Whether a farmer hires a spray plane pilot himself or through a local agribusiness, accurate information about the field to be sprayed, as well as information about any adjacent crops, human activity or wildlife in the area, is needed.
Communication is Key when Sending Up a Spray Plane
Hiring a spray plane for late-season fungicide or insecticide applications reduces the workload on farmers but comes with additional responsibilities.
"I’ve flown to a field, ready to spray, and noticed that a neighbor had hay windrowed in an adjacent field, or spotted a kid’s wading pool and laundry on a clothesline at a farmstead
next to the field," says Dale Bittner, a Norfolk, Neb., spray plane pilot. "That made it so I couldn’t spray that field that day. Farmers have a responsibility to tell pilots about things adjacent to their field that could influence when and how we spray."
The location of nearby organic crops, hayfields and beehives and the presence of work crews in seed corn fields are only a few of the many factors spray plane operators need to know when hired to apply chemicals.
"If the farmer himself hires the spray plane pilot, he needs to be ready to supply information relevant to spraying each field because a good pilot will ask lots of questions," says Joel Meyer, owner of Meyer Agri Air in Wellsburg, Iowa. "Sometimes the farmer works through a local agribusiness to get his fields sprayed, and the agribusiness is the one who hires the pilot. In that case, the farmer and a representative from the agribusiness need to work together to relay all the relevant information to the pilot."
The recent surge in late-season application of fungicides and insecticides sometimes exceeds the capacity of local aerial sprayers. Local pilots or agribusinesses then contract with out-of-state spray plane pilots to meet the demand. There have been reports of "gypsy" pilots misapplying chemicals.
"An out-of-state pilot isn’t a bad thing, if he’s working through a local aerial applicator who will insure his work," Meyer says. "A farmer has the right to ask—and should ask—who will be flying his field and who is responsible if there’s a problem."
Kenneth Degg, director of education and safety for the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA), recommends farmers work with local aerial applicators rather than contract directly with out-of-state pilots.
"The local operator’s business reputation is on the line," Degg says. "He is going to make sure the [out-of-state] pilots working there are doing top-quality work."
Degg offers additional tips to help farmers ensure their fields are aerially sprayed safely and effectively:
- Ask if the pilot is a member of NAAA, and find out if he or she belongs to a state or regional agricultural aviation association. Membership in such organizations implies a higher level of professionalism and provides pilots with ongoing education in technology and regulations.
- Ask the operator if he or she has calibrated and pattern-tested the airplane. Calibration ensures that the operator applies accurate per-acre application rates. Pattern testing checks to see if chemicals are accurately dispensed across the width of a plane’s application swath at the proper speed and height above the crop. Calibration and pattern testing are part of NAAA’s Operation S.A.F.E. clinics that are held around the country. See a list of NAAA members who have been through an Operation S.A.F.E. clinic.
- If farmers have concerns about the quality of an aerial application, they should first contact the pilot or the agribusiness that the pilot works for. If that doesn’t provide satisfactory answers, they should contact their state agriculture department. The agriculture department in most states oversees chemical application standards and therefore holds authority over the aerial application of chemicals.
Meyer says most concerns related to aerial application are easily addressed at the local level.
"The big thing is for farmers to be actively involved when they hire a spray plane," he says. "If they give us accurate information about not only their field but situations in adjacent fields that could affect spraying, we can do a fast, accurate job of applying their chemicals."
As Fun and Dangerous As It Looks
"It takes a special breed of cat to be an ag pilot," says Norfolk, Neb., aviator Dale Bittner. "There’s no room for error. Period. Make the slightest, teeniest mistake when you’re flying 10' off the ground at 160 miles an hour, and you’re a statistic."