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UPDATE: Aerial applicators flying again


The Federal Aviation Administration has given approval for aerial applicators to operate again, providing they remain clear of restricted air space. Applicators are advised to stay in touch with local officials to get the latest word on the status of regulatory actions.

PREVIOUS STORY:Add one more name to the growing list of casualties from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon: Aerial applications on U.S. crops.

At press time, the Federal Aviation Administration had again grounded aerial applicators across the United States, citing ongoing concerns about the FAA’s ability to monitor low-flying planes.

“The FAA cited a ‘critical threat to national security,’” said Mark Hartz, treasurer of the National Agricultural Aviation Association, referring to the grounding order issued on Sunday, Sept. 16. There was no immediate word on when aerial applicators might resume flying.

After the FAA lifted the ban on aerial applications on Friday, Sept. 14, many ag pilots flew almost constantly on Saturday and Sunday, trying to catch up on pesticide applications and defoliation requests from cotton growers. