Ag Pilots demonstrated need to be proactive during 9/11

Editor’s Note: The following is a commentary written by the California Agricultural Aviation Association’s President, Terry Gage. 


September 11, 2001: For agricultural pilots, it was the first time in their lives that the entire national aviation fleet was grounded. Every commercial aircraft and every private plane—the entire U.S. aviation industry—came to a standstill while the nation struggled to understand the unthinkable and our security forces scrambled to mitigate further terrorist attacks.

As a nation, we understood the need to restrict aviation, but this had unintended consequences for agricultural production. In California, it was estimated that crops threatened with pest infestation during the three-day shutdown were valued at around $3 billion. Cotton, sweet corn, tomatoes, alfalfa, beans, melons, leafy greens, broccoli and many more crops were vulnerable without the ability to use aerial applications.

Across the nation, the impacts grew. Fortunately, aerial-application operators, known as Part 137 Operators under federal regulations, were the first in general aviation to be able to get back in the air, due to tremendous grassroots efforts involving calls to the White House, Congress, Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture and several other agencies.

On Sept. 14, ag pilots got back in the air and to work—only to be subjected to another ground stop on the 16th. The FBI began scrutinizing the aerial application industry after a manual on aerial application was found in the belongings of suspected terrorists. The California Agricultural Aircraft Association was contacted by the task force on terrorism. CAAA cooperated fully with the task force, by providing background on the aerial application industry and contact information for all operators and pilots.

On the national front, the FBI and the FAA contacted the National Agricultural Aviation Association for the same information on the national level. The federal government performed background checks on aerial operators and pilots throughout the country and created an inventory of agricultural aircraft in service. Aerial applications were allowed to resume on Sept. 17.

There was a lot of attention on the aerial application industry during this time. As a small part of general aviation, there were a lot of unknowns when it came to our abilities and capabilities. The industry continued to field calls and questions from the media and government officials.

Suddenly, “crop dusting” planes were in political cartoons, and members of the public called officials when they saw a plane in the air. Many times, the application was miles away—but due to the media coverage, planes were now a threat. There were several reports of concerned citizens calling in a “crop duster” to later find out it was a different type of aircraft.

Aerial applicators were grounded again on Sept. 23, when rumors of a suspected terrorist visiting a Florida aerial operator circulated in national media. What the media didn’t report was that the operator refused to discuss any industry specifics with the individual.

During this time, there was a misconception that aerial dispersion systems used to control weeds and pests could be hijacked and used to vaporize toxins over urban areas, threatening public health. Those in the application industry know that aerial-application systems are designed to produce specific droplet sizes that fall onto the target site. Our dispersion systems cannot vaporize anything and doing so would require significant re-engineering and design.

On Sept. 25, we were back in the air providing valuable services to our agricultural commodities, but we would continue to work with authorities during the next several years, verifying information and correcting misunderstandings on ag aircraft and their capabilities.

After a public hearing on Nov. 28, 2001, the state Assembly Committee on Agriculture determined that the current regulatory structure was adequate. The committee reviewed the various agencies and entities that maintain oversight, which included the FAA, California Highway Patrol, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, California Department of Pesticide Regulation, county agricultural commissioners and many others. At the hearing, an FBI agent stated, “We didn’t know that they (crop dusters) were so regulated.”

Fortunately, the NAAA Professional Aerial Applicator Support System, or PAASS, had already been in place for a couple of years. This educational program educates pilots annually on key safety and drift-minimization issues. After 9/11, the program incorporated an airfield watch/security segment, which remains a part of the program. This allowed the industry to promote additional airfield security measures for aircraft and equipment, to address any public concerns about using our aircraft or equipment for nefarious activities. Additional precautions of hidden kill switches, disabling equipment, utilization of electronic monitoring and establishing lines of communication with local law enforcement for reporting any suspicious activities were discussed and promoted.

CAAA would continue to be contacted by various federal and state agencies. Our members kept the lines of communication open with the FBI, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, FAA, CDFA, DPR and other agencies. In 2003, the FBI conducted follow-up visits to operators across the nation. Throughout this time, operators increased their security plans and agreed to forward any suspicious requests to the Department of Homeland Security. In the years since then, we have continued to interact with FAA and Homeland Security.

What did this teach us? We found out the importance of having programs in place to educate and enlighten those who don’t understand what we do. Additionally, if it were not for our proactive involvement with various regulatory entities, our shutdown could have been longer and more devastating for our members and the grower community.

(Terry Gage is president of the California Agricultural Aircraft Association in Lincoln, CA.)

Reprinted from the California Farm Bureau Federation

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