Safety first, bananas next in Colombia
Often when one thinks of Colombia South America, the American drug eradication program with State department ag-planes spraying comes to mind. However, Colombia has had an aerial application industry for well over 50 years that began with Piper Cubs spraying bananas in the mountainous area of Armenia. There is even a YouTube video about these early and daring applications.
There are approximately 40 ag operations with about 110 ag-pilots working today in Colombia treating a variety of crops including bananas, rice, corn, sugarcane and soybeans. But, it is bananas that require the most treatments with the larger ag-aircraft.
Compañía Aerofumigaciones Calima S.A.S. is considered the largest aerial application company in Colombia operating 11 turbine Thrushes, one radial Thrush and five Cessna C-188s. It was formed just over 50 years ago by Juan Emillio Valle and Carmenza Fina de Valle.
Juan Emilio Valle was a Chilean ex-air force pilot. While on his way for a visit to the U.S. in the early 1960s, he stopped in Colombia where he met Carmen, later his wife. He liked Colombia and realized farmers needed an aerial spraying service. He hired a Chilean ag-pilot to train him to fly ag. He flew ag three years for a Colombian company, then Juan and Carmenza bought a company and a year after in business, Juan and Carmenza renamed the company after the local native Indians, Compañia Aerofumigaciones Calima S.A.S.. The company had two Pawnees. Carmenza was always an active partner, working every day from 1969 until her death in 2013. Juan left the company in 1988 and returned to Chile while Carmenza remained in the company, joined later in 1991 by her daughter Sandra and in 1999 by her other daughter Viviana.
In 1969, a group of banana producers who had formed a corporation back in 1966, Uniban in the Urabá region of Colombia, were ready to run their own exports and spraying. Since their beginnings, Calima has been their sole provider for spraying their banana plantations. Now, almost 50 years later, Calima is Uniban’s sole supplier treating 100% of Uniban’s banana plantations both in Uraba and Magdalena. Currently, Calima ‘s market share is 60% of Uraba’s banana plantations, 11% of of Magdalena’s banana plantations and 100% of Aliar’s soybean and corn in aerial spraying in Puerto Gaitan, the Colombian oriental plains area.
Starting with only 700 hectares of banana plantations, today Uniban controls over 20,000 hectares of banana plantations in the Urabá region. Yellow sigatoka was the target disease and received 12 applications a year. In 1979, black sigatoka appeared requiring 45-50 applications a year. Calima was overwhelmed. At that time, it operated eight C-188s. The fleet grew almost overnight to 25, mostly C-188s and Pawnees, with Calima buying and leasing any ag-aircraft it could find.
After visiting a Costa Rican turbine Thrush operation in 1981, Calima started buying turbine Thrushes, each one replacing 2.5 smaller aircraft. Colombian politics prevented the importation of more than two aircraft at a time. Otherwise, Calima would have to export an equal amount of products as it imported. Uniban stepped in and bought three turbine Thrushes in 1983 that it still owns today, but is flown and managed by Calima as part of its 11 turbine Thrush fleet. The remaining C-188s are flown from the other three bases on row crops and small banana plantations, of which Calima treats 100% of Uniban’s banana plantations in Santa Marta.
The 11 Thrushes require 16 pilots to keep them productive, arriving at the airport at 5:30 a.m. for the day’s briefing. Each pilot flies 22 days straight, then is off for eight. They are limited to nine hours of duty time a day of which no more than five hours can be flight time. This rarely creates a problem, as most of Calima’s applications are flown the first three hours of the day. This is due to heat, humidity and wind in this equatorial region.
The weather is constantly monitored during applications. Ideal conditions are 28°C with wind at 3-4 meters per second and relative humidity at 70-80%. During the rainy season, rain will stop the spraying. Urabá receives annually 3,000 ml of rainfall. Calima loses approximately 40 flight days out of the year to rainfall. The only other days it is not operational are New Year’s, Easter and Christmas.
Strictly speaking, the first takeoff is exactly at official sunrise, usually around 6:30 a.m. Flying from a 900-meter paved runway in Urabá, Calima aircraft make 10,000 to 12,000 takeoffs a year, the most for any privately owned airport in Colombia. With typical application rates of five gallons per hectare (two GPA), of which two gallons are mineral oil, the Thrushes average 140-150 hectares per hour (350-375 acres), each treating 90,000 hectares (225,000 acres) a year. This takes four to five 30-40 minute flights a day for 2-3 hours each day, logging approximately 550-600 hours a year for each Thrush.
