By Bill Lavender
Smart is more than a name for Steph and Ben Smart’s Smart Air Services based out of Cecil Plains, Queensland Australia. It is a way of doing business – more than just flying over customers’ fields, but being a part of the farming community, as well.
Ben started flying ag with Aerotech in South Australia in the winter of 2000, then flying the following summer season for Jones Air, St George Queensland. In 2001, he was awarded the inaugural Aerial Agricultural Association of Australia’s (AAAA) Professional Pilot award for a pilot who has demonstrated pride in being an ag pilot and showing a commitment to professionalism and safety. In 2003, Ben started flying for Cropcair on the Darling Downs and after seven years, he became chief pilot. In 2012, he purchased Cropcair from Brad Jones and renamed the company Smart Air Services.
The following year, Smart Air Services participated in and received AAAA’s AIMS accreditation (Aerial Improvement Management System). The company is also Operation Spray Safe accredited. The AIMS program provides training for candidates for accreditation, including training on typical business strategy/structures/models that facilitates. This includes a standard manual that provides templates for common aerial application risks with accompanying procedures to manage those risks and which can easily be tailored to a particular company.
The AIMS integrated safety management system meets the demands of CASA and OH&S and other Australian government regulators. It also allows for an integrated quality assurance system to meet the requirements of customers. To qualify, operator applicants have to be a member of the AAAA, participate in SpraySafe and provide PPP training, as well as submitting to an independent audit.
“What sets us (Smart Air Services) apart from our competitors is our dedication to safety and continuous improvement, while providing the most efficient and effective service possible for our customers. AIMS insures that those accredited meet the highest level of professionalism, best practice for product application and environment management, as well as a safe workplace for employees,” explains Ben. “It was quite an achievement for the business to receive this accreditation, as it involves a significant financial investment to implement and a rigorous independent auditing process.”
In 2014, Smart Air Services purchased Oakey-based Aerofarm from Roy Dawson, further expanding the business. In 2016, the company purchased its second AT-502 from Field Air, the Australian Air Tractor dealer based in Ballarat. The company’s aircraft fleet consists of two AT-502Bs and a Cessna C-210. Services include aerial applications on crops and aerial firefighting and a variety of helicopter services.
Smart Air Services has approximately 14 satellite airstrips. This limits ferry time to seven or less minutes, which greatly improves the hourly gross of the aircraft. The company AT-502Bs typically can cover 110 ha/hr (270 ac/hr). The flying area stretches from Moonie eastward across the Darling Downs to Toowoomba and from Millmeran northward to Dalby and Warra. The company services about 600 growers within this 100-kilometer range of the Tipton home base near Cecil Plains.
Similar to other ag operations on the Darling Downs, crops treated are primarily cotton and sorghum in the summer and wheat, barley and chickpeas in winter. The summer season starts in December working cotton that was planted in October. Approximately 60% of the work is flying over cotton. Sorghum is planted where there is no cotton.
The summer season lasts until April. Cotton typically receives two insecticide applications and two defoliate applications applied with CP-11TT flat fan nozzles at 30 l/ha. Winter crops are treated with a fungicide at 30 l/ha and depending on rainfall, dry applications of urea are applied with rates ranging from 30-200 kg/ha. Usually, June, July and August are off-season months. However, late winter rains in September can cause a spring season to start sooner with fungicides on winter wheat, barley and chickpeas, which may also receive an insecticide application.
Steph and Ben Smart realize that some Australian farmers don’t always think favorably of aerial applicators; buying ground rigs and using the airplane only as a last resort. “I believe as an industry we need to make a concerted effort to change farmers’ perceptions of the aerial applicator so that they see us as a partner and valued contributor to their farming practices, as well as positive contributors to the local community,” according to Steph. “At Smart Air Services, we have been focusing on raising the profile of the aerial applicator in our local community. We do this by actively supporting our local community’s school fundraisers, footy teams and various local groups. By doing this, people realize we are a young family having a go and giving back; there is a face behind the Smart Air Services logo.”
Recently, Smart Air Services sponsored a Darling Downs Cotton Grower awards dinner. It was attended by 280 local people directly involved in the cotton industry. Rather than a simple monetary contribution that would hardly be noticed, Steph and Ben sponsored tables that provided an Air Tractor model (provided by Australian Air Tractor dealer Field Air). A local community development group, the Dalby Men’s Shed (mensshed.org), was contracted to build a base for the model to look like the aircraft was flying over a field of cotton. Table occupants placed bids amongst themselves to take home the aircraft model, raising $2,600 for the event. Some of the aircraft sold for as much as $350.
The Australian ag-aviation fleet consists of approximately 300 ag-aircraft according to the Aerial Agricultural Association of Australia with a membership of 80 operators out of about 130 operators classified as Part 137 operators in-country. Of those, approximately 100 have spraying/agriculture as their core business. There are 164 Air Tractors registered in Australia with 71 of those AT-802s that includes four Fire Bosses.
These Australian operators are very much like ag-operators worldwide, working and flying hard, making a living in often challenging circumstances such as inclement weather, or defending their occupation against environmentalist, fighting unreasonable regulations, or convincing their customer-base aerial applications are a valuable farming tool.
Steph and Ben Smart realize extending a helping hand to their community is as a vital part of doing business as flying over the fields. Smart Air Services is a prime example of Australian ag-operators successfully working in a relatively small countrywide industry, making a difference for the community and their farmer customers.
Behind the Smart Air Services logo is a family that works hard together bringing a reliable aerial application service to the Darling Downs, as well as giving back to the community by being actively involved with it. (L-R) Ella, Archie, Steph, Ben and Josh..
Starting the season somewhat early, with rain in the forecast, growers are placing orders for urea to be aerially spread over their wheat. Here Ben Smart is taking on a load of dry urea using a ute outfitted with a hydraulic bucket that can be easily reconfigured to travel from one airstrip to another.
Clinton Kummerow has been with Smart Air Services for the last three years managing the ground ops. Clinton stops working long enough while urea is being augered into the loader bucket to pose for an AgAir Update photo..
Unexpected work is coming in a fast as Smart Air Service can book it. (L-R) Leanne Wilson is office administration and Steph Smart is the company business manager, including marketing. Ben “Beno” Smart gathers paperwork before departing for a job at a satellite airstrip.
The familiar Air Tractor model aircraft mounted on a stand built by the Dalby Men’s Shed organization that represents a crop with the Smart Air Service logo flag. These were donated by Smart Air Service and auctioned at a cotton growers’ fund raiser.