Flying at 500’ AGL
This is a topic that we at Flying Tiger Aviation harp on to the point that it’s just a matter of time before someone shouts, “That’s enough already… I’ve got the point!” And the point is (drum roll please)…ferry at 500 feet AGL!
During the last week of June 2003, I was flying for my good friend, Jack Woodson, on a boll weevil contract in northeast Arkansas. It was my last season as an active, full-time ag-pilot. So, this is a true story that has been a long time coming.
I was flying in a racetrack pattern, north and south, which tied together about four or five fields, totaling, maybe, 250 acres. I pulled up at the end of a northerly pass, turned through the 90-degree position and began my descent and interception of the next swath to the south. Descending through approximately 250’ AGL, in my peripheral vision to the right, I saw a turbine Thrush flash directly beneath me from southwest to northeast. Did you get that? Beneath me! It scared the living Holy Jesus out of me.
From reflex, I instantly hauled back on the stick, climbed and circled to the right to make another swath intercept. As I resumed the southerly pass, there was a delayed dawning that I had just come mighty darn close to becoming another statistic. I turned the spray off, pulled back up and turned to the left to see where the Thrush went, but I never saw it again. My initial reaction was, “Somebody’s due a thorough whupping of their buttocks.” But at my age, I’m not the person to administer the whupping of anybody’s buttocks, unless they are at least 73 (or maybe 83).
I could not have seen the Thrush on the previous northerly pass as he was approaching from the southwest. Maybe if I had been more vigilant, I would have seen him earlier in the turn and we would not have come so close together. Besides, I was probably preoccupied with the light bar. One week prior to this incident, a Thrush crossed the field I was working below my altitude as I was in a climbing turn following a cleanup pass. Was it the same pilot and airplane in each of these cases? I don’t know, but I think it probably was. Now, why did this happen at all?
Maybe this was a pilot who resented me being there. I know that oftentimes there is resentment from local pilots when a boll weevil pilot “invades” their territory. Maybe he was making a statement as to his resentment, childish and reckless and stupid as it was.
Or, maybe this was a pilot who was ferrying to/from his airstrip simply did not see me. Obviously, he had his head inserted up the posterior exit point of his alimentary canal such that he needed a Plexiglas belly button to see where he was going.
I would like to think the latter scenario is more likely the case, but I believe it was a deliberate choice to fly under me. In any case, this situation should never have occurred. To begin with, ag-pilots are not operating under FAR Part 137 while en route to or from a field, but only during the actual dispensing of a product over the field, or turning to reenter the field. Any other time, the ag-pilot must conform to Part 91.119(a), (b), (c) and (d), which clearly states (my words), “No pilot shall fly less than 500’ AGL within 2000’ of the tallest obstacle over a sparsely populated area.” But, that’s not the most important thing to consider. It’s like driving through an intersection in which you have the green light and at that intersection at exactly the same time, someone runs the red light. Makes no difference who was right or wrong. You may be right, but you might also be dead right. So keep in mind, you do not operate under FAR 137 while ferrying.
In the summer of 2001, there was a midair collision between two ag-planes in the Mississippi Delta. It was speculated that one was ferrying and one was pulling up from a swath run. I don’t know the details, except that both pilots were killed. Another mid air collision also claimed the life of the president of the Mississippi Aerial Application Association, Lloyd Steen, in the 1970s. (Editor’s note: This same incident happened in Louisiana in 2005. Luckily, neither pilot was injured, even though one turbine Thrush chewed off the wing tip of the other turbine Thrush in the pull up!)
I used to be as guilty as anybody. I almost always ferried at 200’. It was just too much trouble to climb to 500’, especially with a load. A few years ago I was flying in Louisiana on a boll weevil contract. That afternoon I was sitting at my desk doing the paperwork, when my phone rang. A man politely introduced himself and said he was with the FAA out of Baton Rouge (instant heart flutter) and asked me if I was flying N12LU, to which I owned-up. He then told me that I had been videoed by a man standing in his backyard with a camcorder that had a range finder. He had zoomed in on the “N” number of my airplane and the distance indicated 200’. I had been had. Then, the nice man with the FAA told me that there would be no charges filed if I would agree not to ferry below 500’, to which I graciously agreed and I absolutely have not since. In the time to climb to 500’ in today’s turbine ag-planes, we’re not adding to our ferry time more than two or three minutes, even when you are heavy. That’s a small price to pay for the additional safety. And of course, I am not talking about a two-mile ferry, but if you have ten miles to go, especially when there are other ag-planes in the area, you should climb to a safe altitude. One more thing, aside from the legality issue, “In My Opinion”, it is rude and inconsiderate at a low altitude to cut across a field being worked by another ag-pilot.
I teach ag-aviation and a turbine transition course, which has until recently, been associated with the University of Louisiana at Monroe (we are now Flying Tiger Aviation, LLC), and I very strongly emphasize ag-pilots must ferry at 500’. It’s more than a matter of being legal. It might be the determining factor as to whether you live to draw your Social Security benefits.
Be safe, have fun and make money!