What does a Brazilian ag operator do, who has more than forty-five years of ag-flying experience, when he looks out his office window and sees an impressive line-up of 13 Ipanemas? His experience in business tells him the Ipanemas have served him well. However, maybe he asks, “Is there another ag-aircraft option that may work well with the Ipanema fleet?”
Aviação Agricola Alagoana, Ltda was founded in 1976. In 1979, it was bought out by husband and wife team, Gregory and Deta Smith. Based in Rio Largo, Alagoas, a northeastern state in Brazil near the coast (Maceio), Alagoana decided in 2019 that it was time to expand its horizons with the purchase of a new AT-402B from AeroGlobo Aeronaves based in Botucatu, SP, a Lane Aviation Air Tractor representative.
The road to success for Gregory and Deta Smith started small. Gregory was born in Porto Alegre of British parents. At 13, Gregory moved with his parents back to England in 1966. In 1970, he returned to Brazil and joined ARGS (Aeroclube do Rio Grande do Sul) to do his pilot training and also worked as a flight instructor there until 1973. After ARGS, he joined Varig Airlines and flew the Boeing 707. At the time, Gregory was not married. Not long after joining Varig, the economically-stressed airline laid off unmarried pilots in 1975.
What would be a big disappointment for any young airline pilot, Gregory turned into an opportunity; He attended CAVAG in Sorocaba in 1976 at 23 years old looking toward a new career flying ag-aircraft. While at CAVAG, he logged 40 training hours in 45 days, then located to Pelotas where he flew his first season on rice. That ag-aviation company, Ipanema Aviaçao Agricola had some EMB 200 Ipanemas with 260 BHP engines outfitted with fixed props and also a fleet of brand new EMB 201s.
Not too long after his first season, Gregory was asked to ferry an Ipanema to Parana State. While there, he met with a friend who was starting a company in Maceio, Alagoas in partnership with Peter Fitzgerald, an American from Hawaii. In the meantime, Gregory found a job in Recife flying a EMB 201 spraying an experimental biological Metarhizium anisopliae, a fungus that is applied by air and becomes a parasite that controls insects. From there, he was invited by Fitzgerald to join his company, as it had just bought a second EMB 201A.
Gregory decided not to return to Rio Grande do Sul and instead stayed year round in the Maceio region. Later in 1978, Deta and he got married and he flew in Mareió, Alagoas in the winter and Cuiabá in the summer.
In 1979, Gregory and Deta bought Aviaçao Agricola Alagoana, flying the summers in Rio Grande do Sul and the winters in Alagoas and neighboring states. They started buying an Ipanema each year until 1985 when the company had five. With five ag aircraft to maintain, the Smiths decided to start a maintenance company exclusively for their aircraft. The company, MANAL (Manutenção Alagoana de Aeronaves Ltda.) quickly earned a trusted reputation with local aviators. With no other maintenance company nearby, MANAL became a respected maintenance facility for both Alagoana’s aircraft and general aviation aircraft. Today, MANAL is certified to service a wide variety of fixed and rotary wing aircraft, including King Air turboprops, Citation jets and several model helicopters. It is a major maintenance center for airframes, turboprop and piston engines, including hot section inspections (HSI) for turboprops. When a repair is needed on the turboprop engine, it is sent to Dallas Airmotive or Pratt & Whitney Canada in Brazil. A piston engine can be overhauled at MANAL’s facility back to zero time before overhaul (TBO).
In 1996, Gregory decided Alagoana would be a much more efficient operation if he retired from active ag-flying and focused on running the company, including MANAL. He didn’t have to wait long before his son, Nicholas John Smith, joined him in 2000.
The main crop that Alagoana treats in the Alagoas and neighboring states is sugar cane. When Nicholas started with Alagoana, many customers were pushing for lower prices for spraying. Gregory and Nicholas decided that it would be better for Alagoana’s continued success to maintain its pricing and keep the best customers. Nicholas’ job was to convince customers who had left to return, which he was successful at doing.
In 2007, Gregory and Nicholas opened a second base in Iturama, Minas Gerais, the Triangulo Mineiro region. Here not only is sugar cane a major crop, but also soybeans, grain, cotton and rice are treated, adding a diversity of crops for Alagoana. This created two seasons for the company. One season in Iturama that starts in September and ends in March. The second season in Alagoana and neighboring states starts in April and ends in September. There is very little down time between seasons.
