July 2016

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Helicopters in Iowa

by Bill Lavender

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It wasn’t too long ago Iowa had few ag-operations and even fewer helicopter ag-operations. The arrival of fungicide applications on corn, which Iowa is known for growing on a large scale, set the stage for numerous ag-operations in Iowa to emerge. One of these relatively newly formed operations is Johnson Helicopter Services, owned and operated by Gary Johnson in Red Oak.

Five years ago, Gary Johnson was flying corporate aircraft throughout the country. As a professional pilot and a farmer, Gary saw an opportunity to mix his two lifestyles and decided to enter the ag-aviation business. After careful analysis, and due to the geography of southwest Iowa, he formed a helicopter spraying service.

“There weren’t any helicopter companies in Iowa at the time, as far as I knew. It seemed to be the right thing to do. With the short spraying season in Iowa, helicopters also can be dual purpose aircraft during the off season,” explained Gary.

Four seasons ago, Gary started Johnson Helicopter Services with one R44, hiring a pilot to do the flying. This allowed Gary to build the business. In its third year, Johnson Helicopter Services added a second R44. In the fourth year, a Bell 206 Long Ranger was added. During the 2012 season, a fourth contract helicopter was hired to help with the overload of work. A helicopter mechanic is kept on standby to keep the machines in the air.

The helicopters are served by four modern nurse rigs with four CDL-certified drivers. The trucks are similar, with automatic transmissions, diesel power and 3,000-gallon water tanks. Three of the rigs have landing pads mounted on them, while the fourth rig uses the ground for loading ops. Gary notes it is difficult to find good drivers with CDL and hazmat certifications, as well as tanker truck endorsements. The company has a drug testing program in place, as well.

Each truck is outfitted with an iPad where the driver receive maps and loading instructions. The customer, which the majority are co-ops, can track the applications with any Internet accessible device. Maps are color-coded to help the drivers determine the condition of the roads leading to the load site.

The high tech organization of the operation is due much to the efforts of Johnson Helicopter Services’ vice-president and operations manager, Julian Vasquez. Julian came to work with Johnson Helicopter Services in May 2011. Along with management duties, he arranges scheduling and mapping using FlightPlan Online (www.agrismartis.com), which is also based in Red Oak.

The primary crop treated by Johnson Helicopter Services is corn. The first applications start in the beginning of July and continue through most of August. The company has expanded its operations to do cover crops in the fall and dry fertilizer in June The responses from farmer customers for these type of applications has been overwhelming.

Liquid applications are made using flat fan nozzles, except for one aircraft that is outfitted with the Spectrum Electrostatic System (ES - www.spectrumsprayer.com). The R44 aircraft with flat fan nozzles work a 45-foot swath and carry a 70-gallon load at 85 knots. The Long Ranger has a 60-foot swath and can carry 100-120 gallons at 85 knots.

“Our Long Ranger has exceeded all of our expectations. We have found it to be especially useful with dry fertilizer apps and our cover crop work. It is a must have,” describes Julian.

Johnson Helicopter Services started using an electrostatic system in 2011. It requires a pulley-driven pump to develop the needed pressure(80 psi) and volume for the ES booms. Mounted on an R44, the swath is 45 feet spraying at 75-80 knots. The ES has worked very well for the last two seasons. There are plans to eventually migrate to the ES for all of Johnson Helicopter Services’ helicopters. Customers that have used ES applications are asking for it again. While others are a bit hesitant to move to the new system. However, time and results will dictate the correct path to take.

Not only is Johnson Helicopter Services unique with its heli-ops in Iowa, it is also the test bed for Mixmate, a high tech loading system from Agtelligent (www.agtelligent.com) that is based in Oakland, Iowa. In 2011, Gary tested two units on his nurse trucks and was so pleased that he has outfitted all four nurse rigs with Agtelligent Mixmate load systems.

