An office job would drive 32-year-old Brent Wulf crazy, unless you think about his office being airborne, noisy and running sunup to sundown. Then it's pure enjoyment.
You see, Wulf is almost what you'd call an air junkie. He gets his fix anyway he can, as long as it's above ground. Sometimes it's in an airplane, but usually it's in a helicopter following crop spraying jobs much like combine crews follow harvest schedules.
Wulf started flying lessons in 1998 when he was 22 and got his airplane license a couple years and $25,000 later. His first paying gig was a summer job towing banners at Myrtle Beach. He was hooked.
Next, it was off to Boulder, CO, where he towed gliders. Then, it was on to Pensacola, FL, where he flew skydivers to jump points.
There was no turning back. Flying was in his blood and using his wildlife biology degree from Kansas State would have to wait.
It wasn't until 2006, though, that Wulf got his helicopter license, and he's essentially stuck with chopper jobs and crop spraying ever since. Getting that license wasn't cheap, either. Helicopter flight school and his commercial license ran an additional $40,000; some schools charge as much as $70,000.
You might think the cost of crop spraying with a helicopter would be more expensive than an airplane. Not true. “The cost to a farmer is usually about the same, depending on the gallons per acre and the field layout,” Wulf says. “I think a helicopter can knock the socks off a plane for productivity.”
It takes more time with a plane because you have to fly back to an airport to refill, he says. With a copter you should only have to ferry less than a half mile or so back to the load truck to refill.
For the record, about 12% of agricultural aviation spraying in the U.S. is done with helicopters and 88% by airplane, according to the National Agricultural Aviation Association.
“It's also easier to use a helicopter in smaller fields because you can get around trees and power lines better,” he says. “A copter has more control and is just more fun than a plane. If you want to stop and look at a tree or anything else, you just stop and look at it.”
WULF SAYS THE secret to being productive with helicopter spraying is to have a competent, well-trained ground man who gets the load truck in position. The truck hauls water, fuel and spray chemicals, and provides the landing platform for the chopper.
The chopper approaches the truck and quickly but gently lands on the platform above the water tank. The instant it sets down, the ground man begins refilling the 120-gal. spray tank on the helicopter, enough to cover 20 acres. On average, it takes Wulf 5-8 min. to spray his load and then it's back to refill. GPS guidance coordinates are used to accurately log data on each field sprayed.
There's virtually no rest period for the pilot with a helicopter, and little for the ground man. Wulf claims that compared to flying a plane, a helicopter takes intense concentration and plenty of coordination. “It's like rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time,” he says.
Last year was Wulf's first season flying for Emerald Helicopters, owned by Mike Stieren at Olivia, MN, who got his first license at 18 and started crop spraying with an airplane. Today, he owns four helicopters and one airplane. Most of his spraying work is in sweet corn and potatoes, but he also sprays a lot of corn and soybeans. “We get lots of calls to spray aphids,” he says.
During prime season (May through Sept. 15), Stieren's service will spray about 180,000 acres in Minnesota, and Stieren hires contract pilots like Wulf to fly for him. A helicopter pilot himself, he knows the rigors of flying copters.
“With an airplane, you can sit in it all day and you're physically spent,” he says. “With a helicopter you're spent, but it's very mental.”
Regardless, both Wulf and Stieren light up when they talk about flying choppers and quickly say: “There's nothing like it.”
For more information about Emerald Helicopters, contact Mike Stieren at 320-523-5472 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.