Photo Courtesy of Air Tractor
According to the most recent survey by the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA), there are approximately 3,500 agricultural pilots and 1,560 aerial application operations throughout the United States. Though a lesser-known side of aviation, the small businesses and pilots making up the industry play a vital role in helping farmers produce a safe, affordable and abundant supply of food, fiber and biofuel, as well as protect forestry and control health-threatening pests. As it is a predominantly turbine-powered fleet (84 percent), I sought to learn more about the ag aviation world by visiting Heinen Brothers Agra Services in Seneca, Kansas.
Meet an Operator
Heinen Brothers Agra Services operates more than a dozen bases outside of its home in Northeastern Kansas. Naturally, most of the company’s locations mirror states with the heaviest concentrations of aerial application operations, including Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa, Texas, South Dakota and Louisiana. Operating around 20 aircraft, the company’s pilots fly several hundred hours per year over an average four- to five-month season (with July and August as the season’s peak).
Scott Heinen, a commercial pilot and aviation science graduate, founded the outfit in 1994. After growing up on a farm with an early interest in aviation, combining the two areas wound up being a natural career fit. Shortly after creating what was then known as Nemaha Valley Aerial, Scott’s younger brother Glenn began working for the company while in high school and soon became one of its full-time pilots. Glenn had more of an interest in the crop science side of the business and went on to earn a degree in Agronomy. While still in college, the younger Heinen took on more of a formal role within the company and ultimately became a full partner in 1999.
The brothers’ skills and interests are a natural complement to one another, enabling the company to grow significantly from a two-men, one-plane operation. Yearly, the company’s pilots spray several hundred thousand acres of fields, ranches and other lands where either the terrain is too rough for equipment or aerial spraying is more efficient.
“What we spray depends on which region we are operating in,” said Scott. “For example, in Kansas, we predominately see corn, wheat, and [soy] beans. But in the South, we see some different things like cotton.”
This diversification in spraying location and crop type has enabled the company to grow in size and scope and lessen concern if a particular crop experiences hardship. For instance, Scott noted the stay at home orders resulting from COVID-19 negatively affected vehicle driving hours, reducing the need for corn used in Ethanol.
To an even higher degree than other types of flying, crop dusting is heavily reliant upon weather, which dictates how many of the seven days that the pilots can fly. On flying days, the job is truly a “sunup to sundown” affair, and pilots can be hard-pressed to spend much of their day outside of the cockpit. During my visit to Seneca, the job’s intense demands were reiterated by everyone I spoke with, yet never in a resentful tone that perhaps people in other professions who are “forced” to work all day may express.
Glenn spoke positively about how the previous day he had flown for 15 hours, with roughly 15-minute breaks for fuel and rest. Seeing as money comes in only when crops are being sprayed, the industry standard is to turn and burn as long as there is light, only shutting down the planes when work is done for the evening.
To keep the aircraft in airworthy condition, the company employs three full-time mechanics, along with several pilots who are also capable of turning wrenches. With Heinen’s fleet all propelled by Pratt & Whitney PT6 engines (a decision they made several years ago to standardize their inventory), the complexity in maintenance tasks is lessened. That being said, the maintenance crew must work extremely hard to maintain nearly 100 percent operational availability during peak season as a plane sitting in the hangar doesn’t make any money.
Across the ramp from the company’s maintenance hangar, which takes up the lower level of their office building, sits one of their storage hangars that houses several aircraft.
Heinen Brothers Chief Pilot Jim Uselton has more than 35,000 hours flying ag planes and spoke to me about the company’s aircraft and general agricultural flying operations. He had just returned from a multi-day trip to Northeastern Oklahoma, where he sprayed several thousand acres of ranchland. On this day, he and his Air Tractor AT-802A were
taking a well-deserved break caused by low ceilings and the imminent threat of storms.
Jim’s model aircraft (AT-802A) gained its name due to how many gallons of liquid (whether it be chemicals or water) that fit in the “hopper” – a nomenclature followed by Air Tractor for all its planes. As “the world’s largest single-engine ag aircraft,” it can haul 800 gallons of spray with 254 gallons of fuel aboard. The plane can fly for several hours before the tanks need to be refueled.
Although this is achievable, Jim notes that being loaded down that heavily is an exception. A more realistic condition would be about half fuel, which is enough for about a two-hour spraying mission. The seasoned pilot, who first cut his teeth in his late teens flying Piper PA-25 Pawnee spray planes for his dad, discusses several qualities unique to ag planes.
The spraying system is what sets an ag plane apart from other beefy-winged aircraft with a turbine engine. Chemicals are transferred to the hopper from an exterior storage source in the same fashion that the aircraft is fueled through a single point. When needed during flight, the chemicals are drawn from the hopper by pressure caused by the pump driven by the air that rotates the system’s propeller under the front of the aircraft. The liquids are routed down the length of the aircraft and out through one of the few dozen nozzles under the wing, where it is spritzed upon the crops below.
One of the stark differences between ag planes of today and those of the past are the complex computer systems the pilots utilize to help guide them along the spraying path as well as advise on the amount of chemicals to offload. Jim walked me through some of the software, of which one device, the Satloc G4, stores each flight’s data – down to how many chemicals were sprayed and on which portions of the subject property. After a flight, these details are exported to the company’s computers to demonstrate to customers where the pilots applied chemicals. Coupled with modern glass instruments, air conditioning and ADS-B, the digs inside of these planes rival that of other aircraft in this magazine.
A key focus of the industry and its pilots in recent years has been risk reduction, with several educational programs and initiatives developed. While they have seen high levels of success, all risks cannot be eliminated, and it is statistically low that a pilot will not have a crash during their career. Jim notes that the AT-802A, like most ag planes, “flies and is built like a racecar.” With the cockpit constructed out of 4130 Chrome Moly tubing in a roll cage style and fronted by polycarbonate windows, the helmeted and often Nomex-suit wearing pilots are relatively safe in their airbag-equipped five-point harnesses.
While the weather was unfortunately not conducive for a day of crop dusting, Jim was kind enough to offer me the opportunity to photograph a couple of low passes. After towing N803HB from storage, down the gravel road, and into a spot adjacent to the chemical loading spot, it was time for startup.
Upon hearing the turbine kick over, it wasn’t long before the plane was airborne and I got more of a feel for what the aircraft was capable of. While not laden down with much fuel or spray, it was still surprising to see how nimble the 36-foot (fuselage) by 59-foot (wing) bright yellow aircraft is. In simple man’s terms, ag operators spray a field in the same method that it would be mowed. Depending on barriers like poles and wires, the pilot will turn around and spray a strip right next to the one that they just laid down and continue until it’s all covered.
Several seconds after tires left the pavement, Jim did a 180-degree turn and pointed the five-bladed propeller right at me. Going about 130 miles per hour, an average spray speed in the aircraft, he buzzed past about 50 feet above me, guided by a laser altimeter. Upon reaching the end of the runway, he immediately pulled the aircraft up, pitched about 60 degrees to the right, and quickly settled it back onto its path parallel to the runway.
Next, he demonstrated a more realistic height from where crops would be sprayed. With his tires almost kissing the earth, he again made a speedy pass and demonstrated how stable of a platform the aircraft is. Soon, the show was over, and the flying farm machine settled back down. This flight was only a brief show of the aircraft’s capability and mission, but impressive to witness up-close.
For more information, you can visit www.heinenbrosag.com and www.agaviation.org.