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If you’re a resident of the Santa Maria Valley in central California — or have spent any degree of time in the area — you’ll have most certainly heard the whirl of one of English Air Service’s Bell 47 helicopters in the sky above you in the early morning. Owned by Mark and Tracy English and located at Santa Maria Airport, English Air is an agricultural operations specialist that uses several versions of the classic Bell 47 to provide year-round service to the farmers of the region’s fertile coastal plains.
While the company has broadened its operations over the years, offering lidar aerial surveys around the country and then moving into the utility market with the use of an MD 500, agricultural operations are still the heart of English Air.
Mark always dreamed of making a career in the aviation industry. His love of flying started at a very young age, and, in 1981, he gained his fixed-wing pilot’s certificate. Rotary-wing qualification soon followed, and in 1986, Mark and Tracy started English Air as newlyweds. A loan from a local bank helped the pair purchase their first helicopter, and with the support of the local farming community, Mark’s dream job took flight.
“With little money, we rented a space in an open field where we kept the first helicopter — a Hiller 12E — while Mark’s desk was outside by a barn,” said Tracy. “Eventually, more and more farmers started giving Mark more work, and we were able to move to a hangar at the airport, which had a desk inside!”
As the workload increased, the couple purchased a second helicopter — a Bell 47G-5 — which marked the start of a lifelong loyalty to the type. Dean Tuck, a friend of Mark’s from high school, worked with the company in a support role, and took flying lessons with Mark. Once he became a qualified pilot, he joined the company to become its second pilot, and is still with English Air today.
From a fleet of just one helicopter in 1986, English Air now has 10 — including five Bell 47s, one Bell 47 “Soloy”, two Bell 206 Bs, and two MD 500s. To support the fleet, it has three large agricultural support trucks, each with their own landing pads. With eight hired or contracted employees, English Air now operates in all of the contiguous 48 states and has Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) part 133, 135, and 137 operating certificates.
A wonderful workhorse
The Bell 47 remains the core of the English Air fleet. It has three Bell 47G-2As powered by Lycoming VO435AIF piston engines, two Wasp-style single seat Bell 47 variants equipped with the same Lycoming engine, and a Bell 47 Soloy powered by a turbine Rolls-Royce M250 420-shaft-horsepower engine.
“Our Bell 47 Soloy has quickly become the workhorse of our ag aircraft fleet, giving us the opportunity to work in all areas — especially at higher altitudes and on hot days,” said Mark, adding that he would like to expand the turbine-powered Soloy fleet and keep flying it as long as possible.
“They are very reliable, fuel is cheaper, and they have much longer overhaul times [than the piston-powered aircraft],” he said. “They are also very quiet and this lowers the fatigue factor.”
On the downside, the turbine engine costs more to overhaul, he said, but lasts much longer than a piston engine if taken care of. With that in mind, he would like to add at least one more turbine aircraft to the fleet, while using the piston-powered 47s as backups or when the company has a higher-than-average workload.
Mark said the Bell 47G has remained a great aircraft for the work the company performs in the low altitude cooler coastal California plain. The downside is the support for the engine. “Lycoming isn`t supporting the piston engines any longer, so we are seeing rising prices and delays for overhauls,” he said. “We plan on flying them as long as we can and it helps there are still people supporting the Bell 47 series with PMA [parts manufacturer approval] parts.”
As for the Wasps, Mark said these aircraft are used for everyday row crop applications. “The awesome unobstructed visibility is perfect for what we do and also reduces the weight, allowing for additional payload,” he said. “This version is inexpensive to operate and we can still get parts, so it will stay with us into the future.”
All of English Air’s agricultural operations aircraft are equipped with either TracMap or Trimble mapping systems, and use Isolair spraying equipment. The piston aircraft carry 100-US gallon (380-liter) loads of chemicals, while the turbine carries 110 US gallons (415 liters).
Meeting the regulations
In the Santa Maria Valley, agricultural aerial application is a year-round business, but English Air is busiest in the summer, when it can routinely spray over 800 acres a day. The helicopters spray vegetables including broccoli, cauliflower, celery, various types of lettuce, and cabbage. During the winter, the spraying work slows down a little, but broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, and other seasonal crops still need protecting. During rainy winters, English Air will be out spraying the large and sweet strawberries that Santa Maria Valley is known for around the world.
Having been in the crop-spraying business for so many years, English Air is well versed in the chemicals it uses. “We have to abide by the many local, county, state, and federal laws on chemical usage,” explained Taylor English-Seward — Mark and Tracy’s daughter and a manager at English Air. “Our people know the products well, and know how to apply them in a safe manner.”
