502XP in rice country
Ag-Cats have been a mainstay in southwest Louisiana and northern California for many, many years. Short ferries, smaller fields and aircraft familiarity have kept this iconic airframe in service in these parts of the country. The Ag-Cat fleet now is mostly powered by turbine engines, with a few radial machines populating various nooks throughout the landscape. Until 2011, even more rare than the occasional radial-powered Ag-Cat was an operator utilizing multiple radial aircraft. O’Brien Flying Service in Iowa, Louisiana was doing just that.
But, times and technology evolved. The availability of parts and the cost of petroleum products to keep a fleet of five geared R-1340 powered Super B Ag-Cats in the air to sow and treat vast acres of rice was becoming an obstacle that even the 45-plus-year-old operation was finding cantankerous. A slow transition from R-1340s to Super 6 TPE-331 Garrett engines was moving the flying service into the turbine world. Then, with no rebuildable airframes on the horizon, or nearly-new Super Bs for sale, a 502XP demonstration in November of 2016 paved the way for O’Brien Flying Service to transition into the Air Tractor 502XP. Fivemonths later, in April 2017, the company bought a second one.
O’Brien Flying Service was started by Zoren O’Brien in 1972. Zoren, now retired, was a pillar in the agricultural aviation community for many years. Past President of the National Agricultural Aviation Association in 1995, Zoren received numerous awards for his service to the industry. He was bestowed a Falcon Club pin in 1993, received the Outstanding Service Award in 1995 after his tenure as president and, in 2004, Zoren received the coveted Agrinaut Award.
Zoren O’Brien began his flying career in Texas, Mississippi and southern Louisiana flying for AT Morgan in 1964. Eventually, local Iowa, Louisiana farmers wanted a more full-time aerial application operation than what was currently available, prompting Zoren to begin his operation with two 1973 600 HP Ag-Cast. Over the next few years, many aircraft were added to the fleet. In the late 1970s, O’Brien Flying Service was operating 13 Ag-Cats.
For a short time in the 1970s, O’Brien Flying Service was replacing its Ag-Cats with Emairs (a highly modified bi-plane based on the Stearman) and even at one point became a dealer. However, the reliability of the Emair airframe and its 1200 HP R-1820 engine was suspect and Zoren returned to operating Ag-Cats, upgrading aircraft he reacquired from 450 HP to 600 HP B-models. Over the next two decades, O’Brien Flying Service was an eight aircraft operation, all B-Model Ag-Cats. In 2006, the fleet was upgraded to geared R-1340 Super Bs and reduced to six.
Around 2011, as the R-1340s became more burdensome to maintain and the flying service started seeing less engine time between overhauls, the radial engines were replaced with Super 6 Garretts and airframes were converted to 500 gallon Hershey Fat Cats.
By this point Zoren’s son, Dwayne, was a mainstay in the operation and had been for many years. Dwayne was raised in agricultural aviation, learning to fly at his father’s flying service by the hand of Roy “Pappy” Crandall, a pilot in World War II and also for O’Brien Flying Service.
Dwayne graduated from college and went straight into the military to fly helicopters. He served in many locations overseas initially flying the AH1F Cobra and later the AH64A Apache. Dwayne retired as a Special Operations helicopter pilot, flying the Boeing AH-6J. His career in the military spanned from active duty to reserves, then back to active duty (post 9/11). After serving in the Gulf War and Somalia, Dwayne went Special Operations reserve status. On 9/11, Dwayne had just finished spraying soybeans when he was notified and then activated two weeks later. He was deployed to the Middle East region for the next two years and nine months. He retired on December 7, 2012
Since 2004, O’Brien Flying Service is under the command of Dwayne. Charlie Bourne and Gregg Watts fly the 502XPs. Shane Hudson flys one of the two remaining Ag-Cats with Dwayne flying backup. Ashley Cooper handles day to day office tasks, along with Wendi Iguess and Nikki Duplichain. Greg Lyon is the operation’s lead IA/A&P with Harlon Wilson and Leon Watson around to help with everything else.
In 2003, Dwayne received the Larson-Miller Service Award from the NAAA. Continuing with an award winning operation’s tradition, Charlie Bourne and Gregg Watts were the recipients of the 2017 Larson-Miller Community Service award.
According to Dwayne “after completing their morning spray work, Charlie and Gregg headed to town to get some snacks. They noticed a cloud of heavy black smoke just south of town, near Charlie’s home. They decided to take a detour. As they approached the smoke, they discovered it was coming from a fire that had engulfed a multi-level apartment complex. It was getting out of control. The local fire trucks were not able to contain a fire of that height so Charlie and Gregg approached the fire chief and mayor to volunteer their aerial capabilities.The mayor of Iowa credited the two pilots, saying the planes prevented the fire from spreading to other structures in the city. What seemed like just another day at the office for Charlie and Gregg turned out to be a day of heroic service.”
After gaining approval, Charlie and Gregg headed back to the airport to load water into their planes. Both pilots flew over the apartment complex and dropped water on top of the building, where the firefighters’ hoses were not able to reach the flames. Due to the pilots’ quick thinking and desire to help their community, they were able to keep the fire from spreading to the adjacent apartment complex, neighboring lumber yard and paint store.
Dwayne O’Brien is mentoring two new pilots, Payton Fawcett and Ryan Buller in the only radial Ag-Cat that O’Brien Flying Service owns. Payton jokes that he had to go all the way across the country, to a ComPAASS Rose session to land an ag-seat two miles down the road; Dwayne hired Payton at the NAAA Ag Aviation Expo in Long Beach, California.
Steve Matte, Jeff Parkins, Corey Northrup, Bruce Woodward and Steven Farque run the ground operations for the aircraft, utilizing O’Brien Flying Service’s custom-built loader trucks. The truck design has evolved over the years to handle about four loads of liquid, as well as a boom for dry applications.
Dwayne had varying modifications installed on the new 502XPs. The StormShield windscreen by Storm Aeronautics was the first item due to numerous ducks in the rice fields. After making dry calibrations during Operation SAFE clinics, he installed quick releases for the inboard boom hangars, which enhanced his pattern.
O’Brien Flying Service’s season is in full swing from April through the end of June. However, the company’s location is fortunate enough to have work year-round. 80% of the crops treated are rice, which sometimes can be flown up to nine times, including the initial sowing by air.
Dwayne has commented the move to turbine 502XPs has been a positive one for the flying service. Over 40 years of operating a single type airframe makes the transition an interesting one, but such that O’Brien Flying Service has the third 502XP on the way.