The monthly safety meeting included handouts of product labels. At first glance they looked identical. The issue was, one was a widely used insecticide, the other was a herbicide. Two things you never want to get mixed up.
Our clocks shifted to daylight flying for cotton defoliation and the subsequent herbicide season. A step back was in order. A step back to review the differences between insecticide work and herbicide work. In the overlap, we still had lots of tomatoes in the fields and the work orders for bug work were in the same stacks as orders for herbicide work. The stuff nightmares are made of. The two products with the similar labels are identified and separated in a manner to which neither can be taken by mistake. Of course we all know to never say never and to not assume anything is foolproof. Ground crews and loaders are schooled in depth on the differences and the consequences of mixing up the two. Common practices and safety measures are reviewed and enhanced. Every conceivable situation is considered to ensure herbicides and insecticides are kept in a way to prevent the possibility of defoliating the wrong field. Just the thought is enough to send cold chills down an ag pilot’s spine. I think this is the time of year when operators get most of their gray hair. I understand the chemical company has been notified about the label problem and is taking steps to correct it. Let’s hope so.
With the shift in schedules and work comes the task of making sure all the equipment is up to snuff. Spray gear is leak tested with red dye. Mix rigs are inspected and checked. PPE is reviewed, inspected and replaced or issued as necessary. An airplane zooming across the valley streaming a mixture of herbicide is not good for public relations. A mix rig that spews chemicals is a danger to the loaders and the surrounding area. Rinse out procedures are enhanced and every loader truck carries a supply of ammonia. We schedule all insecticide work to be flown first, aircraft hoppers and mix rigs are double rinsed at the end of the day or in the interim if shifting from herbicide to insecticide. These are things that are normal checks and balances for our operation. Herbicide work brings a redoubling of those efforts. None of us can ever say it’s safe to rely on yesterday’s conditions.
Daylight flying brings about another concern for our crews. The difference between working at noon as opposed to midnight is it’s prime time for the ag commissioner’s people to be out and about. Surprise inspections are things we don’t want to be surprised by. Non compliance with regulations bring nasty letters and hefty fines. As a pilot it’s my responsibility to ensure myself and the crew I’m working with is on their toes and keeping to standards. If your crew isn’t wearing their PPE, being sloppy, careless, or dragging a leaking hose around, you need to speak up. It’s for their own safety as well as the good of the company. An inspection will fly by in a few minutes if everything is going right. It’ll shut you down if it’s not. We always tend to get in a hurry. It’s still hot this time of year, and a guy with several things going at once will inevitably leave his gloves off, overlook a leak, or fail to put his chemical resistant suit on. We can’t be in such a hurry we take short cuts or round off the corners. It will definitely bite you.
As pilots we train continually to be good at what we do. As ag pilots, we must train even more. There’s a big stack of chips on the table every time the money handle goes down. Once the chemical leaves the booms, it’s going to go away and there ain’t no getting it back. Like firing a gun, you’d better make sure of your target before you pull the trigger. You can’t put the spent bullet back in the barrel.
When we’re doing insecticide work, it’s common for everything within a few square miles to get the same treatment. There’s not too much concern for drift. We get a “blow and go” mentality during those months. That particular thought process has to be arrested and locked away when it comes to herbicide season. Blow and go to “blow and woe” if you don’t go slow… (Yes, I crack me up sometimes).
Drift is an enormous concern. Wind and weather become allies or enemies. Our policy is never spray until conditions dictate the evolution can be conducted safely and successfully. There will be work orders on the shelf dying of old age waiting for the right conditions. Wait they will if that’s what it takes to avoid a drift claim. We’re very fortunate, ninety percent of the time our growers are understanding and accepting in those cases.
Get those edges! I hear a fist slam on a desk every time that phrase goes through my mind. Edges, especially in cotton are critical to the job. The pickers have to go in that way and slurping up a bunch of green leaves with the white cotton leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of the harvesters and can spoil the product. Edges against roads get covered in dust and are usually more dense in foliage. It’s amazing sometimes how tough some of them are to kill. Consider double passing the upwind edges, and those next to dusty roads when you’re figuring for headlands. It’ll pay off.
October is a great time of year. Old man winter will be limbering up his creaky old joints soon. He’ll be peeking around the corner in no time. Get ready with your preparations.
Fly well and stay safe!