“Come on Bill, we’ll be blown out by lunch and will be waiting on you.” Mike Sides, of Sides Aerial Applications based in Bartley and Cambridge, Nebraska had just responded to my text to let him know we were on schedule and would be arriving mid-afternoon. Like many of the Plains states in June, the wind will kick up about midday and shutdown ag-flying services. Such was true this trip.
I’ve known Mike for as long as I can remember. We met at a Nebraska convention years ago and at one time both were members of an elite “crop duster” fraternity. I had lost touch with him, though I knew he was still in business. He had kept up with me through his AgAir Update subscription. When I read a Nebraska newspaper story about him being in business for nearly 45 years and now working with his son, Joe, I contacted him about AgAir Update coming to visit. “Bill, we would be glad to have you,” was Mike’s response.
MIke started his flying career with his dad in a J3 Cub, soloing on his 16th birthday. However, shortly after graduation he joined the army and served a year in Germany. “I figured my damn draft number was so low that I may as well volunteer,” Mike said. Returning from serving in the army, Mike used the GI Bill to earn his pilot’s and A&P/IA licenses.
Armed with “licenses to learn”, Mike set up shop in southwest Nebraska flying out of Bartley, where continues to operate, nearly 50 years later. His first ag plane was a 100-horsepower Aeronca Champ with a 40-gallon backpack spray system. He flew 15,000 acres charging $1.25 an acre that first year and at the end of the season considered himself rich enough to buy a new car. That was 1974. Two years later, he added a Pawnee to the “fleet”. Today, Sides Aerial Applications operates a 510GR Thrush with a TPE331-6 engine, 400-gallon Thrush also with a TPE331-6 engine and two TPE331-1 Pawnee Braves.
“I like Garretts. I know some people think they are loud and they are; others like the PT6. But, Garretts have always worked for us and I understand how they work,” explains Mike.
Additional to the four ag-aircraft, Mike operates a 120-foot boom John Deere 4830 ground machine. “I’ve operated the ground machine for about 15 years. We use it for sensitive area applications, especially with Engenia applications like we are making now on soybeans.”
Mike jokingly says his pilots are all members of the geriatric pilot club. Sides Aviation employs four pilots, including himself. Aside from youngster pilot 52-year old Dave Haddon, Greg Hoak is 67, Art Blythe is 72 and Mike is 66. However, with age comes a wealth of experience and wisdom. Art has been with Mike since 1974 when Mike was the agricultural pilot instructor for Emory School of Aviation in Greeley, Colorado. Greg has flown fire fighting missions for over 30 years, mostly in Orion P3s. He also flew previously for Hershey Flying Service and participated in its Fat Cat program. He is an A&P/IA, as well. Dave flies through the corn run, then flies an AT-802 SEAT for the rest of the year.
Mike’s son, Joe, bought out Mike’s competitor in nearby Cambridge, forming Sides Aviation in 1999. Joe graduated from the University of Nebraska with a Bachelor’s Degree in Agricultural Sciences. Although Sides Aerial Application and Sides Aviation are two separate businesses, they work together as one. Joe also soled on his 16th birthday, like Mike. He doesn’t actively fly ag, but instead keeps the four aircraft efficiently in the air. Greg flies the 400-gallon Thrush, Dave the 510GR Thrush, Art one of the turbine Braves and Mike fills in when needed with the other turbine Brave.
Sides Aerial and Sides Aviation start the season in March with herbicide applications of Grazon and Tordon to control pesty thistle. The volatile applications are made at 1-2 GPA with CP straight stream nozzles until the end of May or first of June when these type applications become to risky for drift damage. After pasture work, fungicide applications are made on wheat at 2 GPA with CP flat fan nozzles.
The corn fungicide run starts in July and lasts about four to six weeks into August. During this time, soybeans are also treated with a fungicide and insecticides as needed. The season finishes with a return to pasture applications for thistle that can last to the end of September and first of October. Ideally, fall applications for thistle provide the best results. Overall, pasture applications account for approximately 35% of Sides Aerial and Sides Aviation applications.
It is rare that Sides Aerial and Sides Aviation will ferry more than 55-60 miles from base. Most applications are flown from the Cambridge municipal airport and are within a 20-mile radius. Fields can be odd-shaped averaging about 40-50 acres. Sides Aerial Applications’ maintenance base is at the Bartley strip where some applications are flown from. At Bartley, there are multiple hangars, a drive-through covered loading pad and a concrete runway.
From Champ to turbine is a long road over nearly a 50-year span of flying. Not long ago, the FAA notified Mike that he was inline for the Master Pilot award, signifying 50 years or more as a licensed pilot. “Even though I’ve cut back to couple hundred hours a year of ag-flying, I still enjoy every minute of it. And, I like pulling out the R22 to take a look around the area that I’ve known all my life,” Mike says while we finish off a Rocket Inn pizza in nearby Indianola, Nebraska.
(L-R) Joe Sides, Mike Sides, Ethan Sides (Joe’s son), Greg Hock, Art Blythe and Dave Haddon with the company 510G Thrush. Mike also farms approximately 3,000 acres that have been in the family since the 1800s.
Both Thrushes have the Century wing spar STC. Sides Aerial Application converted the 400-gallon Thrush’s spar. The 510G came from Northstar Aviation in Ulysses, Kansas already converted. All four ag-aircraft operate Satloc GPS units and Ag-Nav flow controls. Sides started with an Ag-Nav prototype flow control that initially had a few minor bugs. But, once those were resolved, the units have been maintenance-free and spot-on accurate.
Father and son team, Mike and Joe Sides of Sides Aerial Application and Sides Aviation in Bartley and Cambridge, Nebraska.
The Bartley airstrip where Sides Aerial Application has been operating since 1974.
Cover: Dave Haddon makes a flyby pass at the Cambridge municipal airport in Sides Aviation’s 510GR Thrush with its TPE331-6 engine after returning from treating pastureland.