A different role for the iconic Huey
The distinctive “thwop thwop” of the 48-foot rotor diameter, Lycoming T53-powered helicopter that is reminiscent of American troops disembarking during Vietnam can only be attributed to one helicopter – the Huey. Bell Helicopter’s UH-1, labeled the most successful rotorcraft in aviation history, was first manufactured in 1956 to meet the Army’s requirement for a new helicopter to serve as a medical evacuation, instrument trainer and general utility aircraft. Over 16,000 have been put into service, amassing an incredible 27 million flight hours since its inaugural flight in October of 1956.
As the years progressed and technology evolved into newer designs for rotorcraft and systems, the UH-1 was eventually phased out of production. Today, there are approximately 540 UH-1Hs registered with the FAA. Three of those aircraft belong to Arkansas operator J & R Flying Service and have been integral to the Arkansas rice crop since the operation added their first UH-1H in 2002.
John Smith and Rick Meeks began their career in agricultural aviation in 1993 flying local farmer-owned Bell 47s. As the workload increased, John and Rick persuaded their farmers to add two Bell UH-1Hs to the fleet in 2002 for bucket application of fertilizer. Later in 2008, John and Rick bought the business from the growers and renamed it J & R Flying Service. At the time of the business purchase, it included a 510 Thrush in the line-up. Immediately afterwards, the duo added a 550 Thrush.
Even with two fixed-wing aircraft in the fleet, John and Rick were still helicopter operators at heart. By this time, they were flying two UH-1Hs and had transitioned to flying the operation’s liquid applications with helicopters and dry applications with airplanes.
The UH-1H was proving itself to be a successful tool for multiple applications on Arkansas rice crops. So much so that in 2011 J & R Flying Service added a third UH-1H to their fleet. This helicopter is flown by long-time employee Jeff Russell, who began loading aircraft in 2002 and has worked is way up to be one of J & R Flying Service main-line pilots. 2011 also saw the departure of one of the Thrushes and the addition of an Air Tractor AT-802, bought from Lane Aviation in Rosenberg, TX. In 2013, the second Thrush was sold.
The AT-802 is mostly a dry-application aircraft and is flown by Rick’s son, Rick Meeks, Jr. Rick, Jr. was a fixture around the operation since its beginning. Rick Jr., began loading aircraft at a very early age and worked his way through flight school, eventually graduating from Flying Tigers Aviation in Bastrop, Louisiana in 2009. Rick, Jr. did a brief stint in Illinois flying a Weatherly applying fungicide before moving up to a turbine Ag-Cat. Rick, Jr. returned to J & R Flying Service to fly its Thrushes, then eventually moving to the AT-802. J & R Flying Service’s 2016 model AT-802 is powered by the PT6A-65AG. It has a Transland 7 ½-inch gate and a SATLOC G4.
“Everybody who flies for us, should work in a loader capacity first,” comments Rick, Sr. His pilots have taken this route and both Rick and John believe this is a great approach to have a very well-rounded pilot.
Rick’s son isn’t the only family member helping get the job done at J & R Flying Service. Blake Meeks, Rick’s other son, along with Blake’s wife, Whitney, keep operations going on the ground and in the office. Ricks brother Hershel and son Dustin as well as long time employee Ty Collins round out the ground crew. John Smith’s daughter, Ashleigh, splits her time between college and J & R Flying Service.
J & R Flying Service’s main season is May through June, however, work builds throughout the year. May sees some pre-flood applications of herbicide and fungicide. In July, one to three aircraft go to the Midwest to spray corn, while August brings sodium chloride applications that last through October.
The UH-1Hs are all equipped identical with CP-03 nozzles and polypropylene 400-gallon tanks. The normal load for the helicopter is 250-300 gallons with a majority of the work applied at five gallons to the acre. All helicopters use SATLOC G4 units for guidance. The UH-1Hs are powered by the Lycoming T53 turbine, which delivers 1350 shaft horsepower. Normal speeds across the field are 70-95 mph applying a 60-65 foot swath and burning about 80 gallons per hour.
J & R Flying Service is not limited to just aerial application flights with their helicopters. The operation is also a holder of a Part 133 External Load certificate, which enables their helicopters to conduct long-line, external load operations. The UH-1H can hold up to 3000 lbs “on the hook”.
The UH1H’s Vietnam history isn’t lost on John Smith and Rick Meeks, or any of the employees at J & R Flying Service. Two of the three helicopters have verifiable Vietnam history and one of them was actually shot down during the conflict. Recently, while en route to attend a Vietnam Helicopter Pilot’s gathering in Maryland, a helicopter pilot stopped at the operation. Having looked up the serial number of the helicopter he had flown over the rice fields of Vietnam, he discovered it was based at J & R Flying Service. After a few introductions, the pilot was reunited with his old bird and was at the controls again; instead this time over the rice fields of Arkansas.