Part 91 and Low Time Jump pilots, crop dusting, and other Part 91 jobs

Crop Dusting in California

Old 07-10-2015, 03:28 PM
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Default Crop Dusting in California

Hello all, I am new to the boards.

I apologize in advance for my questions, I searched and a read a few threads that have already been made on this forum and have done a lot of recent reading on the subject.

I want to get into aerial application. I had thought about it a few years ago (I am now 20), but with a push I ended up in Ag Business, then to mechanized agriculture and diesel technology to pursue a career in the mechanics field. Now with a handful of certifications, and due to completely unforeseen circumstances, I am now operating a farm and chemical application company. I have my QAL and about 6 years of real experience on the chemical end of it. At this point in time, we can do just about anything called upon us, minus crop dusting. A few times my father had mentioned getting into it, so after some research in how to go about getting the credentials to get into this field, and the range of startup costs, I want to take the next step. I have located a school about 45 minutes from me that does training for a commercial pilot license, and I know of an outfit that I could talk to about getting into it, also about 45 minutes away in the opposite direction. From other posts that I've read, it seems that the best route to take would be to do grunt work for an outfit until I get a real opportunity. I'm wondering if my background would suffice in this situation? It is not something I'm opposed to doing, but I also have two separate businesses to run. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
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Old 07-10-2015, 04:00 PM
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It is a long road just to earn the qualifications/experience for that job; then there are the gate keepers... On top of that, you mention California. The water has been shut off to much of the northern half of the Central Valley for many years, they are working on the southern half now... Most all of California is on some sort of water rationing, or likely will be. Many aerial applicators have had to seek work in other states, if nothing else to make the payments on their equipment.
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Old 07-10-2015, 10:10 PM
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By and large, aerial application is not an entry level job; certainly not in California.
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Old 07-10-2015, 10:38 PM
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Go talk to a couple of the applicators in your area. They will tell you what they're looking for in terms of experience. They will also tell you how folks get the required experience. The path is well traveled by the pilots who went before you, so there shouldn't be too much uncertainty about what you need to do and what your expectations should be. Have fun with it!
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Old 07-11-2015, 06:31 PM
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The problem with aerial application is that it's a small industry, and there isn't a traditional route to the cockpit. The short answer when asking most applicators is that they'd like to see you come to them with ag experience, often experience in type, which often as not will be 502, 602, or 802 experience.

There are very few operators flying piston equipment any more; nearly everything is turbine, including many of the ag cat positions that remain. Getting insured in the equipment usually requires a minimum of a thousand hours of ag experience. Attendance at an ag school doesn't take that requirement away. Those who have less than a thousand hours of ag will have difficulty getting insured. It's more than hull insurance, too. One of the single biggest concerns is drift when doing ag; if one has no aerial application experience, one may stand a chance with an operator that does pesticide work, but will have a very difficult time getting hired to fly for an operation that does herbicide application, and most operators do both.

There's not a lot of turn-over in aerial application. Many of us that do it have done it for a long time. I know a number of operators that may hire once every ten or fifteen years, if that. It's not like making a career on the way to the airlines.

If it is something that you're targeting right out of flight school, then at that stage all of your experience and training should be geared toward tailwheel flying and low altitude experience. It's not usually something that you'll get into by simply attending an ag school. The days are mostly gone when one could come aboard mixing and loading and flagging (went away with GPS), and eventually work into a flying position in a small piston airplane like a Cub, or Pawnee, or Ag Truck.

A number of operators today do night work, and that's definitely not something that you're going to get into as a new pilot. Nor should you try. Night work is common in desert areas, as well as areas with highly susceptible bee and beneficial populations. It's also common with certain types of crops.

Some crops are easier to get into than others. Rice is straight forward but a lot of work, with a great deal of flying, but the seats that open up are almost non-existent; those who have them (and many are year-round) don't give them up. Corn and wheat work with pesticide are the most likely to open up to an inexperienced pilot, most of the time in the bottom-rung aircraft; those positions don't pay as well, and will often be the last seats filled and the first emptied during the season.

Many operators prefer to see a pilot with maintenance experience; holding a mechanic certificate with both airframe and powerplant certification is desirable. If you're going to get into ag, holding the A&P should be a goal, and something you should plan; most ag operators and pilots that I know are A&P at a minimum, many have their inspection authorization (IA) as well. That takes time and experience.

As far as a path to the cockpit; there's no traditional route or background, and there's not a wide career path of those who came before. It's a small industry.
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Old 07-13-2015, 06:54 PM
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I took a 6 pack to some local Ag pilots when I was looking at getting into it. They both said they wouldn't do it again. Lots of legal battles every season, people saying their cough is from drift, camera phones filming everything you do. Many farmers are investing in their own tractor sprayers. Super expensive to purchase a plane, the guys that make the most are owner operators. In the end they said it was a dying industry and someone in their 20s would be crazy to get into it.
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Old 07-13-2015, 08:33 PM
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Ag isn't a dying industry. It's changed in terms of available positions; where cubs and pawnees and smaller aircraft were common once, today it's largely 800 gallon air tractors that do the work of multiple smaller airplanes; larger, faster turbine aircraft doing the work of numerous smaller airplanes means more work gets done, with fewer pilots.

Those with the experience to get a good seat tend to keep the seat each year, or will have the ability to find good work each year if they wish, and many make far better than upper airline wages, while working a few months each year. Five hundred dollars an hour isn't chump change.

There is the potential for legal action, but it generally exists as drift claims against susceptible crops (hence the requirements for more experienced pilots doing herbicide work), and generally aren't leveled at the pilots, but at the business. Most of the time, where losses occur during the year, it's farmers who renig on payment, though failing to pay for chemical or spray work can put a crimp in profits for the season.

Ag flying is very precise work; very intolerant of variations in altitude or track spacing while flying swaths in the field; skips that occur in chemical coverage show up in the crop, and farmers take a dim view of that. Skips result in loss of business and loss of payment.

Most ag pilots don't own aircraft and don't purchase aircraft to spray. Arrive to spray, leave when it's over. Some more fortunate ones have year-round work or permanent seats. Seldom do those own the aircraft.

Owner-operators don't necessarily make the most, especially given the investments, inventory, billing delays or losses, etc. Ag pilots generally get 20-25% of the income; the rest goes to the business to cover overhead; the owner-operator gets whats left after equipment replacement, improvements, etc, are done.

I don't know any ag aviators personally who've been involved in legal battles in the last season, or last ten years, for that matter. Operators do have their moments, just like any business, but the notion that this is a regular thing for an aerial applicator is ridiculous. Every season? Absolutely not.

Getting filmed while spraying a field isn't exactly a hardship or a problem. It's not like we're breaking the law.

Ground rigs have a big part of application on crops; so does chemigation. Aerial application has decided advantages, however, which include the speed of application, thoroughness of coverage, and the ability to apply chemical to a field without compressing soil or damaging the crop with wheels. Aerial application is more thorough than chemigation (chemical application during irrigation). When a bug run occurs (insect infestation) or a pre-harvest application of a herbicide, or application of a defoliant, speed of application is important; in that case, aerial application is the best choice. Additionally, an aircraft flying down the field provides a more uniform atomization of the applied liquid chemical with a greater ability to penetrate crop canopies and reach the underside of leaves.
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