Spring hangs up her coat in the doorway of March. She’ll escort old man winter out, don her flowered bonnet, roll up her sleeves and set to work waking up the world while she’s cleaning up winter’s mess.
Hangar doors will slide open. Some perhaps for the first time in months. The sun will shine in, lighting up the interior enough to chase out the winter doldrums that gathered in the shadows. It’s time to crank the engines and warm up the oil. It’s time to begin another season of providing close air support in the battle to feed a hungry world.
Spring brings excitement and anticipation. It also brings challenges in the form of wind and rain. In most places, we’re applying a lot of herbicides. I think there must be some sort of cosmic joke floating around in the atmosphere that causes the windiest parts of the year to coincide with the need for widespread herbicide applications. Rain is usually welcome; until it’s not. Fields get too muddy to work, runways get swamped and there comes a point where it gets to be miserable.
I know many will push into the weather. We’ve all done it and will probably do it again. Right or wrong, that’s the nature of the business. There’s been some who’ve pushed the weather right into a mighty big drift claim. There’s been a few who’ve pushed it into their own memorial service. It’s not my place to say what anyone’s limits ought to be. Let’s just make sure we’re using good judgement and common sense. Sounds simple doesn’t it? So simple yet, so complicated. If there ever was a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” season it would have to be spring. Growers are feeling the crunch of their timetables, so they put the pressure on the aerial application company to get it done no matter what. Most times we get away with it. Sometimes we don’t. It’s those times we don’t, however, that carry the biggest price tag. The guy you were spraying for won’t give a damn about the drift claim you got and a sad face at a memorial service doesn’t cover the cost of burying one of our own. Keep it in perspective, my friends. You can go from hero to zero in one cycle of the money handle or be reduced to a name carved into a rock when waiting one more day, or even a couple hours might have made the difference between spending the night at home, or in a box. Yes, that’s kind of preachy and not too encouraging, but there are things that have to be said. Sometimes more than once.
Rust builds up quickly in the winter. I know if I haven’t flown in a while, I’m as clumsy as a one legged rooster. It takes a little while to get my back pockets welded to the seat and my bio-electronics synched back with the airplane. I’m always eager to get going, but I know my skill level has dropped over the past months. It doesn’t take long, but it does take a conscious effort to get back up to speed quickly and without scratching any paint.
Studying up about the area where you’re working is an important chore at the beginning of the season. Has there been any new wires added? Cell towers? Has there been any susceptible crops planted where there wasn’t last year? There’s probably a dozen or so similar questions to ask and find answers for. You can skip them if you want, but you’re better prepared if you don’t. Information is as good as ammunition.
Getting up to speed on chemicals and loading procedures is something to brush up on as well. It doesn’t matter if this is your fiftieth season, there’s new chemistry and procedures coming around every year. Feed your brain a fresh bale of knowledge, even if it’s stuff you already know. Exercising your brain limbers up your thinking process. Most of us need a little help after being out of the cockpit for a few months. Winter is also cranium cobweb season.
It’s imperative that an ag pilot be knowledgeable and capable in all aspects of the job. It won’t hurt to spend some time on the ground going over the loading equipment and reading labels. Even if you’re just a hired gun, you need to know how the equipment works. You also need to be familiar with chemicals and materials you are applying. By the time we get to harvest, we’ll all be battle hardened and sharp as a razor. But we ain’t there yet. And to get there, we have to be smart about what we’re doing in the months leading up to it.
Stepping off into spring is a critical time. Just like taking off with a heavy load from a short strip on a hot day. It takes prior planning, caution and skill to get off the ground successfully. And it takes the sense to recognize the fact that we might already be behind the power curve before we start. Sometimes it’s better to take two light loads instead of one heavy load. Being out of practice with a rusty skill set is no place to be if you’re flying on the edge of capability, yours and the aircraft’s. Get comfortable in your seat first and foremost. I would think any operator worth his insurance premium would not begrudge a familiarization flight or two. I think the days of “Learn it while you’re on the way to the field” should be behind us by now. It makes great stories, but lousy work and outcomes.
I wish you all a fantastic, safe, productive and prosperous season!
Fly well, and stay safe!