It’s 4:30 in the morning when the alarm goes off. You crawl out of bed and look outside through the dark to see a starry sky and a slight rustle in the leaves. It’s time to move, the aphids and leafhoppers have been busy working all night causing destruction to the crop and the weeds are still choking the yield out of a good crop, both of which threaten the farmers future. You have a busy day lined up…over 9,000 acres to spray and more coming in every day.
You hope that the wind doesn’t pick up too much so that you can get in a full day of work. You can hardly believe that you have logged nearly 100 hrs in just the past week alone trying to stay caught up filling customer orders. Your muscles burn from the strain of piloting the heavy, overloaded aircraft through so many low-level high-G turns.
You preflight your aircraft and go over the work orders that you prepared the night before looking for critical information such as environmentally sensitive areas and field borders. You notice a light north wind blowing which means that half of your spray runs in the field will be into the rising sun. Very beautiful, but also very deadly as the bright sun likes to hide field obstacles.
The cool morning air is smooth and you drag your heavy airplane up to 300 feet to fly out to the field. You fly over the field and look very carefully, sometimes poles are hidden in the trees on either side of the field leaving just the wire in between. This scenario has killed quite a few pilots. You check for other obstacles and plan how to maneuver to avoid houses as your 600 H.P. P&W engine is very loud. You make a wide sweeping turn to line up on the field while you set up and calibrate your GPS swath guidance equipment and check the flight instruments one more time. You enter the field at a wheel height of 3 to 5 feet and 110 MPH for optimal results and make constant altitude adjustments to maintain swath height.
You take into consideration the 8 mph crosswind and maneuver to keep the aircraft tracking straight and plan to shut off your spray a good 50 feet from the end of the field to avoid spray drift. One second too late and you may damage another farmer’s expensive crop. You shut off your boom and immediately pull up sharply to avoid the tree rows at the end of the field. The aircraft responds sluggishly and it is physical work to maneuver the aircraft around to line up on the next swath. If you can finish the 1,400 acres that you have lined up for yourself for the day, you will repeat this process roughly 550 times today. You are experiencing an average day in the life of an ag-pilot.
The aerial applicators of today are highly trained, professional pilots working hard to change the image of “cropdusters” from years ago. Back then, most people thought of them as daredevils or barnstormers with little training and rattletrap airplanes strung together with duct tape.
Today, organizations and their members work hard to change the old image. Their goals and objectives are to promote and foster the development of a professional approach and attitude to the aerial application, develop professional standards in the industry, promote research and development in chemicals and application techniques, protect the environment, and develop an effective liaison with government agencies.
Education and training of members is a high priority of the National Ag Aviation Association (NAAA). Training programs for ground crews right up to the pilot are designed by members to ensure pesticides are safely applied. Spray clinics are conducted for pilots to ensure that their aircraft and associated equipment produce an accurate and safe application of an agricultural product. These clinics ensure that each customer gets the most out of each spray application with the assurance that every possible precaution has been taken to protect the environment.
Today, ag aircraft are state-of-the-art, designed specifically for aerial application. They have onboard computers that monitor the rate of application as well as Global Positioning System (GPS) to guide them down the fields accurately. Some have turbine engines and can cost upward of about $800,000. Today, technology permits the pilot to do the best job possible. It is seldom that application mistakes occur.
The face of agricultural aviation is changing at a mind-boggling pace. In the past 15 years; many factors have influenced the industry greatly causing both ups and downs. There are few industries with as much uncertainty about the future as the agricultural aviation industry. The only thing that can ensure our survival as an industry is to adapt to changes and maintain a presence in important issues.
One major change that has had much residual effect on the industry is insurance. In order to more easily service customers and have a greater range of operation, many operators have begun to purchase larger and more expensive aircraft. Probably the most profound effect of this has been on insurance. Agricultural aircraft are a big risk for both the owner and the insurer. As the fleet of aircraft around the country shrinks and the cost of aircraft rise, insurance companies are struggling to stay afloat.
They simply cannot afford to pay for the number of these high-dollar aircraft that are wrecked or damaged every year when their customer base is steadily shrinking. As a result of this, insurance rates must increase. The average operator with a clean record now pays around 10% or the aircraft’s insurable value per year which can go upwards of $80,000. In order to cover these costs, operators must cover more acres per year which simply spurs on the current trend.
Another factor that has much trickle-down effect on the insurance issue is the popularization of genetically modified crops (GMO). The majority of farmers around the world now rely on “Roundup Ready” crops. This new technology has helped farmers tremendously by simplifying and making weed control much more effective in certain crops such as soybeans, flax, and corn. The problem with this for aerial applicators and insurance writers is the issue of drift liability.
Round-Up, while non-toxic to humans, is extremely harmful to non “Roundup Ready” crops making the application more risky and difficult. Thousands of chemical drift claims are filed each year. As a result of this, Round-Up is now offered as a rider to the operators drift insurance policy and typically runs an extra $10,000 per aircraft. A very high percentage of aerial sprayers cannot afford to carry insurance for this particular chemical and therefore are not able to treat these GMO crops. Also, if an operator who is insured for Round-Up has more than two claims filed for drift, they will be denied insurance coverage.
Genetically modified crops have had an impact on more than just the insurance aspect of ag aviation. In the southern United States and in other parts of the world, cotton is an important crop. In years past, cotton would require weekly applications of insecticide to keep the harmful cotton weevil at bay. If you were to take a drive through cotton country 10 years ago, you would have seen numerous aircraft working as a furious pace. Today, cotton has been modified to resist the weevil altogether which has severely reduced the need for aerial application on cotton. This has caused a great number of aerial application operations to either downsize or close their doors altogether.
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