Applications are visually monitored by a field inspector, as well as collecting droplets on oil sensitive collections cards. The inspector looks for consistent 50-60 droplets per square centimeter with an approximate size of 200 microns. To achieve this, the aircraft are outfitted with stainless steel CP nozzles using a 25-meter swath. Application rates range 5-10 gallons per hectare (2-4 GPA). The application rates and formulations are determined by the grower.
Calima’s corporate offices are based in Medellín. Overall, it has 103 employees, of which 60 work in Urabá. In several instances, multiple generations are employed at Calima. From the Medellín offices sales, strategic planning, human resources, parts and supplies management are carried out. The company structure is tiered with Sandra Valle as president and two vice presidents below her, followed by seven general managers. Andres Rendon is vice president for sales and strategic planning. Freddy Puentes is vice president for operations. Seven general managers are responsible for administration/finance, instruction for the Calima ag-pilot school/marketing, maintenance, chief pilots, servicing of clients, safety management/integration and general sales.
During the past 50 years, Calima has grown into a large and impressive agricultural aviation operation. It brought the first C-188s and turbine Thrushes to Colombia. It was the first company in Colombia to use GPS units. Following the footsteps of their founders and parents, Viviana and Sandra have kept Calima at the forefront of new technology, while at the same time maintaining customer satisfaction and safety.
0002 – Calima is expanding its maintenance shop to take on maintenance outside its own 17 aircraft. It has also started the process to begin an ag-pilot school for other than just Calima pilots.
0008 – The Administrative team for Calima.
0010 – Calima pilots in briefing room before starting their day.
0016 – A one-way valve at end of boom allows for draining the booms. The boom pressure relief hose is built into the Transland boom.
0017 – At dawn before initial takeoffs begin, Operations Manager Pedro Pablo Correa discusses a loading issue with pilot. . Note the control tower in the background.
0053 or 0014 – Calima uses a 3-inch load hose with a dry break that is wrapped in PVC pipe sections for easy moving. It takes four minutes to load 480-gal, the max load for Calima Thrushes. The loading area has four load points with filters at each point.
0025 – Calima Thrushes loading before a sunrise takeoff. With nine Thrushes loading on the same airstrip, one was either taking off or landing every two minutes for the next two hours for spraying a total of 20,000 gallons of fungicide and mineral oil mix that covered 4,000 hectares (10,000 acres) of banana plantations. The initial nine aircraft were loaded and departed within 16 minutes.
0039 – Calima has a dedicated, elevated control tower for monitoring all aircraft by giving instructions with two-way radios and loud speakers. Calima aircraft are in contact with each other, the field inspector and approximately 10 competitor ag-aircraft working within the same area at the same time. Controllers determine the size of each load based on wind, humidity and temperature charts, taking readings in real time. They also determine when the pilots change takeoff direction based on wind speed and direction, as well as giving landing and takeoff clearances.
0048 – The rinsate catch basin that works as a separator. Rinsate is recycled as load water.
0049 – Every Calima Thrush is outfitted with a fuel flow meter, but as a safety measure, all fueling is checked visually with a fuel measuring stick each time the pilot takes on fuel. The ground crew fueler is always dressed in red coveralls to assist the pilot in identifying and confirming when he is taking on fuel. Additionally, three ground personnel are assigned to each aircraft.
0051 – Standard flight gear for pilots is helmet and full Nomex; flight suit, shoes, gloves and neck scarf.
0052 – Calima president, Sandra Valle, with loaders dressed in standard personal protection equipment (PPE).
0060 – With more than 3,000 ml of annual rainfall, it is important to keep critical aircraft components covered, e.g. fuel tank caps and cowling vents. The GPS lightbar is driven by a Satloc G4 connected to Intelliflow controller.
0062 – Calima aircraft are washed every day after use.
0068 / 0077 / 0080 / 0084 – The Calima crew; green dressed are maintenance, white are administrative (Medellín) and in flightsuits are pilots.
Logo: The Calima logo for a 53-year old Colombian aerial application company. A new logo representing the ever improving and expanding company will be released later this year.