Flying way under the radar
Aerial applicators stay low to spray local fields
Friday, April 27, 2012
This is high-tech stuff
QUINCY — Mark Brown said one of the myths of the business is that it’s low-tech.
“Barnstorming, it’s not,” he said. “It’s computerized equipment and real high-tech software and expensive equipment. We use GPS for guidance; it’s accurate to within inches when you’re going 130 miles an hour.”
He noted that computers adjust the amount of spray coming out of the plane, correcting for the exact speed of the plane.
The main work season for aerial applicators is between April and October with the busiest months being June, July and August.
“The crops are all growing and we’re controlling insects and controlling disease,” he said.
Brown said he knows his wife, Tara, worries about him when he’s flying but he considers the job fairly safe. He said aerial applicators get extensive training every year, usually at sessions held during trade meetings. Brown is a board member with the Pacific Northwest Aerial Applicators Alliance, which has 350 members in Washington, Idaho and Oregon. He is president of the 50-member Association of Washington Aerial Applicators. There are 1,300 members in the national organization.
— Dee Riggs, World staff
QUINCY — The key to flying eight to 10 feet off the ground at 130 miles per hour is knowing where your obstacles are.
When he was first learning to fly in the agricultural industry, Mark Brown missed one.
“I flew through a set of power lines, severed them,” he said. “It was like hitting a rock with your airplane.”
He wasn’t hurt, the airplane sustained only cosmetic damage but he had to pay a few hundred dollars in damages to the power company.
Since then, Brown has had no accidents, despite flying about 500 hours per year at those amazingly low altitudes.
Brown is an aerial applicator. Years ago, he would have been called a crop duster.
No more, Brown said. That’s an outdated term. Applicators today spray liquid, not the dust of days gone by.
Brown, 43, is one of two men, employed by Rick Weaver’s Quincy Flying Service, who fly turbo prop airplanes called Air Tractor 502s over roughly 155,000 acres of farmland every year. They’re spraying crops such as wheat, potatoes, corn, carrots, peas and beans. And they’re in charge of when they let loose the liquid herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and fertilizer in their tanks. The goal is for the product to hit only the intended crop.
To do this, applicators often must fly over a field more than once. That’s because the wind must be blowing just right so the liquid doesn’t land on a different crop, on a highway or on a house.
“A lot of times, it may take winds from four different directions to get the job done,” Brown said.
Thus, the wind is all important to an aerial applicator. The men rely on a smoke generator, wind socks, flags, weather reporting equipment at airports and the Internet, where farmers with weather stations post what the wind is doing on their land.
“A good positive wind, blowing at a couple mph away from a target, a house or a susceptible crop, that’s a good, warm fuzzy feeling,” Brown said. “We’re guaranteed we won’t spray anybody.”
Brown, a Whidbey Island native, found his love of flying while working as an electrician for the Boeing Company in the early 1990s.
“Part of my job was doing a functional test in the cockpit,” Brown said. “Once a week, I’d be sitting in the seat and all the lights would light up and I thought, ‘I need to learn to fly one of these. This is cool.’ ”
He earned a pilot’s license and then graduated from the professional pilot program at Big Bend Community College. He spent an extra year and earned a multi-engine rating and got a flight instructor’s certificate and another rating that allowed him to fly airplanes designed to take off on water.
In 1994, he heard about an aerial applicator in Okanogan County who was willing to teach a pilot the ways of the trade.
“He got me into it real slow,” Brown said. “It’s extremely important in this industry to have a good mentor. Books are great but there is nothing like learning from somebody else’s experience.”
Brown worked in Okanogan County for six years, then accepted a job flying for the Grant County Mosquito Control Board and, later, flew as an aerial applicator throughout Eastern Washington. Nine years ago, he took a job working for Quincy Flying Service. He said he was eager to work in “bigger, stronger, newer airplanes” and service Columbia Basin farmers who were producing high yields and using the latest growing techniques.
Quincy Flying Service sprays product on fields based on recommendations from fieldmen who are employed by big agricultural companies like Wilbur Ellis and Simplex. Those companies deliver the product to the flying business.
Then, the aerial applicators take to the skies. Brown said he looks for a designated field, which is usually a crop circle. He said he’s learned the terrain so he doesn’t get lost. GPS coordinates also help.
Then he heads down to that really low altitude.
Is it nerve-wracking?
“No,” Brown said, “It just takes practice, and the airplanes are designed for it. It’s all about your peripheral vision: We get into that field, get the picture we like, the spray comes on, and across the field we go.”
A rookie pilot, he said, could not do this work.
“You can’t be out there thinking about flying that airplane,” he said. “That has to come naturally; we have to be thinking about what our spray is doing.”
And avoiding those obstacles.
Brown said he always checks for them before working a field. A big obstacle is the 12- to 15-foot tall pivot on the circular sprinkler system that waters the field. He also checks for houses, people and, of course, power lines.
Brown said he likes the job because he loves to fly.
“There’s a lot of freedom,” he said. “I’m in that airplane by myself and I make my own decisions.”
Also, the work is rewarding.
“You do a good job and you get to see a good result,” he said. “Healthy crops and dead weeds are good.”
Dee Riggs: 664-7147
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