In the modern ag aviation world of turbines, GPS navigation, 500-gallon plus hoppers, flow control and digital readouts, we tend to forget that it has not always been that way.  In 1966, a newly minted pilot by the name of Ralph Tiede bought a Piper Pawnee and started Target Airspray, a fledgling aerial application business near Strathmore, Alberta, about 20 miles due east of Calgary.  It was all eyeball, stick and rudder flying, ground flaggers and with a 45-foot swath and 120-gallon loads, a whole lot of takeoffs and landings on runways, roads, fields, or just about anywhere that could accommodate the Pawnee.  Given its small size, that indeed meant just about anywhere.

The business grew in size and so did the aircraft.  Ralph partnered with Neil McClain, first with two Cessna 180s, followed  by an S-2D Snow, granddaddy of the Thrush and Air Tractor families of aircraft that would soon follow in its footsteps.  Designed by Leland Snow in the mid ‘50s the S-2 was one of the first aircraft designed from the get-go solely for aerial application, featuring a P&W R1340 600 hp radial, a 300-gallon hopper and an ultra strong airframe.  Affectionately called a tractor with wings, it ushered in a new era in the design and operation of ag aircraft.

Along with this new generation of aircraft came a new generation of the Tiede family, with son Darren born to Ralph and Joan the same year Ralph started flying. Given those major events, not to mention growing up around aircraft, it is no surprise that Darren would sooner or later be in the ag aviation business. After earning his Commercial Pilot’s License, Darren began his spraying career in 1988. Following in the Tiede tradition of having two major events coincide, he married Cheryl that same year.  

Once again the Tiede family and Target Airspray continued to grow in tandem with Darren and Cheryl having four children: Ben, Diana, Kathleen and Evan. Soon Ralph and Darren were operating as a father/son combo in two Thrush S2Rs. In 2008, after more than 40 years in the industry, Ralph retired from crop spraying with Darren taking over the reins of the business that same year. 

Today, Target Airspray consists of three 510P Thrushes flown by Darren and pilot Cody Rockafellow (with son Ben working his way into a seat), operating from three permanent bases in southern Alberta to accommodate their evergrowing customer base. In addition to expanding the company, Darren became more and more involved in fostering the Canadian ag aviation industry, first as a Board Member and then President of the Alberta Aerial Applicators Association (AAAA), then as a Board Member and current President of the Canadian Aerial Applicators Association (CAAA). 

During an interview with the author, Darren shared his thoughts on becoming CAAA president in 2019 and looking ahead to future developments.

“One of the first things that became abundantly clear to me early on in the job of president is that you quickly have a great appreciation for all those who have gone before and who have contributed so much to our members and the industry at large.”

Darren stressed the critically important roles the national organization and the provincial associations have in promoting the growth and safety of the Canadian aerial application industry.

“Safety has been and will continue to be the number one priority across the board.  We have been very proactive in getting that message out to our members and in developing a wide variety of resource materials that will make their operations safer, more efficient and more effective. That includes online training, safety videos, educational presentations, regulatory documents and a wide range of other benefits that help our members stay current on legislation, hazards and safe working procedures.”

As with any industry, keeping up with regulatory changes is also a high priority for those in the aerial application business.  The CAAA is at the forefront of working with Transport Canada, Canada’s national transportation regulatory agency.

“We keep an open and active dialogue with Transport Canada in working with them to develop policies that are accessible, relevant and beneficial to our members. One current example is incorporating the new Crew Resource Management (CRM) requirements into daily ag operations. At first glance, the concept doesn’t seem particularly applicable to single seat aircraft, but once you get into particulars – for example threat and error management, situational awareness, pressure and stress – you find CRM is applicable to virtually any type of aviation operation,” explains Darren.

As with any crop protection measure, whether it be by air or on the ground, another area of focus that is becoming more and more of an issue is dealing with the legal environment that has becoming increasingly more challenging to navigate. Darren noted, “It’s been a reality quite a while south of the border and we are beginning to see things such as class action lawsuits that simply didn’t effect the crop protection industry before. It’s something we just have to research and educate ourselves as part of a new reality.”

Another high priority item for the CAAA is in working to get new products approved for aerial application. “It is a long process to get new products registered from Health Canada, a process that can take years. Along the way, we work closely with the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) in promoting sustainable pest management, while ensuring new products, wherever possible, are registered for aerial application use.”

One specific example deals with product reevaluations.  The use of mancozeb is currently under review by the PMRA.  Mancozeb is a potato industry staple for fighting late blight and early blight, and users fear its loss would increase production costs to farmers, as well as removing a safe, established product for the effective management of disease resistance in potatoes.  The CAAA gained a seat on the Mancozeb Task Force, which has been advocating the continued use of mancozeb. “Through the efforts of the Task Force and support from the CAAA,” Darren stressed, “we are hopeful that we will be able to continue the use of mancozeb in potatoes and other crops, as it is a proven cost-effective tool in our arsenal of fungicide applications.”

 

The issue of Remotely Piloted Aircraft System units – more commonly referred to as drones – is an increasingly hot topic. “We know there are a wide range of potential uses for drones in crop protection covering crop assessment, soil analysis, pest population levels and the like.  We have been proactive in bringing drone operators into our Association by offering them Allied Industry Membership, for those who do not provide aerial application services, but who support the aerial application industry.”

Darren added, “I don’t know if anyone has a solid handle on just what unmanned aircraft will mean for the future of our industry, but one thing is certain – they are here and they are here to stay.”

Darren is very positive about the future of the aerial application business. “When I look ahead, I can see a lot of good things coming down the road. The growth in the use of biological pesticides that are very target specific, advances in sensor imaging technology that will allow us to pinpoint with increasing accuracy the state of crop growth and pest infestation, better training not only initially for someone entering the industry, but continued education and training across the board.”

As with agriculture in general, the aerial application business has had its share of ups and downs. On a final note, Darren addressed that very point. “I know there will be a lot of challenges in the future, but that comes with the territory. We must always keep our eye on the fact that we are a critically important part of growing healthy crops to feed the world. It’s a job we take seriously and it’s something we will continue to work on making aerial application safer and more effective than ever before.”