In 1992, Karl Holcomb was trudging through engineering classes at Mississippi State University when his father, Rudy, called one day to tell him the family aerial application business was expanding. The future looked good for the family-owned operation, and Rudy asked his son if he wanted to be a part of the growth. Karl could not get out of class and home to Flora, Miss., fast enough.
As a young man, Karl’s grandfather, Son Holcomb, worked on ranches and was a rodeo cowboy whose family roots were ensconced in the soils of Kansas and Oklahoma until he hauled and sold a load of horses to a ranch in Fitler, Miss. Son Holcomb married Wilma Bagby, and they made Mississippi their home.
“They eventually had a son they named Rudy — my father,” explains Karl Holcomb. “When Dad married my mother, Mary Randall, they moved to Texas where he tried factory work for a little while at a Firestone plant, but they returned to Mississippi where he became a cattle buyer for Producers Livestock in Jackson.”
Rudy Holcomb eventually met Julius Edgar, who owned a local ag flying service in Flora, Miss. “Dad was enamored with those early crop dusters,” remembers Karl Holcomb, who today operates Holcomb Flying Service out of a 10,000 square foot hanger and grass strip on the outskirts of Flora, Miss. “Dad was 28 years-old before he started learning to fly, but by the time he turned 30, he had his license and there was no holding him back from being in the air.”
Karl Holcomb’s brother, Brad, was already flying with their father when Karl joined the family operation. Several months after they secured multiple contracts to spray in conjunction with the Boll Weevil Eradication Program (BWEP), the Holcombs had as many as five aircraft to meet the demand.
“We covered pretty much everything in the south Delta, from Yazoo City to Vicksburg, all of the way to the end of Madison County,” remembers Holcomb. “When farmers in our area really started taking advantage of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and we wrapped up the BWEP contracts, we sold a few aircraft, eventually bought a helicopter and began spraying timber. The CRP took a lot of acres out of row crop production, so we had to diversify.”
Products for timber
There are products that may be applied to timber that are not labeled for fixed wing aircraft. With only a small number of airports in south Mississippi, the Holcombs knew they could trailer a helicopter on the back of a truck and travel straight to a tract of land that required spraying.
“Several operators had been doing it before we started,” says Holcomb. “It’s mainly herbicide application bid work, very competitive, and most of the guys that stay in it for any length of time are turnkey operations that sell the product being sprayed as well as provide the application service, so the client just writes one check.”
In 2002, Rudy Holcomb was about to touch down the helicopter onto the back of the trailer when it happened — a stroke. He landed the aircraft safely, but it was 2008 before he got his license back. “All he had to do was go down and get his medical certificate,” remembers Karl Holcomb. “Around December of that year, he had another stroke.”
This one hit Rudy Holcomb hard. “The second one was really tough on dad,” says Karl. “He developed additional complications from that one. I remember he and Mom had just purchased a new mattress set for their bedroom in December. He didn’t get to lay on that mattress until May the following year.”
Rudy fought hard to recover so he could fly again. He was transferred from the hospital to a swing-bed unit, and then to a rehabilitation center in Pearl, Miss. He withstood two more strokes in 2015 and a final one in 2018. “I was at the airport when Mom called and said, ‘Son, you need to come on to the house,’” adds Karl Holcomb. “He stayed with us until the next Thursday before he took his final flight west.”
Karl has carried on the family business and led it through another recent expansion. He went through BASF leadership training program in 2000 and served as president of the Mississippi Agricultural Aviation Association from 2010 to 2012.
“In 2014, I was proud to be one of 14 ag pilots chosen to participate in a nationwide leadership conference,” says Holcomb. “It was an effort to increase the public’s awareness of and confidence in the agricultural aerial application profession.”
In 2010, one of Holcomb’s friends, a pilot who owned an aerial application operation, decided to retire. Holcomb adsorbed half of his farmer clientele. “During the busy season, I’m now covering acreage from Cary, Miss., down to Vicksburg, Miss.,” explains Holcomb. “I even have a little business around Holly Bluff, Miss., and work some acres all the way down to Benton, Miss.”
Many years ago, Rudy Holcomb gave Karl some advice to help him understand the business of aerial application, and life in general; “The only constant around here is change, and no two flying seasons are the same.”
“I’ll never forget the day he told me that,” says Holcomb. “It’s strange how true that has become as I continue in this business and in my life.”
Holcomb was working on his 2013 Air Tractor 802 the day of this interview. It is the second one he has owned. With the increased business, he felt like he needed a turbine with more capacity. “I was operating a 500-gallon 802, but I upgraded to one with an 800-gallon capacity,” explains Holcomb. “The biggest thing we have to offer a farmer over what he can do with a ground rig is time.”
With today’s large-capacity farm equipment, farmers can cover more acreage than ever before, whether they are planting, spraying, or harvesting. Farming has evolved into a high-capacity business, and Holcomb has come to recognize opportunities for him come in little tightly-packaged windows of time. He has adjusted himself and his operation to capitalize on those opportunities.
“You have to be able to go out there and carve out business inside those tight windows,” he adds. “If we’re given a small window, we can cover a high number of acres that a machine on the ground just can’t cover.”
1953 Cessna 170
A clean-looking 1953 Cessna 170 taildragger sits on one side of Holcomb’s massive hanger. Holcomb hired Mark Bryant two years ago. Bryant has 85 hours of flying time, recently earned his private pilot’s license and is accumulating time in the 170 to qualify for his tailwheel transition. “He’ll be flying the Air Tractor one day soon if he keeps going,” adds Holcomb.
For a man who once thought he would be grounded in a life-long engineering career, Karl Holcomb just cannot seem to keep himself out of the cockpit of an airplane — and he would have it no other way.