SIDEBAR STORY: Mixmate is a plug-and-play, mobile blending system designed to mix chemicals or fertilizers in a closed system for both aerial and ground applicators. Mixmate records the amount of each ingredient in every batch providing the necessary information for automated record keeping. It is Wi-Fi based and is currently in the final stages of developing 3G connectivity to Androids and iPhones.

Mixmate will custom mix for current conditions. It measures chemicals using a scale-mounted inductor tank with built-in tilt sensors that automatically correct the weight on a slope. Since the density of a chemical only varies a minuscule amount with temperature, an accurate measurement of volume by weight is guaranteed every time. Calibration of the scale is made by pouring an accurately measured five gallons of water into the inductor. This is the only calibration needed to measure any substance weighed by Mixmate.

One of the unique aspects of Mixmate is its ability to record the batch mix. With other methods of mixing chemicals, it is assumed the correct quantity of each chemical has been poured into the mix tank. With Mixmate, not only does it accurately make the prescribed batch, but is also records this data and wirelessly sends the batch records to the base office.

Mixmate will be introduced with a rugged Android tablet that is used to control the system. Android was selected because rugged tablets with bright screens for outdoor viewing are available. Initially Mixmate will be a stand alone system and in 2013 internet connectivity will enable features such as asset management and data communications with record keeping systems like FlightPlan Online.

Mixmate is a versatile system for handling liquid mixes. Also, Agtelligent has in development a Venturi component for Mixmate that will measure dry flowables as they are mixed in water. This gives the operator a complete system for accurately mixing loads.

Gary Johnson and Julian Vasquez are not content with just treating crops in Iowa with helicopters and high tech mixing. The diversity of the helicopter becomes evident when you consider there are no known ag-helicopter schools. With Iowa’s Southwestern Community College based in Red Oak, Johnson Helicopter Services recognizes an opportunity to establish a helicopter ag-pilot school. Its development is in the works for this winter season with hopes to begin classes in the spring. By coordinating with Southwest Iowa Community College, students could be eligible for scholarships or grants from the Veterans Administration.

Forward thinking is what makes a business successful. Often, it is not enough to only be an aerial applicator. Certain regions of the country require a different perspective; one that understands the need to use a specific type of aircraft, while at the same time have the diversity to expand operations into other forms of revenue, like a helicopter ag-pilot school.

It is also evident with Gary Johnson being relatively new to the ag-aviation scene that he takes on the latest technological approach that advances the company’s success. Without preconceived ideas created over decades of being in ag-aviation, Gary is openminded to evaluate new technology, like Mixmate, FlightPlan Online and Spectrum Electrostatic Systems. Often this is the kind of approach that is necessary for the ongoing success of a company like Johnson Helicopter Services.


Brent Applegate with Agtelligent and Gary Johnson of Johnson Helicopter Services, onboard the rear of one a Johnson Helicopter Services nurse rigs outfitted with a Mixmate system.

Overlooking the Mixmate and its computer-driven mix tank. The tank has sensors that level and accurately weigh products as they are added to the mix tank.

One of three of Johnson Helicopter Services helicopters, an R44 outfitted with the Spectrum Electrostatic System.

(L-R) Chad Cox pilot, Oren Perkins pilot, Brent Applegate/Agtelligent, Gary Johnson and Julian Vasquez of Johnson Helicopter Services stand before an Isolair dry materials bucket applicator. Johnson Helicopter Services uses Dyna-Nav for its GPS guidance.

Another Johnson Helicopter Services’ R44 outfitted with an Apollo spray system. This helicopter uses flat fan nozzles.

Johnson Helicopter Services’ Bell 206 Long Ranger with its Simplex spray system. It uses flat fan nozzles for liquid applications and an Isolair bucket for dry applications.

Johnson Helicopter Services’ Spectrum Electrostatic System R44 uses an 15-pound gasoline powered small engine to drive the pump via a pulley. Simplex provides the liquid tank for the unit.

Johnson Helicopter Services of Red Oak, Iowa has an
impressive lineup of helicopters outfitted for ag-spraying. In the foreground is
one of its three R44s with the Spectrum Electrostatic System

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