The green cross for Colombian agriculture
With today’s high performance ag-aircraft, where a 500-gallon hopper is the norm, anything less would seem to be an oddity. Some operations have ag-aircraft with load capabilities limited to 100-300 gallons, but usually those are rare and the aircraft are used for speciality applications.
A single Pawnee, Ipanema or C-188 operator finds it difficult to treat enough hectares in a season to support the infrastructure of a full-time flying service. Often, operations are formed with smaller aircraft, but quickly add more or move into a larger machine. Finding a multi-aircraft operator successfully utilizing the smaller ag-aircraft is challenging. The exception is Brazil where there are several large fleets of Ipanema aircraft. This is driven as much as anything by favorable lending terms and low cost ethanol for fuel.
There are always exceptions in the ag-aviation business. A methodology that works for one operation may not work for another. However, more than 50 successful years in business speaks for itself. Sanidad Vegetal Cruz Verde is a Colombian company with 11 PA-25 Pawnees and two Cessna C-188s that is very successful in the face of drought and political changes.
Sanidad Vegetal Cruz Verde was formed in the early 1960s by Hans Klotz, a German coffee buyer working in Colombia and Jamie Zorroza, a Spaniard who farmed rice in Colombia. Like the Swiss Red Cross emblem, Sanidad Vegetal Cruz Verde is the “green cross” for agriculture in Colombia.
When World War II started, Klotz was buying coffee in Colombia for his native country, Germany. He decided to stay in Colombia and began growing bananas in the northern region of Santa Marta. In the early 1950s, Klotz partnered with Zorroza to grow rice south of Santa Marta in Ibagué, a rice-growing region of Colombia.
In the early 1960s, Klotz and Zorroza met an American ag pilot/mechanic, William Robert (Bob) Griebling, who was flying in the area and bought an PA-25 B aircraft to fly for them. Seeing the need for more service in the area in June 1965, they bought two more PA-25Bs and founded Sanidad Vegetal. They adopted the green cross for their logo and namesake that is on all their aircraft; the Red Cross for Colombian crops.
Over the years, Bob Griebling managed the company, as well as flying its aircraft and maintaining them. He grew the original fleet from three Pawnee PA-25 B-models with 235 HP engines, to several Pawnees PA-25s, Pawnee Braves and an A-model Ag-Cat with a PWC R-1340 (600 HP) that he flew. In 1991, Bob was captured by Communist guerrillas and held for ransom. Unfortunately, he was killed in the rescue attempt.
William “Billy” Robert Griebling, Jr. had been flying alongside his father at the time of the kidnapping. Upon his father’s death, he took over as chief pilot for the next five years before retiring, but not until he had started the transition from larger ag-aircraft to a more efficient fleet of Pawnee PA-25s. This was due to rice fields becoming more numerous, but much smaller, often only 20-25 hectares (50-60 acres). The clientele were changing to four major growers that made up 65% of the flying, while 110-120 growers were the remaining 35%.
Upon Billy’s retirement from active flying at Sanidad Vegetal in 2000, Hans Klotz’s son, Andres, became General Manager for the company with his agricultural engineer background. In 2000, Hans Klotz passed away, while his partner, Jaime Zorroza, is still alive and actively farming a very large rice farm at 96 years old.
The primary crop Sanidad Vegetal treats is rice, making up about 80% of the flying. The company aircraft also treat maize, about 15%, and a small amount of soybeans, about 5% of the work. The aircraft are flown year round in this equatorial region with two rainy and two dry seasons, The first wet season starts in late March with applications of pre-germinated rice seeds and ends with harvest in early July. The second rainy season starts in late September, seeding rice and ends with harvest in January starting the first dry season. Normally, rice is planted by ground machines, but if the area is wet, growers call in the aircraft.
The usual application rate for rice seed by air is 200 kg/ha (200 lb/a), compared to 120 kg/ha (120 lb/a) by ground machine. The Pawnees use a Transland spreader for the dry applications. A small amount of herbicide work is flown using CP nozzles applying at 15-20 gallons per hectare (6-8 GPA). Rice typically receives three aerial fertilizations with varying rates of 100 kg/ha, 200 kg/ha and 300 kg/ha. Additionally, three fungicide applications are made at 15-20 gal/ha. Rice fields are rotated with corn and soybean crops.
Sanidad Vegetal employs 10 pilots to fly its 11 Pawnees. They are required by the Colombian Aero Civil to have a minimum of 100 hours of commercial flight time and a minimum of 50 hours of ag-flying logged. Normally, Colombian ag-pilots are required to retire from ag-flying at 65 years old. However, due to a shortage of qualified Colombian ag-pilots, the government has extended the retirement age to 68 years old.
The 11 Pawnees operate from 24 airstrips throughout Colombia with the furtherest apart being about 150 kilometers (90 miles). Seven of the airstrips are paved and strategically located and provide stores of parts.
The flying day starts around 6:00 a.m. with spraying that stops around 9-10 a.m. due to either heat, humidity, wind, or some combination of. Dry applications continue after liquid applications.
Four years ago, Sanidad Vegetal bought a nearby operation in Agua Blanca that was using two C-188s. Sanidad Vegetal is not approved by the Colombian Aero Civil to operate C-188s, but hopes to be certified to use the C-188s in 2016. Until that time, four of the eleven Pawnees operate from Agua Blanca with 12 support and maintenance employees and four pilots based there. The remaining seven Pawnees and pilots are based in Ibagué with 25 support, maintenance and administrative employees.
Sanidad Vegetal’s fleet of Pawnees have been converted from their original D-model configuration with wingtip fuel tanks, to C-models with fuselage fuel tanks. The aircraft have 260 HP, O-540 Lycoming engines with high compression pistons and constant speed props. The fuselages have been converted from fabric to aluminum. Pilots prefer the C-model version of the PA-25 because of its performance and better flying characteristics than the D-model.
“For our area with its small fields, the Pawnee is the most efficient aircraft,” says Andres. “We converted D-models to C-models because our pilots like the way they fly.”
A select number of Sanidad Vegetal’s Pawnees are outfitted with Satloc GPS units. Some growers prefer to not use GPS on their fields. However, the company’s four major clients require GPS-equipped Pawnees with CP nozzles for more accurate applications.
Sanidad Vegetal Cruz Verde has remained a stable ag-aviation company with its 11-Pawnee fleet working from 24 airstrips in the Ibagué region riceland of Colombia. The company has withstood political change and today deals with a widespread drought. The company operates well within its means with an aircraft that is easy to fly and very productive over small fields, Sanidad Vegetal Cruz Verde continues to prosper; the Red Cross for Colombian agriculture.