How Low Can They Go?

Ag pilots fight a no-win situation in the Farm Belt

August 1, 2001

Jeff Bell fondly remembers the hot summer day in 1994. He was on a spray run, cruising at three feet agl and 110 mph, adjacent to a residential area. He pulled his Piper Pawnee up at the end of a row and glanced down at the fenced-in backyard pool. The naked woman in it was glaring up at him. "I didn't expect to see her and she certainly didn't expect to see me."

When he started in the business 15 years ago Bell thought flying crop dusters "was the most exciting thing." Today, Bell operates a 1975 Grumman AgCat and a 1983 Eagle Aircraft DW–1. In late April, the 38-year-old father of four was steeling himself for another five-month blur of spraying seed potatoes on the Antigo Flats in north-central Wisconsin: 3:30 a.m. alarms; up to 14 hours a day in the cockpit; old airplanes that break; soaring insurance costs; increasingly burdensome environmental regulations; and tight-fisted, demanding growers sinking under plunging commodities prices. "Man, I wish I had been a doctor," he laments.

Bell is waiting for this year's insurance bill, which he is certain will top $14,000. If he wants to spray herbicides, such as the popular weedkiller Round-Up that so many of us routinely use on our lawns, that will be another $3,000, thank you. If he has the misfortune of applying anything the slightest bit off target, the first fine and set of fees from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture will be $2,000, and the aggrieved party will certainly file a claim with his insurer for much, much more. After the third incident "you're out of business," he says. Last year, thanks to two scattered engines, he made no profit. To make money, Bell must bill his piston airplanes out for at least $375 an hour. Turbine operators must bill at two and three times that rate.

"You're crazy if you think spraying is going to make you rich," says Bell. "I have guaranteed acreage and I have a hard time making it. Down South [in the Mississippi Delta] they are running turbines at two dollars an acre just to make the bank payments. This is a cutthroat business."

For aerial applicators — the term the industry now prefers over the timeworn crop-duster label — such as Bell, the physical and financial risks and rewards are high. Think $400-an-hour lawyers and $300,000-a-year 747 captains make too much? Get down in the dirt with ag pilots, where in-your-pocket cash can top $30 a minute; the work season can last less than four months; and you can legally disregard altitude, duty time, and aircraft weight restrictions that govern most other aircraft operations. A plethora of perils can rise up at any moment, land you in court, wipe out your savings, or take your life. These are the stoic whipping boys for critics of America's agricultural-chemical complex, an often-derided marriage that has made the United States the world's most efficient crop producer.

Mention the term crop duster and people likely conjure up images of a Stearman mowing down Cary Grant in the 1959 Alfred Hitchcock thriller North by Northwest. Or they think of beer-swilling reprobates who meter the dawn through bloodshot eyes. The facts, of course, are different.

Since lead arsenate was first dropped from a Curtiss Jenny over Ohio in 1921, ag pilots have been a vital part of the food chain. If you think the recent energy price spikes are bad, consider this: Without ag pilots, up to 50 percent of the nation's crop and fiber production would be lost and prices would increase by up to 75 percent, according to the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA), the industry's trade organization. Beetles, weevils, and blight would all run their courses blissfully unabated by fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides. While ground-bound spraying equipment and certain strains of new biotech crops, genetically enhanced to resist insects or disease, have reduced the need for aerial spraying in some areas, aerial application remains the most cost-effective — and many times the only — way to protect popular fiber and crop staples such as cotton, rice, and soybeans.

Today, ag pilots use precision differential global positioning system (DGPS) units to reduce drift error to less than a meter; fly million-dollar turbine aircraft; and use sophisticated mathematical modeling, aerodynamic booms, and adjustable nozzle systems. They employ calibration systems developed by NASA to lay down efficient spray patterns and attend graduate-level human factors seminars.

