On a clear day in mid-May, the small airport in Park Rapids, MN, was abuzz with an influx of helicopters and fixed-wing planes for R.D. Offutt Farms’ aerial applicator clinic. The annual event, now in its 21st year, brings together applicator pilots, crop protection product manufacturers and suppliers, and other industry experts for a day of training, testing and sharing information.
Aerial spraying is often the most efficient and cost-effective method of applying crop protection and enhancement products. But due to its highly visible nature and the sheer number of variables that can affect an application, it’s an easy target for negative attention from environmental organizations. As such, it takes skilled pilots and finely tuned aircraft and equipment to perform aerial applications in a professional and responsible manner.
R.D. Offutt Farms contracts aerial application companies to provide spraying services for its Midwest operations. In order to spray any product on fields for R.D. Offutt Farms, each contract pilot must attend the clinic every year to have their spray plane or helicopter certified ahead of the growing season. It’s an event primarily meant to ensure regulatory compliance and verify that all steps are being taken to maintain the utmost level of environmental stewardship, but its benefits are far-reaching for those in the industry.
Testing and Analysis
The clinics are run under the guidelines of Operation S.A.F.E. (Self-regulating Application and Flight Efficiency), a program developed by the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA) in the 1980s as a response to public concern over the potential of spray drift from aerial applications. The core of the clinics is an analysis of spray pattern quality and droplet size – both significant factors in the accuracy, efficiency, and efficacy of an aerial application.
The tests are conducted by an NAAA-authorized analyst. R.D. Offutt Farms partners with Dennis Gardisser, Ph.D., PE, of WRK of Arkansas, a company specializing in application technology and aviation insurance. With decades of experience in aviation, agriculture, engineering, and much more, Dr. Gardisser is an expert in the practice of aerial application and its legal risks. In fact, he regularly serves as an expert witness in court cases involving aerial spraying.
To analyze spray pattern and droplet size, a target area is set up between runways at the airport. A cotton string is suspended across a 150-foot span roughly at chest height. Spaced out along this same stretch are nine stakes in the ground, each bearing a small strip of water-sensitive paper facing up toward the sky. Each pilot flies three times, spraying dyed water over the target area. Dr. Gardisser’s team collects environmental data as well as the aircraft’s speed and elevation for each pass.
After the test flights, the string is run through a fluorometer, which measures the dye from the spray. This data is then used to create a graphical representation of the spray swath, including its uniformity and width, which are vital to spraying efficiently.
The water-sensitive cards capture individual droplets which are analyzed and measured. Droplet size is a significant variable in spray drift – generally, the smaller the droplet, the more prone the application is to drift. However, for certain products, too large a droplet can drastically reduce efficacy. The clinic is a chance for pilots to consult with experts like Dr. Gardisser to make equipment adjustments to achieve the ideal droplet size before the spraying season gets underway.
What’s Good for the Goose. . .
The local clinic began as an event funded solely by R.D. Offutt Farms more than two decades ago, but today it has grown to become an inclusive and widely supported opportunity funded entirely through industry donations. The event is open to all agricultural pilots in the area and of the 25-30 aircraft typically registered for test flights, about half are contracted to fly for R.D. Offutt Farms.
According to Vince Restucci, Director of Procurement & Business Technology, similar gatherings are becoming common across the industry and for good reason. The Federal Aviation Administration utilizes the event to perform as many mandatory annual aircraft inspections as possible at one time and in one place.
In addition to pilots gaining certifications and education, aviation companies may qualify for insurance benefits for having all pilots and aircraft participate in the event. Industry partners including crop protection product manufacturers, manufacturers of adjuvants that are mixed with protection products, product distributors, agronomists and even customers are all invited to see firsthand that products are being used correctly and responsibly. The event is also a time for face-to-face meetings between people who collaborate remotely for much of the year. It’s an all-around win for all stakeholders.
While the tests and analyses are the backbone of the clinics, the events are a learning experience in many ways and a refresher on the importance of safety and responsible practices. An informal classroom session at the end of the day at R.D. Offutt Farms’ clinics includes industry and technology updates, reminders of accurate record-keeping and general best practices for pilots who represent the entire agricultural industry each time they take to the skies.
Source: R.D. Offutt Farms