Decades ago, an underpowered Pawnee was my introduction to Ag Flying…at least as a pilot. My private certificate was earned by “flagging” and “mixing and loading”, as well as being a mechanic’s assistant in the off-season. Yes, Virginia, back in those days we actually stood at the end of a field with a flag. The pilot lined up on us, we walked, and counted rows. God Bless Marshall Baxter, for all his faults, he was a superb teacher, and his lessons have saved my life on more than one occasion. He built a “stick and rudder” foundation that has allowed me to grow as a pilot.
Time passed. Choices were made, and I ended up pursuing another career. It, too, had its “ups and downs”. I never lost the love of flying, and kept pursuing flying, ratings, and eventually flew warbirds, kept my CFI (flight instructor rating), obtained my ATP (airline transport rating), and have kept my motto of “most of my money I spent on airplanes, the rest I just wasted”.
As my medical career began to wane, I wanted to fly more, but didn’t want to just “pay more”. One of my best friends said “Doc, if you want to make any money at all flying, it is either fires, or ag”. I began sniffing around ag aviation…..
One of those conversations led to my role as a fire pilot, one that I have dearly loved. Earlier posts have described some of that. Eventually, invitations to speak appeared, and I gave talks at Ag Aviation conferences. (One of the highest compliments I was ever given came at an early conference…a *really good* ag pilot and I were talking, and a friend walked up…”hey doc, how are you?”. Doug looked at me incredulously, and said “man, I though you were one of *us*!”)
Time passed. I continued to fly fires, and occasionally flew some ag. A good friend, an excellent operator (there are pilots, who fly, and operators, who own/operate an ag aviation business) called when he lost a pilot due to illness….”Doc, can you come and fly for me for a while?”
Either desperation, or belief in this graying old pilot, allowed him to put me into his expensive ag plane, let me spray water until I reached a reasonable standard, then put me to work. So now, I am back being an “aerial applicator”/”ag pilot”/”cropduster”. (It’s the same role, just different decades).
As I was finishing a field on a beautiful morning, I realized that Ag Flying has many lessons for life. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy ag pilots so much…they live “real life”. Here are some:
-Clean your windshield. You have to see to avoid trees/wires/other planes. I am (perhaps) obsessive about this….either due to my aging eyes, or due to experience. The metaphor?….keep your life without obstructions to vision. Just as you can’t avoid bugs, you can’t avoid economic changes/relationship changes/things happening beyond your control. Clean it up, keep your vision.
-Obstructions are everywhere. Trees/wires/irrigation standpipes….all can be in the way of you completing your job. Prior to spraying, you survey the field, mark the obstructions in your mind, and make a plan to work around them. The metaphor?….There are a lot of obstructions in life. Survey what’s around you, make a plan to avoid them. Credit cards, easy loans, new cars….all can obstruct your economic plan. Just like you plan your “pullup” at the end of the field to smoothly and safely avoid them, plan your life to smoothly and safely avoid financial obstacles.
-Some trees are hard to see. This time of year, prior to leaves coming out on trees, if the sun is just right, it’s next to impossible to see some of the trees. Snags, solitary old limbs…all can get you. Keep your focus, know where the trees *should* be, and don’t push to hard to get to the edge.
-Focus on the guidance. Ag aviation now uses “Satloc” (other brands as well), which has a lightbar on the nose of the plane. It gives left/right guidance (at one-foot tolerance) for where you are. As you start, it looks more like a Griswold Christmas than steady guidance….lights dancing back and forth in multiple colors…but with attention, and practice…you get the lovely, smooth roll-in for the pass with the center showing “O-O” with no variation. It requires constant, small corrections. The laser altimeter is kept between 15-18 feet. Life requires you know your guidance…what path you are following. If you remain close to the line, corrections are self-imposed, constant, smooth, and small. If you get significantly off-course, the corrections are much more dramatic.
-Watch the wind. On a calm day, you can observe the spray “hanging” from the prior swath. As the wind begins to pick up, you can see the spray “walk” its way across the field. Depending on adjacent crop/land, leaving the spray swath to move to the correct area is an art form. Those guys who are really good can park the spray just where they want it. The “wind” of life can affect what we leave behind. Economic forces, societal forces…all exert their influence on the work we have done. Some of this we control, some we do not. Sometimes we have to know when to stop work in a particular field.
-Don’t overload the plane. Modern ag planes are incredible, especially compared to the elderly Pawnee I used to fly. They can still be overloaded. Know your performance, the temperatures, the weight that you are loading. Overloaded, their performance deteriorates and the job cannot be done. It’s very easy overload your life. Too many projects, too many ambitions….and your efficiency goes away rapidly.
-When it’s working smoothly, enjoy the view. On a clear morning, rolling into a turn, the lightbar working well, the field going by, and the airplane “just right”….it is magnificent. When your job, your relationships, your family are all “just right”….enjoy the moment.
-A sense of purpose is essential. Ag flying has a real purpose. We don’t crank the engine until there is a reason, and we go until we are done. I’ve been fortunate. I’ve flown some great, and rare, airplanes. Mustangs, Corsairs, SeaFuries….all are magnificent. Despite the thrill (and there is one!), “flying with a purpose” is even better. Live your life with a sense of purpose.
March 10, 2020 at 8:20 pm
Well done, Stan.
I always enjoy your writing.
March 10, 2020 at 9:43 pm
Stan, reading your blog has become something I look forward to as the fire season rolls around each year. Dirt storms and fronts passing every other day used to be the signals I looked for to tell me to get my kit ready for the season. Now, its seeing an update from you! I’ll see you out West, my friend….and soon.
March 11, 2020 at 11:40 am
Shawn, thank you. You were a great mentor as I started in fires.
March 11, 2020 at 10:59 am
And…don’t run out of gas before you’re done? Great post, great analogies. Interesting insight into ag flying.
March 11, 2020 at 11:40 am
Yes, that’s a great addition! I keep thinking of several more comparisons…..