When one thinks of New Jersey, images of busy highways, urban sprawl, Atlantic City and maybe even scenes from the HBO series The Sopranos come to mind. Few associate the small northeastern state with small towns, acres of cranberries, corn and aerial application. However, there are a handful of aerial application operators in The Garden State. Wings Aerial Applicators, who consist of husband and wife team Austin and Emily Daniel, along with Austin’s dad Jeff, are one of them.

The Daniel family has a long history in New Jersey farming cranberries. Owners of The American Cranberry Company, they started with around 20 acres in 1995. As the market for the fruit did well in the early 2000s, the family expanded to around 160 acres. This expansion led Jeff and his wife Sharon to purchase a Hutch Pawnee to treat their farm. Jeff has an extensive background in aviation; he led Yak 52 air show demonstrations with The Raiders Demo Team, and is a pilot with American Airlines. 

(L-R) Jeff Daniel, Emily and Austin Daniel with Wings Aerial Applicators’ fleet of Turbine Dromader, Weatherly 201C and Eagle Aircraft in the background at the airstrip in Pemberton, New Jersey.

For the next decade, cranberry farming took the lead with aerial spraying coming in a close second. Jeff, along with pilots Doug Pollock and Dan Minerva, mainly treated their own acres and neighboring farms with occasional custom applications. Over this time period, Jeff added a Weatherly 201B and an Eagle to their fleet. The Eagle, somewhat rare in today’s aerial application array of aircraft, filled the void that the spraying operation needed for very small fields. The Eagle is still in use today by Wings Aerial Applicators. 

Around 2010, the cranberry market took a severe downturn for New Jersey farmers. Jeff decided to scale the operation back to its original 20 acres and focus on the aerial application business. Austin Daniel, Jeff’s son, was also starting to fly. Jeff taught Austin in the Yak 52 and transitioned him to tailwheel aircraft in a 1931 Waco RNF. The duo still have both aircraft. Once Austin obtained his commercial license, he began spraying with the Pawnee and moved to the Eagle and eventually the Weatherly in 2010. 

The 2010s showed a steady increase in the business for Wings Aerial Applicators. Over the next several years the company added two more Weatherlys and hired additional pilots, Nathaniel Crenshaw, Chris Caruana and Craig Reiner. With four pilots now on staff, Austin was free to pursue his dream of becoming a fighter pilot. In 2014, Austin was selected by the Air National Guard to fly the F-16 in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

With aviation being a mainstay in the Daniel’s family, some weekends are reserved for flying the Yak at air shows, all the while keeping up with acres for Wings Aerial Applicators. It was only natural that Austin settle down with someone who had the same passion for aviation as he and his dad. During one weekend flying at The Flying W airport, Austin met Emily, who by happenstance, came from a family that was bitten by the same aerial application and general aviation bug. Emily’s grandfather had pioneered early ag aviation in the 50s and 60s with Cubs and Pawnees. He also owned and operated a flight school, Lewis Flying Service. Emily and her two brothers are third generation pilots, her father a retired American Airlines Captain and her mother a recent private pilot. Emily began flight training at 14 years old with her father, and received her tailwheel training in their J3 Cub. Austin and Emily were married in 2015 at the Flying W Airport where they had first met.

Picture from wedding at Flying W. Emily flew in with her dad in the family’s J3 cub, and the Yak and Pawnee were on display.

The couple moved to Texas for Austin to continue his military training, while his dad took care of the spraying back home. Emily, who had just earned her CFII, continued to build time and flight experience while the couple was on the road. She flight instructed, flew jumpers, and ferried aircraft while Austin was in military flight school. Austin finished his initial training in Texas and the couple moved to Arizona so Austin could attend F-16 school.

Austin was able to secure a position back at his New Jersey home with the Air National Guard. This allowed Emily and Austin to continue to build and expand Wings Aerial Applicators and the family farm. Emily took the same ag-training route as Austin, first starting in the Pawnee, then moving to the Weatherly. 2018 was Emily’s first season and this year she started her second season in the Weatherly. She has also opened a flight school for the off season with a Cessna 150 the couple purchased together. The school is named Chick And Rudder Aviation. Emily plans to expand the school to teach tailwheel, upset recovery, and ag training. 

Wings Aerial Applicators has added additional aircraft to their fleet in the past year. Namely their first turbine, a Dromader. The operation needed a larger aircraft for the increase in cover crop and fertilizer work. Another addition is the L19 Bird Dog, which they use for scouting new fields in difficult terrain and for initial ag training for new pilots. Dan Mulholland, who has put in time as a ground loader the past two seasons is currently taking advantage of the mentorship and working to become an ag pilot with Wings Aerial Applicators.

The fields for Wings Aerial Applicators are very small, so their combination of aircraft works well for their operation. The Eagle still flies, but the majority of the work is done with the Weatherly. Currently, both aircraft are used for wet and dry work. In the future, the operation hopes to streamline most of the dry work with the Dromaders and the liquid applications with the Weatherlys.

Cranberries and blueberries are the predominant crops in the area, but they will fly some specialty vegetables (pumpkins and pickles). Corn also has a decent presence. Cranberries take about five applications of 100-200/lb/acre and another five applications of 5-10 gpa of fungicide. All the aircraft are equipped with various models of the CP nozzle and have a mix of AgNav GPS systems installed.

Wings Aerial Applicators defines the unconventional aerial application operation with a mix of aircraft and pilots that aren’t commonplace in the aerial application business. However, the trio, Jeff, Austin and Emily, have found a niche that works for them. In doing so, they are doing their best to keep the “Garden” in The Garden State.