The present day Earl’s Flying Service began in March of 1970 when Mike’s Lee’s father, Earl Lee, became airport manager for the Steele Municipal Airport. Earl opened a repair and rebuild shop with Mike working after school. Earl’s Aircraft Repair worked on all general aviation aircraft and specialized in ag aircraft. The first ag aircraft rebuilt was a Piper 235 Pawnee. Earl decided after the first year that an ag operation in Steele was worth pursuing.
In March of 1971, Earl purchased a 220 Stearman and built a spray system for the aircraft and started spraying with it. Mike, still in high school, also began flying in the spring. Earl and Mike both flew the Stearman during the season of 1971. In September of 1971 Earl purchased his first 235 Pawnee for the flying service, spraying with it until the winter of 1975. It was then they replaced the ag-aircraft fleet with 450 hp and 600 hp Ag-Cats, which carried the business into the 1980s. In the winter of 1978, Mike purchased Earl’s Flying Service from his dad, rebuilding and flying AgCats until 1982. Soon after, Mike began rebuilding a 600 hp Thrush. Mike was no stranger to rebuilding aircraft, as many airframes used by Earl’s Flying Service were rebuilds, done by both Mike and his dad. In the winter of 1983, Mike purchased a Turbo Thrush from Chuck Stone and begin flying turbine powered ag-planes. Mike flew the Thrush for nine seasons until he purchased an AT-502.
Mike has been developing improvements to the aircraft Earl Flying Service operates since the very first Stearman. Although Mike has retired from active ag flying, he continues to design and build improvement after improvement.
AgAir Update had the opportunity to catch up with Mike Lee this spring for a one-on-one look at the many modifications and inventions he has brought to the ag aviation industry over the past 45 years.
“I’m a problem solver,” says Mike. “Most of my innovations have been born from a practical need for my business, but then a customer will come in and say ‘Mike, I really like that, I want that on my airplane!”
We started our tour of Earl’s Flying Service in his testing room, where Mike has installed working models of dry and wet spray systems, complete with pumps and pressure gauges. It is here he demonstrated the dual controller unit made by SATLOC (Transland). Earl’s Flying Service is a dealer and repair facility for the SATLOC brand of products.
Mike has a test station set up for both dry and wet applications. The pocket-sized controller is the brain and is able to control both wet and dry prescription applications with a simple selection on the touch screen. The dual controller is G4 specific. Mike has innovated the installation of the controller unit, by encasing its hardware in an aluminum box next to the SATLOC CPU. This, as Mike explains, extends the longevity in a moisture-rich environment.
“The Achilles heel of this controller is when contaminants enter through the harness. By placing the dual controller in this box, we all but eliminate that,” explains Mike.
Mike Lee’s involvement with GPS units dates back to Del Norte days before Satloc was developed by John Goodwin at Farm Air Service in Arizona. In 1992, Mike leased a Flying Flagman system from Del Norte Technology. The Flying Flagman debuted in the 1970s and used ground-based transmitters on towers that triangulated the signal. Due to the associated costs, the Flying Flagman was not widely used in the United States. However, Mike used his relationship with Del Norte to make the GPS test flying for Del Norte’s first system in 1993. Del Norte sent engineers and computer software programmers to Steele, Missouri where they installed GPS equipment and conducted test flights. By participating in the test program that many would say lead the way to GPS in ag aviation, Mike was granted a Del Norte (now SATLOC) dealership in March of 1994.
The “wizard behind the curtain” doesn’t stop with innovations in GPS and dual controller installations. There certainly isn’t enough space in this magazine to go in depth on the many innovations that were born in the hangar of Earl’s Flying Service. Our tour continued to the expansive parts room, where Mike explained his innovative bleed back line installation that all together prevents the dreaded water hammer effect. Using ⅜” stainless steel tubing, the lines are fit to the backside of the nozzles using a compression fitting. This stays snug inside the boom and allows for the pressure to dissipate appropriately. The hardware is sold in a kit.
Walking outside the parts room, Mike begins his story on how, years ago, Dr. Dennis Gardisser was running into an issue with aircraft using the first hydraulic pump installations. The air was disrupting the pattern (the aircraft were being flown on timber) and both he and Gardisser were perplexed at what was causing it. Mike got to work and developed the alternative “side” plumbing for the system. This plumbing dramatically cleans the air around the pump and improves the pattern.
While explaining his plumbing modifications, Mike casually mentions other innovations, from pressure switches to a dry hopper quantity gauge to spray handle spray valve on-off mounted switches, it seems Mike has come up with improvements for about everything.
Mike is also a industry advocate. He has served on many state and national levels for both the Missouri AAA and the National Agricultural Aviation Association. He hosts an annual Operation SAFE clinic for the region, as well. We ended the tour while Earl’s Flying Service’s AT-802s were at work on herbicide and fertilizer applications. Both aircraft are configured the same and you can bet they all have the latest and greatest from Mike Lee.