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Communication, pilot safety top concerns for aerial application

Brad Robb Aerial Applicators
Safe, effective aerial application depends on good communication between the pilot and the farmer, said Perry Galloway, speaking at the National Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference.
Effective communication between pilot and farmer is essential for effective application and pilot safety.

Strother Martin, portraying the chain gang captain in the 1967 movie classic Cool Hand Luke, explained to Paul Newman’s Luke: “What we have heah is a failuh to communicate.”

The failure on Luke’s part to understand that escaping from the chain gang was against the rules of incarceration proved to be his undoing.

Communication, says Perry Galloway, Gregory, Ark., farmer and aerial applicator, is also critical in his business. As a farmer with 8,500 acres of cropland in production, Galloway sees the issue from both perspectives and offered a look from the applicator’s side of the business during the recent National Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference in Memphis, Tenn.

Galloway has two planes and does some flying himself.

“Communication is key to successful application for the pilot and the farmer,” he says. He adds that discussing the product, the crop, field parameters, and other issues is imperative. He also warns against requesting the same application that a neighbor is using or relying on something that worked well last year.

“Following exactly what your neighbor or competitor is doing may not be a good idea,” he says. “Research and read scientific data and utilize test programs such as S.A.S.E., CAP, drift tunnel research and others to verify.”

Galloway says sometimes producers may request application procedures that are not in either their or the pilot’s best interest. “Maintaining the proper application height, airspeed, volume, droplet size and nozzle orientation are all crucial aspects of proper spray techniques. And avoiding drift is essential,” he says.

He adds that flying too low results in erratic spray patterns. “All that pressure from the plane pushes the material down and out, leaving the area under the plane with a thin application.” He says a 10-foot to 14-foot application height is a good range and the best height to limit drift. He says producers and pilots should assess the product to determine drift potential. Some are more prone to move off target than others. Even some materials labeled for drift control are prone to drift. “Make sure you are getting what you pay for with drift control products,” he says.

“Drift is always a concern. We want to keep the product in the field, keep the pilot safe and watch out for neighbors.”

Volume is another factor the farmer and pilot should discuss. Galloway says 10 gallons per acre “is a lot for a pilot. The only way to get that much is to cut the swath width down to 65 feet from 72 feet. We like to get the farmer’s input.”

Droplet size should be 300, 350, or 375 microns. “That works for most pesticides.”

Proper airspeed

Airspeed of 140 to 160 miles per hour works best, Galloway says. “If we get up to 180 miles per hour, we mess up the spray pattern and have fines going everywhere.”

Flying too wide or too narrow may affect application efficiency. “Upwind or downwind changes are also important considerations. He says when flying into the wind, airspeed could be 130 miles per hour, while flying with the wind could bump airspeed up to 180. Flying with the wind (depending on wind speed) may result in a light application,” Galloway says.

Nozzle orientation, he adds, is up to the pilot.

He says occasionally a farmer will want to dictate application direction — across the rows instead of with the rows. “We always prefer the longest orientation, since it’s more efficient,” Galloway says. “Farmers might think they get better product distribution going crosswise; that’s a myth we are trying to dispel.”

Most planes in use now are single-wing turbines, with only a few bi-wing and radial engine planes left in service. “Helicopters have a place in smaller fields,” Galloway says. “Some say copters are better for drift control, but that’s not necessarily true.”

Application timing

He says application timing makes a difference in product efficacy, and prefers early morning or late afternoon to apply pesticides. “We switch to fertilizer applications in the heat of the day.”

Acidity is another factor in effective pesticide application. “We want a neutral pH, 7 to 3,” Galloway says, and adds that the half-life of more alkaline products may be less. “A lower pH is more stable,” he says.

He also cautions growers about tank mixes that include a high pH product with one that is more neutral. Applying a fungicide with a foliar fertilizer, for instance, may be an issue. “Some fungicide labels warn against a high pH solution.” He adds that a lot of companies are catching on to the pH issues in tank mixes. “Mixing a high pH product with a low pH material doesn’t work well.”

Tank mixes have other concerns. “How much is too much; are the products compatible; is the product efficacy jeopardized?” He says he’s seen some loads that include as many as 10 or 12 products. “Those must have some antagonistic effects.”

Pilot safety top priority

Top priority for aerial application has to be pilot safety, Galloway says. Farmers can help assure safe applications by alerting pilots to any obstructions in a field. He says if new communication towers, irrigation systems or power lines have been added since the last season, farmers or landowners need to alert the pilot.

“Wires are always a concern,” he says. “So are wind turbines. Let us know.” He says making an application with a thunder storm on the horizon is never a good idea. “Don’t ask,” he says.

“Farmers can make it easier on pilots,” Galloway says. He offers this check list to improve farmer-to-pilot communication.

• Make conscientious decisions on crop placements.

• Consider herbicide traits between crops.

• Check with neighbors on crop placement and herbicide technology.

• Follow the label.

• Be aware of any label requirements for buffer zones.

• Do any nearby houses have gardens?

• Are there any new hazards in the field or in the area — new electrical services, weather stations, towers or antennas?

• Allow extra pesticide or fertilizer for oddly-shaped fields.

• Calm wind or no wind is worse that high winds.

He adds that aerial applicators are human and will make mistakes, but those can be minimized by good communication between farmer and pilot. “If you notice a problem with the application or the equipment, notify someone. In many cases the pilot is the last one to know.”

Planning is critical

He says an aerial application company is not a “911 service. Plan ahead. Remember everyone wants their fertilizer applied just before a rain. And don’t request Sunday applications for nonessential services. It’s also bittersweet to be called in to fix someone else’s mistake.”

He adds that some pilots may fear losing customers over a small difference in price. “We try to be fair,” he says. A $7 to $12 per acre application fee is typical in his area and may depend on amount of water needed.

Galloway says farmers, as well as pilots, should be aware of wind conditions and should not expect an unsafe application. “Wind can make you the greatest — or the worst — pilot. Don’t put us in a position to justify our safety.”

Galloway says mutual understanding of farmer’s needs and the pilot’s best management practices will limit application errors and increase pilot safety.

“And have you ever said ‘thank you’ or ‘good job?’ We like to hear that.”

TAGS: Crops Cotton
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