And a lot of them are leaving. Since 1990, the number of ag pilots has shrunk by 20 percent. Today there are approximately 5,000 applicator pilots and fewer than 3,000 spray aircraft. Not as many pilots are entering the business. "The shortage of pilots is a concern for us," says the NAAA's executive director, Jim Callan.

"This could be the last roundup" for ag pilots, says John Filhiol, head of the aviation department at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. Filhiol runs the school's agricultural aviation courses and sees pilot attrition as the biggest threat facing the industry.

While large corporations own many of the farms they spray, the average applicator operator is "very entrepreneurial and family-oriented," according to Callan. Most have one or two airplanes and were either raised on a farm, or were related to or knew someone in the business.

"They're big and strong and tough," says Filhiol of ag pilots, "not so much physically as mentally." Filhiol raised cotton before switching to agricultural aviation and later teaching it.

Lynn Carlson, the NAAA's current president, was raised on a farm and became fascinated by a neighbor's Piper Super Cub. "I was five years old and that guy was my idol." Carlson sprays sugar beets with a turbine Ag Tractor outside of Northfield, Minnesota, and has been in the aerial application business since 1985. He is a high-time CFI and equates ag flying with shooting precision instrument approaches rather than the devil-may-care airshow aerobatics of famous former ag pilots such as Sean D. Tucker and Wayne Handley.

Carlson always wears a helmet and sometimes a fire-resistant Nomex flight suit. Aboard his Air Tractor, a DGPS links to a flow-control program for precise chemical application. Carlson orbits the target field and checks his equipment, then he hits his smoker and lays down a line to check for drift. He pushes the GPS twice, the light bar on the top of the instrument panel comes alive, and he begins a wide turn to prepare for his first "live pass." "You line up the lights, look at the field, and follow the row. Set the power, turn on the spray, turn it off, and pull up. It's kind of like doing a precision [ILS] approach after breaking out of the clouds." Carlson makes it sound easy.

It isn't.

This is becoming painfully apparent to me and my instructor, Andy Montague, after just a few minutes in the Air Tractor 502 simulator at Simcom's Orlando, Florida, campus. Simcom's three-day, $2,700 course — the only one of its kind — is equal portions of hardware acclimation and sound spraying technique. I've flown Sportsman category aerobatics in a Pitts but nothing has prepared me for this. I am stabbing the rudder pedals in an attempt to straighten the nose, my altitude is ballooning, and I am bouncing off the corn on the screen in front of me. Montague, an ag pilot with more than three decades of experience, is sitting behind the simulator's computer control panel chuckling. "Like flying a big, ol' kite," he says.

Then he breaks into a staccato of useful advice: "Don't get slower than 100; do your cockpit checks in the turn, not down on the deck. The first pass and the first turn are critical; most accidents happen in the turn. Look out for the guy wires and the standpipes." Montague's simulated field, one of dozens he can throw at students, has all the makings for mischief: a school, farm buildings, border roads, power lines, and towers. Ten minutes earlier he had demonstrated the sim to me, flying arrow-straight rows; making big, graceful turns at the end of them; buzzing effortlessly under power lines; and skidding precisely around towers. (Banking this close to the ground earns an express ticket to Valhalla.) He smiles as he manipulates the controls. "You'll enjoy these setups." From his computer console, Montague can manipulate aircraft systems and change temperature, humidity, wind, swath width, nozzle size, boom pressure, and a host of other factors that can shred even the most carefully planned flight.

The Air Tractor 502 has about the same wingspan as a Cessna Citation V and, depending on the load, can weigh up to 10,000 pounds. Loaded, larger models can top 16,000 pounds. (Under FAR Part 137, the section that governs agricultural operations, an operator is not limited to his aircraft's gross weight and can determine its "safe weight.") A panoramic moving screen of low-altitude, frighteningly realistic graphics fills my frontal and peripheral vision as my airspeed creeps up on 120 mph.

