Now that another farming season is here, if you haven’t already, you may begin to hear the hum of an aircraft’s engine or see the fluid movement of an ag aircraft flying over the horizon. Agricultural pilots such as the aerial applicators in Arkansas perform a variety of services that help farmers increase productivity and protect their crops. Ag pilots (also known as crop dusters) collectively will rack up thousands of hours of flight time over the course of the summer, the peak period for aerial application services. For ag pilots, this period of increased activity can be intense, but it is also perfectly normal.
“Helping farmers provide a safe, affordable and abundant supply of food and fiber for the world’s growing population is extremely important, especially during the ongoing situation with COVID-19. Aerial applicators are committed to continuing to do our work safely and efficiently,” said David Strohl, President of the Arkansas Agricultural Aviation and owner of Strohl Aviation in Hazen, AR. “The National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA) and the Arkansas Agricultural Aviation Association (AAAA) constantly reinforce best practices to the pilots in this industry to ensure safety and enhance stewardship.”
Ag pilots are well-trained professionals who take their responsibility to protect the safety of their neighbors, employees, the public and the environment seriously. Agricultural aviation is a critical component of high-yield agriculture and is often the fastest, most efficient and economical way to get the job done. Safety, however, is an aerial applicator’s top priority. This is best accomplished by using cutting-edge drift reduction technologies such as GPS units, flow control equipment, more effective nozzles and shortened booms and/or boom lowering systems that position nozzles in less disturbed air for improved droplet production. Aerial applicators also employ onboard meteorological systems and/or smokers, which enable the pilot to determine the wind direction and an estimate of wind speed necessary for more targeted and efficient applications of pesticides.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates all aspects of pesticide registration and use, with product registrations undergoing hundreds of different human and environmental safety tests and taking up to 10 years to complete. All crop protection products are reviewed every 15 years to ensure they cause no unreasonable adverse effects to the environment and human health.
Through their sister organization, the National Agricultural Research and Education Foundation, the NAAA and AAAA educates member and non-member aerial applicators year-round about safety issues in the Professional Aerial Applicators’ Support System (PAASS) program.
“PAASS is a one-of-a-kind program in commercial aviation that educates pilots on aviation safety, environmental professionalism and security issues. It is highly regarded by the FAA, EPA, USDA and state agencies, and we encourage every ag pilot to attend the PAASS Program,” said Andrew D. Moore, NAAA’s CEO and the executive director of NAAREF.
Each year approximately 1,800 pilots representing 1,560 ag aviation businesses in the United States participate in PAASS. The program benefits pilots by improving their understanding of human factors, enhancing critical aeronautical decision-making skills and emphasizing best practices. The aerial application industry’s proactive approach has resulted in ag aviation accidents falling more than 20% per 100,000 hours flown and a 26% drop in drift incidents since the PAASS Program was introduced after the 1998 season.
NAAA’s Fly Safe Campaign reiterates key safety messages articulated during the PAASS Program. Agricultural pilots receive regular safety alerts and reminders throughout the flying season. There are approximately 3,400 working ag pilots in the U.S. According to FAA data, ag pilots flew 3,120 ag aircraft for a combined total of 873,552 hours in 2019.
Based on a 2019 NAAA survey, the agricultural aviation industry treats 127 million acres of cropland aerially each year. According to the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture, 347 million acres of cropland are used for crop production in the United States. Considering some crops are treated more than once during a season, NAAA estimates agricultural pilots treat an estimated 28% of this cropland. The agricultural aviation industry also makes nearly 100% of the forest protection applications in the U.S.
As commercial pilots, aerial applicators must receive medical clearance before they can fly. Moreover, all ag pilots must obtain a pesticide license from each state they fly in, demonstrating their knowledge in the handling and application of crop protection products.
“Aerial applicators are highly trained professionals who are committed to performing their job in a responsible manner,” NAAA’s Moore said. “Their livelihood is dependent upon their good stewardship of the land. The aerial application industry uses the latest technology to ensure the safe and judicious application of crop protection products — providing an essential service to not only help feed and clothe the world but also to preserve our natural resources and protect public health.”