In Alagoana and neighboring states, one Ipanema typically services three to four clients. However, in the Iturama region where farms are much larger, it takes three to four Ipanemas to service one client. Today, Alagoana operates 13 Ipanemas from year models 1979 through 2018 and one new AT-402B Air Tractor. The aircraft are operated from about 30 satellite airstrips in Alagoana and neighboring states and another 10 airstrips in the Iturama region. Most applications are made within five kilometers of an airstrip. The typical length of these airstrips is 1,000 meters.
All 13 Ipanemas are ethanol-powered. The later models came from the factory with ethanol-powered engines. The older models were converted to ethanol with Embraer conversions. The additional maintenance of ethanol power is offset by the fuel cost savings. In February 2020, the price of ethanol in the Alagoana region was from $3.50-$5.50 reais per liter. This compares to av-gas costing about $11 reais per liter. Even considering an increase of nearly 50% in fuel consumption with an ethanol-powered engine, it is about 40% less expensive per hour to operate.
A standard operating practice for all of Alagoana’s Ipanema pilots is to perform a fuel density check. This is done at the start of each day. The value of the check must be 0.800. Normally, there is not a fuel density issue, but it is a required check.
In addition to its large ag-aircraft fleet, Alagoana uses about 15 ground vehicles to service the fleet. The company has up to 70 employees including 14 pilots during most of the year. Each employee receives 60 vacation days to rest.
In 2017, Alagoana adopted a policy where it would no longer operate an ag-plane for more than 20 years. Once an Ipanema reaches its 20th year, it is replaced with a newer aircraft. In 2020, this was the AT-402B bought from AeroGlobo. If the AT-402B performs as expected, another Air Tractor will be added to the fleet, possibly an Air Tractor 502XP. The new AT-402B was the first turboprop ag-plane to be operated in Alagoas.
“We decided to experiment with purchasing an Air Tractor with the expectation that this beautiful machine will contribute to increasing our productivity,” says Nicholas. “We have always been pioneers and this was a step that we needed to take.”
Nicholas handled the acquisition of the new Air Tractor from purchase agreement to financing to delivery. Initially, there were bureaucratic problems with financing. Nicholas then turned to AeroGlobo for its expert assistance. From the application for financing to delivery was a very short 34 days.
Two pilots were trained to fly the new Air Tractor at AeroGlobo’s Botucatu Training Center. At AeroGlobo’s training center, the company has a Level 5 flight simulator, the only simulator that accurately replicates flight conditions, both in normal and emergency procedures for Air Tractors. One Alagoana pilot will fly the Air Tractor in Iturama and the other pilot will fly it in Alagoas.
Ninety percent of Alagoana’s applications are over sugar cane. The Ipanemas use mostly spray nozzles and also Micronairs for 30 l/ha applications. The primary application is liquid fertilizer with micronutrients added. Liquid fertilizer is preferred over dry, granulated fertilizer because of better absorption through the leaf compared to dry fertilizers being absorbed through the soil.
Applications start with liquid fertilizer, followed later with a fungicide mixed with an insecticide, if needed. The last application, for a total of three in a sugar cane growing season, is a ripener. Glyphosate is applied to force the sugar cane to ripen sooner causing the level of sugar content in the plant to increase over a normal ripening. Although applications will vary for fungicide and insecticide applications, most of the sugar cane will receive the fertilizer and ripener applications.
The sugar cane is cut back each year and regrows next year’s crop. This cycle of cut and regrowth can occur for six to ten years before the sugar cane has to be replanted. Yields can be from 70-110 tons/ha, depending on the amount of science the grower uses.
Growers that go to the expense of using the latest technology to raise the sugar cane expect a 40-50% yield increase over growers who do not use technology.
In an ever changing world with new technologies that improve productivity and profitability, an ag-aviation company is wise to always consider its options. This is true when it comes time to evaluate current methods of operation in an effort to improve. Aviaçao Agricola Alagoana has always been a forward looking company. Its purchase of a turboprop AT-402B Air Tractor and blending it with a fleet of proven Ipanemas, indicates the company’s ability to expand its horizons while making use of its past experiences.