Idaho ag aviators hone their skills

Carol Ryan Dumas/Capital Press A Thrush S2R, flown by ag aviator Jim Bain of Weiser Idaho, sprays colored water over the test area at the Gooding, Idaho, airport on Thursday. Idaho's agricultural aviators were testing their skill and equipment during their annual two-day spray pattern clinic.

GOODING, Idaho — Idaho’s agricultural aviators took to the skies Thursday and Friday for their annual Self-regulating Application and Flight Efficiency (SAFE) evaluation.

The annual training is part of the Idaho Agricultural Aviation Association’s (IAAA) mission to keep pilots’ skills honed and their chemical applications on target.

Inclement weather had attendance lower than normal on Thursday, with about 60 operators, pilots and crew members in attendance. But more were expected on Friday’s second day of testing.

Planes flew over the test area spraying colored water over paper test cards and a nylon string to measure their coverage area, spray pattern and droplet size. The cards and string were then analyzed to determine if adjustments in plane speed, spray pressure or nozzles were needed.

The spray pattern clinic allows pilots to test and calibrate their equipment to minimize the risk of off-target drift, said Joe Coppick, a pilot with Valley Air in Caldwell, Idaho, who was analyzing the application tests.

Droplets have to be the correct size and in a uniform pattern for proper coverage and to avoid evaporation and drift, he said.

The clinic provides the industry with an opportunity to work on perfecting applications and earn continuing education credits toward their pesticide applicators license through the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, said Katie Baker, IAAA executive secretary and owner of Ag Air Turbines in Midvale, Idaho.

Aerial application is highly specialized and heavily regulated. The goal is to hit the target with the right coverage and avoid chemical drift, Coppick said.

In that pursuit, pilots are challenged with weather conditions, flying conditions, visibility, wind direction, temperature, the proper flying speed and height, the size of the application, spray pressure and urban sprawl, he said.

Misguided public perception is another issue with which ag aviators contend.

“People are frightened by what they don’t know … they assume we’re spraying dangerous chemicals,” Coppick said.

Most of the chemicals used in aerial application are not dangerous to humans, and if they are, pilots take precautions to keep people safe, he said.

Ag aviators are committed to a healthy environment and healthy crops to feed a growing population, Baker said.

“This industry is vital to the food supply and as the population increases, it becomes even more important,” she said.

People think of ag pilots as those yellow machines that wake them up. But ag aviators are human beings dedicated to agriculture and the critical job of feeding the world, said George Parker, III, owner and operator of Crop Jet Aviation in Gooding.

Idaho’s ag aviators service both conventional and organic farmland as well as forest land and backcountry — fertilizing and seeding crops and rangeland; controlling pests, disease, weeds, and wildfires; and preventing soil erosion, Coppick said.

Aerial application is competitively priced with other forms of application but is a lot faster, more responsive to infestations and can service areas where ground application is prohibitive or damaging, he said.

Educating the public about the contribution of ag aviators, their training and certification and the precision with which they operate is important to the industry, Baker said.

“If people knew more about it, they might not be so against it,” she said.

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