Little did the skeptics at the time realize but aerial application would only grow in importance and a century later is vital to farmers and foresters. In no other crop is it more crucial than in rice, where ag pilots do everything from flying seed into water-seeded systems to applying crop protection materials and harvest aids to planting subsequent cover crops by air.
“Nearly any industry that has survived for 100 years has had to evolve, and we’ve had to do a better job,” said Mark Kimmel, owner of Dixie Dusters near Itta Bena, Mississippi, and president of the National Agricultural Aviation Association. “We’re professional pilots, and we have training that we have to go through every year, educational updates, continuing education units. And we’ve invested in our planes with GPS for precision ag.”
Of all the technological advances in ag aviation, Kimmel said GPS has been one of the most impactful. He cut his teeth in the business as a flagger for his father, who also was an ag pilot. Moving flagging crews from field to field slowed down application, and flagging could be less than accurate.
Once he earned his pilot’s wings, Kimmel recalled having to manually plot out passes across a field to determine how much product to load. He didn’t want to run out in the middle of a pass.
As a result, pilots didn’t necessarily carry full loads and spent more time and fuel ferrying product.
“When they came out with GPS for our airplanes, we thought it was too expensive,” he said. “Then we did it, and it was just amazing how much more productive we were. It was like wow! Look at this.”
With GPS, pilots can carry full loads. If they run out in the middle of a pass, they can pick up exactly where they left off.
A GPS light bar mounted on the top of the airplane hood allows pilots to line up each pass, minimizing skips and overlaps. A laser altimeter tells them if they’re at the optimal application height of 15 to 18 feet above the plant canopy. Between GPS and precision application technology, pilots also are able to provide variable-rate application to growers.
What technology is in store for the next century of agricultural aviation? In the not too distant future, Kimmel said pilots will have in-cab weather stations that provide real-time information, such as wind speed and direction, temperature and relative humidity. If conditions change midway through an application, the pilot will be able to quickly make corrections.