats why it also generally pays to have more than one aircraft available. Said Roger Hewett, owner of Blair Air & Ground Service in Lemoore, Calif., Helicopters are a much higher maintenance item than the airplanes, and when one is down for the frequent maintenance they require, you need that back up.
Accordingly, there is a constant preventative daily maintenance schedule that is adhered to, and major component overhauls are scheduled for the quieter times within a season or are done out of season. Said Hoag, Ive replaced major components that had considerable time remaining, as their lifespan would [otherwise have ended] in the middle of a hectic season.
With ag helicopters, turbine engine compressors can be the hardest-worked components, due to the often-dusty environment. So, inlet barrier filters are a must, as they greatly extend the life of compressor blades and case halves. Another way most agricultural helicopter operations combat the dust is by landing on top of specially designed mixing trucks, which keep the aircraft and air intakes high above the dirty air near the ground. Ground crews will also wet down the area to control dust.
The Right Approach
Given all the demands of ag flying, its not surprising the right attitude is highly valued for new flyers. Unfortunately, not everyone attracted to the industry has that. 
During a break in the continuing education classes at the California Agricultural Aircraft Associations most recent annual convention, I was approached by a young pilot looking to start his aerial application career. Always eager to share my insights and knowledge with up-and-coming flyers, I was ready to provide details about everything I knew, from safety considerations, to how to start from the ground up. Unfortunately, this young pilot only seemed interested in how much money he could make and how quickly he could make it; he truly seemed ill-suited to ag flying… and maybe even flying in general.  
For me, aviation is my life, but Im also passionate about agriculture and helping farmers be the best they can be. Our actions can help make the difference between a successful crop and a huge drop in yield due to pest damage. However, its tough work, and its working in the dirt, so you have to love this job and be passionate about it, because you wont get rich doing it (well, not unless you own a fleet of aircraft and run a tight operation over a number of years).
That said, aerial applicators can make a good living often into six figures but you start out well below that and its sporadic revenue at that. Its usually not until at least your third season that you begin to see a stronger, steady income, and awhile after that before you reach the top dollars in the sector. Although it varies from company to company, pilots are usually paid a percentage of the gross revenue from their flights, normally around 18 to 20 percent (note that crop spray prices are based on the volume of the application, as higher volumes take longer to apply to a given area). As you become more efficient, your acreages covered in a season will rise, and so too will the gross revenues you produce.
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Of course, aerial application is not a steady nine-to-five job. Your busy season is during the summertime, and for months on end you may need to fly seven days a week, in tremendous heat and tough conditions. Family vacations can be tough to manage, and if you fly at night (see sidebar on p.80), it can be a difficult transition that affects your normal routines. Conversely, during the off-season many pilots have to find other jobs away from their home bases to maintain a flow of income.
The Right Public Relations
Another hurdle is one of public perception a growing number of people oppose the aerial application of pest control products, because they feel pesticides play a negative role in the production of food. Many of those people believe in organic foods, but actually dont realize that organic doesnt mean pesticides arent used. 
The truth is that organic farmers do use pesticides, often applied by air. The only difference between their pesticides and a conventional growers pesticides is the way in which they are created. Simply put, an organic pesticide cannot be synthetically created, but must be derived from natural substances, such as a plant base, bacterial spore or naturally occurring element. Generally speaking, these substances are less effective than synthetic pesticides, so more applications are often needed. Ironically, organic farmers are actually making up more and more of our customer base, and the techniques used to apply their protection products mimic those used for conventional farmers.
When people who oppose or are concerned about an aerial application in their area occasionally approach me, I look at it as an opportunity to educate and work together with them to address their concerns. In a way, as a modern aerial applicator you not only have to be a skilled pilot with a good knowledge of crop protection, you also have to be a good ambassador. 
The aerial application industry has been working diligently for years to educate the public on the important role its members play in food production, and show that their work has an emphasis on public, environmental and aviation safety. In the U.S., that task is spearheaded on a national level by the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA), and regionally by individual state associations. The NAAAs goal is to provide research and educational programs to enhance the efficacy, security and safety of aerial application, and to communicate to the public the importance of aerial application to agriculture, forestry and the public welfare.
According to Rick Richter, 2011 president of NAAA and a veteran ag pilot who plants and fertilizes tens of thousands of acres of rice in northern California each season, the Professional Aerial Applicators Support System (PAASS) program is the hallmark of the NAAAs educational programs. Pioneered by the National Agricultural Aviation Research and Education Foundation (NAAREF), an NAAA partner, PAASS is a voluntary educational program that has attracted supporters from all segments of related industries and levels of governments. Said Richter, Its primary objective is to reduce the number of aviation accidents and drift incidents associated with the aerial application of fertilizers and crop protection, and weve learned to zero in on the human factors which cause aviation accidents, and put programs of education into place to mitigate these factors.
PAASS sessions take place at NAAA and state association conventions, and have become widely attended by aerial applicators across the U.S. The wealth of knowledge and experience in the room during these seminars is impressive, and even the most experienced ag pilots benefit from them. Said Richter, Aeronautical decision-making is a huge focus, and were seeing positive results nationally.
Final Thoughts
If youre thinking about getting into ag flying, contact the NAAA in the U.S., or the Canadian Aerial Applicators Association in Canada. Aerial application is a tremendously rewarding sector of the aviation industry, and there is an ever-growing need for more pilots to aid farmers in realizing high-yield crop production for domestic consumption and international exports.
Before you start planning your move, though, please know that its not for everyone. As Blair Air & Ground Services Roger Hewett put it: Attitude is everything in a pilot. When it comes to taking on a new guy, its not something you do lightly, but Id be much more interested in a lower-time pilot with a great attitude than a high-time guy who wants to do it his own way. Of course, if youve got both experience and a great attitude, thats even better. 
Either way, the right mindset is the key component, because aerial application can be tough flying at times, with long hours in often hard conditions. The upside, as Ive said, is the satisfaction that comes from knowing youre doing something important. Personally, I have never experienced a more rewarding feeling than the one I get from flying for Americas farmers, and being in the fraternity of such a special group of aviators. Im very lucky these are truly some of the hardest-working and most genuine people Ive ever had the pleasure to know.
Jason Colquhoun worked in photography in New York for seven years before becoming an ag helicopter pilot. He now resides with his wife, Lorie, and son, Grant, in peaceful Southern California.

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