CROP SPRAYING: NOT A DYING ART
by Chris van den Berg
Cessna Ag-Wagon (ZS-JDH), spraying maize in the Northern Cape, Prieska district. February 2012
I've been part of this industry since I was 3 years old. My dad bought his first crop spraying aircraft in 1989, a Piper Pawnee (ZS-EVG), and I was inspired by his love for flying to follow in his footsteps.
When people think of an "ag-pilot" they envision some old guy flying a biplane with his leather cap, buzzing the landscape without a care in the world. If you're one of those people, you're certainly in for a big surprise. There is more to aerial application aviation than you have ever imagined. Today there are organizations working to change the stereotype of the ag-pilot. The National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA) is one such organization, due to the way they promote research, new technology and new spraying techniques.
Crop spraying has become a sophisticated and professional industry different from the ways of the past, when "flagmen" on the ground were used to indicate the line in the field to be sprayed by the pilot. Two people would stand at each end of the field and once the pilot lined the aircraft up with them and the aircraft passed over the flagmen, they will move twenty paces up. Today's crop spraying aircraft are fitted with GPS units, flagmen are no longer required. The GPS units help the pilot to do a more accurate job, thereby adding to the professionalism of the crop spraying industry.
In South Africa, approximately 65 pilots hold an ag-rating, though not all of them are actively spraying. Southern Africa has a good balance between young and old aerial applicators, stretching from ages between from early 20's to 70 years of age. However, in America, the average age of an aerial applicator is 60 years old. This demonstrates that there are ample opportunities opening up all over the world for ag-pilots. A fairly good living can be made from being an aerial applicator, although it is like a roller-coaster ride. Nothing is for certain in this business, due to fluctuating crop prices and unpredictability of weather patterns.
Crops are seasonal; there are certain times of the year that you won't have any spraying work to do. Some pilots spend the summer months spraying crops in the Highveld and in the winter months they'll move down to the Western Cape for spraying work. This means that they are spending months away from home on a yearly basis.
One of the drawbacks of this line of work is likely its risk factor. Ray Dyson, an American aerial applicator once said: "Mothers should always caution their sons about making a career choice that requires a crash helmet." Statistics show that crop spraying is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. The pilot's role is a professional one with tremendous pressures, requiring courage, caution, and common sense, with a mindset on safety. The pilot must be under control at all times and be able to recognize fatigue. Sometimes pilots work for weeks with very little or no days off.
Hazards that aerial applicators have to look out for are wires, structures such as houses, trees, cell phone towers, weather conditions especially mist and also the terrain due to the extremely low level at which agricultural pilots have to operate.
Headlines like: "Crop spraying pilots are a dying breed" or "Crop spraying is a dying art" are very disturbing. The most frequently asked question to aerial applicators is whether there is still a future in the industry. To produce future foods, fiber and bio-fuels, increased production on land already in use will be critical. The use of fungicides, insecticides and herbicides has helped to increase such crop yields. Big ground spraying rigs and genetically generated crops have cut into business, but there will always be a place for a crop spraying aircraft.
Not only the pilots' skills, but also their relationship with the chemical representatives and farmers will determine the success of an aerial applicator. Due to finances and economics, farmers are working under a lot of pressure themselves. A pilot who offers their services to a farmer can literally "save" a crop attacked by insects, fungus or weeds. If you fail, he fails. If you win he wins.
Getting up early before sunrise, flying for hours without stepping out of the aircraft, combined with the stress and pressures involved, makes crop spraying challenging, but it all adds to the excitement of being an aerial applicator.
Any type of flying has it challenges and dangers. Always remember that taking off is optional, but landing is mandatory.