Sunday, August 17, 2014

Crop-dusting industry evolves with new safety recommendations: Downstown Aero Crop Service at Vineland-Downstown Airport (28N), Vineland, New Jersey

Pilot Ed Carter Jr., 49, of Williamstown, inspects his Air Tractor 602 after finishing a flight for Downstown Aero Crop Service at Downstown Airport, in Franklin Township,  New Jersey on Friday, August 15, 2014. 

FRANKLIN TOWNSHIP — Even before dawn, the propellers were whirling and there was a heavy smell of aviation fuel at Downstown Airport, a grass airstrip that serves as a launching pad for crop dusters.

One plane took off about 5:45 a.m. Friday, heading out to spray a corn field near Woodstown, Salem County. As daylight began to appear, two other planes roared off to spray fertilizer on a cranberry bog in Chatsworth, Burlington County.

“We like to get an early start, because the air is cool and usually there is no wind at this time of the morning. These are the conditions that you want for good spraying,” explained Vern Becker, co-owner of Downstown Aero Crop Service Inc.

The company’s crop dusters have flown out of the Downstown Airport in Gloucester County for decades. Becker and co-owner Curt Nixholm say Downstown Aero, the largest aerial crop-spraying outfit in New Jersey, has distinguished itself with its safety record.

Federal aviation officials, though, are suggesting that the entire crop-dusting industry is not so diligent. The National Transportation Safety Board recently released a special investigative report that looked at agricultural aircraft accidents in 2013, including some fatalities blamed on pilot error. The board recommends new measures to boost safety.

John Sondgeroth, secretary-treasurer of the Northeast Agricultural Aviation Association, a trade group representing crop-dusting companies, said the industry will work with the government to improve safety.

“We’re very receptive,” said Sondgeroth, 69, a crop-duster who owns North Fork Helicopters in Cutchogue, New York.

The NTSB recommendations focus on pilot fatigue, safety precautions and aircraft maintenance. The board said the crop-dusting industry needs to do more to help pilots avoid deadly obstacles and to prevent them from flying when they are exhausted.

Accidents involving collisions with obstacles are among the most common types of agricultural crashes, the NTSB said. In 2013, 16 accidents involved agricultural aircraft hitting poles, wires, meteorological towers or trees.

“Crop dusting is a very physically demanding occupation, so much more than what the public is aware of. It is also a business with very little margin for error,” NTSB investigator Thomas Little said in a videotaped message accompanying the report.

Little, a former crop duster in California, said agricultural pilots almost always fly at low altitudes, including just a few feet off the ground while spraying crops. Obstacles make that type of flying even more dangerous, he said.

“At the same time, you’re constantly on the lookout for objects, such as irrigation apparatus, standpipes, telephone and power lines, trees, hedgerows around fields, cross-country transmission towers, cellphone towers and a myriad of other obstructions,” Little said.

To the public, crop dusters are a throwback to aviation’s barnstorming days — daredevils who fly by the seat of their pants. Despite that nostalgic image, federal aviation officials want to make sure crop dusters meet modern flying standards.

Becker and Nixholm said their company already does. They chafe at the term “crop dusting,” arguing that it is outdated for today’s industry.

“Don’t say crop duster,” Nixholm implored. “It’s an old, old term. It’s really aerial application.”

Becker and Nixholm said they recognize the need to boost safety. However, they said, their company has long been performing the safety steps the NTSB is now recommending.

“We’ve been doing it for years,” said Becker, 64, of Pittsgrove Township, Salem County.

Nixholm, 52, also of Pittsgrove Township, believes the NTSB’s eye is on companies in the South and Midwest, where crop spraying is more extensive than at the smaller farms in New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania.

“We don’t fly like they do in the South and Midwest,” Nixholm said. “There, the pilots are working at least eight- or 10-hour days. It’s not uncommon for their guys to fly for 13 or 14 hours. Here, they’re usually flying four-hour days.”

During a tour of their facilities Friday, Becker and Nixholm spoke of the company’s safety record and innovations. Downstown Aero has not had a crash for at least eight or nine years, they said. The last crash involved a pilot who had engine failure and dropped down on the runway. He was not injured.

Downstown Aero’s office is filled with maps and aeronautical charts that depict hazards near the fields where the company sprays. The company also uses a laptop to check Google Maps for obstacles.

In addition to its six crop-dusting aircraft, the company has two observation planes it uses to scout hazards before spraying begins.

Both Becker and Nixholm said their pilots are not allowed to fly when they are tired. Pilots also receive extensive training, including sending them to Orlando, Florida, every two years for a safety refresher. In Orlando, the pilots test their skills in a cockpit simulator that puts them through emergency situations, such as engine failure or flying near hazards.

Ed Carter Jr., who flies for Downstown Aero, said pilots must keep up with technology and evolving safety regulations. Carter, 49, of Williamstown, Gloucester County, said he hasn’t had an accident in 29 years of flying.

Carter relies on Google to keep track of obstacles surrounding the fields he sprays. But he continues some old-fashioned methods to be safe.

“We’ll go out to the fields in a truck to check things out before we fly there,” he said. “You also talk to the farmers and ask them about any obstacles. You’ve got to become familiar with the area where you’re flying. Most of our work is done over and over in the same areas, so you get to know them pretty well. That’s how you avoid accidents.”

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