In the summer, organic applications are becoming more frequent, as most growers move to farming both traditional and organic produce. While organic food is produced free of chemicals, it’s not uncommon for organic crops to still be sprayed with organic pesticides and/or fungicides. This requires more frequent application, as the organic pesticides are not as strong as the chemical pesticides.
Most of the chemical pesticides English Air uses have a re-entry level of 24 hours, which means that it is safe to re-enter the field 24 hours after an application. Since most spraying is done early in the morning, this makes it convenient for the ground crew to come in and harvest the crops when they are ready.
Both chemical and organic applications are monitored by the state, the Agricultural Commissioner, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and a local pesticide residue testing facility. English Air said none of the chemicals it applies to crops produce any risk to the health of consumers or the applicators and their ground crew — as long as the pesticides are properly applied according to the label. To keep up with English Air’s licensing, it performs monthly tests of its pilots’ and ground crews’ Cholinesterase levels to make sure they are properly using the company’s personal protective equipment and are not in direct contact with the pesticides.
“These growers feed their families with the crops they grow — they would never add any pesticides to it that they wouldn’t feed their own family,” said Mark. “The chemicals being put on our produce here through English Air Service are as safe as can be. We follow all guidelines and regulations brought to us.”
A community business
The agricultural industry is big business in the Santa Maria Valley, but Mark and Tracy are proud to say that they are still servicing the same customers/farmers/friends that took a chance on a young couple back in 1986.
“Everyone knows everyone in the area and we worked hard, kept our word, and did what we needed to do to make our clients and friends happy with our services,” said Mark. “When we said we would be there, we were there.”
English Air’s operational area for agricultural spraying has kept largely within the Santa Maria Valley, but it ventures south into Santa Barbara and north into San Luis Obispo for certain jobs. And during cold winter nights, English Air is hired by farmers to help prevent frost by using the helicopters’ downwash to move air so that plants do not freeze. “Frost control is a bit boring, and we stay up all night and into the morning flying, but in the end it keeps the ledgers full and helps the farmer and their crops,” said Mark.
In 2004, English Air expanded its business by moving into lidar (light detection ranging) aerial surveying, for which it utilizes two Bell 206B JetRangers equipped with specialized electronic gear. The helicopters map the distance from a powerline to vegetation, as well as the distance from other lines. In addition to the vegetation clearing, lidar mapping makes sure the powerlines are upgraded and in the correct placement. These jobs take the helicopters around the country.
During the last couple of years, English Air has expanded into powerline construction and maintenance, as well as powerline vegetation management and mapping. For these operations, English Air operates two MD 500s. “The [MD] 500 series is the standard in this type of utility work,” said Mark. “It’s a fun aircraft with plenty of maneuverability, reliability and safety features that make it the premier aircraft for the job. I was a little rusty on flying it, but my skills are back and I enjoy the machine.”
Most maintenance at English Air is done in-house, although engine and transmission overhauls are sent to outside vendors. The company has a good supply of Bell 47 parts, and after operating it for 30 years, knows the aircraft’s faults and how to repair them.
“We don’t fly the aircraft hard, and we have found the Bell 47 to be a ‘sorted-out’ machine without many surprises,” said English Air mechanic Richie Seward. “The turbine Soloy runs well, while the pistons need a bit more servicing. Overall the dynamic systems on all versions are very reliable. Other than the piston engine, parts are still readily available and relatively easy to come by.”
In June 2017, after a few years of being pursued by outside investors, Mark and Tracy decided to sell English Air. However, they are both still extremely active in the company’s everyday operations and are enjoying watching the company they built from the ground up continue to grow at the hands of Byron Wimmer and Steve Bell.
Thirty-seven years after gaining his licence, Mark is as passionate about flying as ever, and with Tracy’s support has no plans on retiring anytime soon. In late 2017, EAS moved across the airport to a much larger hangar, where it gained more office space and a separate storage area for its substantial spare parts inventory. Mark highlighted the longevity of service of many of the company’s employees, who include agricultural pilot Dean Tuck, chief pilot Mike Zemlock, director of maintenance Mike Wilson, field mechanics Wade Hartman and Richie Seward, ground crewmen Luis Valdez and Fernando Enciso, contract mechanic Mike Wyatt, and Bell 206 pilots Adam Pyles, Alex Lugo, and JP Robinson. “These people make it all happen and having been with us for so many years they know exactly what to do every day,” said Mark.
Thinking back on over 30 years in business, Tracy said there have been a lot of ups and downs — but mostly ups. “Mark and I are so blessed that no one was ever hurt during the time we owned English Air,” she said. “We are so thankful for everything and everyone that has touched our lives, helped us along the way, and supported Mark’s dream.”