Ag aviation in La República de Cuba
by Austin Kornegay
Ever since I was a kid I always heard my dad, Pat Kornegay, talking about this island in the Caribbean Sea, Cuba. Earlier this year I decided to check it out for myself and at first I thought it was going to be a hassle getting in. Not an issue at all. All I did was buy an airline ticket and a visa at the United Airlines gate right before I boarded my airline in Houston and I was set. My week-long adventure in April this year in Cuba included four major cities: Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Viñales, Havana and lots of countryside.
The first day that I arrived in Havana, I made a beeline to Trinidad and that was definitely an interesting drive. To get there I took the Autopista Nacional (the main corridor through Cuba) and a coastal road called Circuito Sur. The Circuito Sur runs along the southern coast of Cuba and there is a very large population of crabs that migrate to the sea during the evening, slowing our progress. Trinidad was a great introduction to Cuba with its old churches and beautiful beaches.
I hopped on a Viazul bus after a day and a half in Trinidad and headed out to Cienfuegos which was about an hour and half drive to the west. Cienfuegos, “The Pearl of the South” was a great place to visit and I wish I could have stayed there longer. There were so many old European style buildings, museums and churches to check out. The salsa dancing during the evening was incredible.
My next destination was Viñales. To get there I decided to take a collective taxi; an interesting way to travel. These taxis get a group of people together, usually tourists and sometimes Cubans, and they all pitch in for the total fare. It is more of the economical option when compared to private taxis. It took me about two minutes to find one and fifteen minutes to haggle the fare down to a more reasonable cost, about $30 USD to take me and four additional passengers across Cuba. On the drive we passed through Artemisa, which is an agricultural area and I was taken by the shear amount of sugar cane; just rolling hills filled with cane with no turn rows or breaks.
Viñales is a quaint rural town. You could walk all the way through it in about fifteen minutes. The sight to see here is tobacco farms and valleys. The nightlife there was amazing with lots of restaurants/bars with live salsa music and ice cold beer to enjoy. If you ever go to Cuba be sure to spend at least two days here. It is a truly wonderful place.
After my brief stay in this town, I started making tracks toward Havana and once again I found myself traveling in a collective taxi (1959 Plymouth) taking me across the country one last time for $20 USD.
Havana is a clash between old Spanish architecture, high rise hotels and barrios. The three days I spent there I discovered different influences that developed the city. One of my principal goals in Havana was to visit with some of the folks who work for ENSA (Empresa Nacional de Servicios Aereos) , the national agricultural aviation company of Cuba.
Everywhere there is commercial agriculture there has to be agricultural aviation. It does not matter what part of the globe you look in, there is an agricultural pilot waking up before the crack of dawn to go do what he/she loves. With thousands of hectares of rice and sugarcane, there has to be an aviation sector dedicated to the stewardship of the land. La República de Cuba is no exception.
At ENSA, I visited with some dear friends of my father and Bill Lavender’s, Santiago Delgado Lopez and Rodolfo Gonzalez. Santiago is the Commercial Director of ENSA and Rodolfo is a senior pilot for ENSA.
Rodolfo shared with me a normal day of agricultural flying in Cuba, but first let us go through the training and recurrency regimens that are required of ag-pilots. Every beginning pilot must to go through one year of theory before setting foot in an airplane. This covers aerodynamics, navigation, regulations, operational procedures, the dispersal system, mechanical systems, and regulations in a classroom setting. Upon a satisfactory completion of the theory portion, they start flight training. Flight training lasts approximately a year and it is all done in the Antonov An-2.
Once the students get past that point, they become copilots for their agricultural training segment. They sit right seat for about 300 hours only doing dry work. Subsequently, they are promoted to captain. Once proficient at dispersing dry material they can go over to liquid work. In the province of Sancti Spiritus, ENSA has a dozen PZL M-18 Dromaders. Only experienced An-2 captains qualify for the PZL M-18. Due to dry conditions in certain parts of the country, Cuban agricultural pilots are called upon to fight fires. In order to qualify for firework, pilots must attend a special aerial firefighting school. Over 90% of Cuban airline pilots were once ag-pilots.
Cuban agricultural pilots work in twenty-day rotations. Within these rotations, they work six days on and one off to avoid fatigue. After each rotation, there is a mandatory ten-day rest period. During a rotation, the pilot can fly no more than fifty-five hours, but can fly up to seventy hours after a medical examination. Recurrency training consists of a week full of lectures and spending time going through routine and emergency procedures on a desktop simulator with an instructor. Medical-wise, there is a very stringent annual examination for all ENSA pilots. This examination can limit your flying time limits if there is an issue. There is a mandatory retirement age of 60, but if the pilot wants to keep flying he can continue to 65, if he can pass a medical. On a side note, the safety record they have is excellent with only two incidents within the past two years and no fatalities.
Roldolfo Gonzalez first got his taste of aviation learning to fly helicopters in Russia. On his return to Cuba from his training, he flew MI-2 and MI-8 helicopters for the Cuban military. When he completed his military service, there was a need for ag pilots so he began his career in agricultural aviation. As with all Cuban agricultural pilots, he trained exclusively in the An-2.
Similar to some of us, these pilots must leave home for periods of time to accomplish their work. They usually relocate to the towns near the main bases in Pinar De Rio or Camaguey. They get up before the break of dawn, head over to the base,have breakfast and get their blood pressure checked. This decides whether or not they fly. Once cleared by the medical officer, the pilot goes to the dispatch office to receive his work and crew information for the day. Actually, the Cubans have a couple of women ag-pilots! The crew consists of pilot, copilot (who is receiving instruction) and a technician who runs the dispersal equipment and can address any small mechanical issues that might come up.
Upon arrival, the airplane should be fueled and ready to go, but always a thorough preflight is carried out to ensure safety by either the copilot or the captain. Time to fly! After warming the engine, the pilot, co-pilot and technician head out to the farm airstrips. These strips are located near the fields to be sprayed. At these airstrips, pilots usually service two or three farms during a day’s work. At theses airstrips there is a director of operations that divides the work, manages the flaggers and coordinates with ENSA. Some but not all ENSA aircraft are equipped with Ag-Nav GPS units. Hour-wise, Cuban pilots are limited to six hours a day and up to seven if they have a copilot. After the flying is completed, the captain fills out a “Reporte de Servicio” (Service Report) with completed work, hours flown, ambient temperatures, which fields were done and what was applied. Once they return to base, a mechanic will address any squawks and ready the airplane for the next day. During this rotation, the crew remains together along with the same airplane.
Typical application rates for liquid are 30 to 50 liters per hectare (3-5 GPA). Lower applications rates are used for vector control and are quite common. The same aircraft can be used for dry or liquid work, but the change over has to be done at the main base of operation. The main season is from May to August with a short rice planting run in December.
With all this being said, even taking into account the differences in national policies and ideological views, we ag-pilots face the same issues. From mapping fields correctly to identifying obstructions, we both share the same goal of having a safe and productive year. Hopefully, in the years to come changes to the current United States and Cuban relationship will allow the free passage of ideas and technology to maximize the agricultural potential that both countries hold.