I pull up into a P-turn, a rapidly climbing and descending 270-degree turn made at the end of a row — followed by a 90-degree turn in the opposite direction to line up next to the swath just sprayed. Some pilots use an ag plane's enormous torque (or p-factor) to pull it around the P-shaped turn as airspeed deteriorates and altitude peaks approaching the turn's apex. With the nose pitched up 30 degrees, and up to 60 degrees of bank angle, the P-turn is arguably the most dangerous maneuver in ag flying. Often, pilots can avoid it, save time, and minimize drift error by flying circular racetrack patterns — but not always.

I'm getting ready to skid across another row, hopelessly off target, when the ultimate indignity hits: Strapped into this no-motion simulator, the industrial air conditioning on full blast, my shirt is getting wet and I am turning progressive shades of green. In less than 15 minutes the Air Tractor's big immobile yellow cockpit has reduced me to road kill.

A lot of the turbines have air conditioning and stereos, and the vibration is far less than that experienced when flying a piston radial. That said, 50 takeoffs and landings or more over the course of a 14-hour day can turn even the most seasoned minds to mush. Jeff Bell remembers one of those days. It started at 4:30 a.m. and by early evening his brain had migrated decidedly off task. In the middle of another mind-numbing row a giant field irrigator — it had been there all day — suddenly "popped out" in front of him. Bell yanked the stick and ducked to avoid the spray gun that surely was coming through the plexiglass. "I didn't miss it by more than an inch." He immediately flew home and landed with half a load still in the airplane.

The number of serious aerial application accidents has remained fairly constant, at about 25 a year, according to Mike Henry of the FAA's General Aviation Commercial Flight Standards Office. Henry spent two years spraying from a Bell 47 helicopter and knows well the mindset of the aerial applicator community. "There's a certain romance about spraying that attracts a certain kind of individual." Henry is speaking about rugged individualism. However, there is another character trait that courses through the veins of some spray pilots, one that contributes disproportionately to the accident rate: greed.

Adjacent to the cockpit's left wall, the big silver bar near the Air Tractor's throttle quadrant looks like an oversized flap lever from a Piper Warrior. This is the spray valve handle. Simcom's Montague calls it "the money handle." When the money handle is on, you're getting paid. The spray is off in the turns, so the natural inclination is to make turns as quickly as possible, in a very heavily loaded airplane, close to the ground. Montague says, "Imagine flying a [Cessna] 172 at double gross [weight]. This quick-turn deal becomes a disease." A deadly one. Wayne Handley made an instructional video to advise ag pilots on proper turning technique, and pilots are encouraged to use a racetrack pattern, rather than linear rows, whenever possible to both minimize turn bank angles and guard against off-target drift.

Jeff Bell views turns this way: "If you back off five percent and take three or four more seconds to do each turn safely, you lose maybe five minutes a day."

Safety has always been a big part of the NAAA's agenda, but three years ago the industry, supported by partial funding from the FAA, began the Professional Aerial Applicators Support System program. PAASS brings ag pilots, instructors, and outside experts together to frankly discuss the root causes of accidents and off-target drift, topics such as decision making and setting personal minimums, proper pilot rest and nutrition, and wind conditions. Since its inception, an estimated half of the nation's ag pilots have been through the program at least once. Lynn Carlson sees PAASS as the biggest advance to hit ag flying in years. Part science, part group therapy, pilots are encouraged to share their experiences with each other during the meetings. "You learn a lot from that," says Carlson.

As operators march headlong into seven-figure turboprops, Montague sees the industry bearing down on safety issues. "Planes are getting faster and faster and heavier and heavier. It's getting to the point where there are not going to be any small accidents."

This, combined with sharp price increases for insurance and fuel, has given many operators pause. According to the University of Louisiana's John Filhiol, "Ag pilots get tired, they get fed up, they don't want to do this anymore." Jeff Bell may be one of them. "This business takes away your personal life. It owns you."

The impact of all this may be coming to a supermarket near you.

Mark Huber is a marketing executive and an occasional contributor to Pilot. He lives and flies in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.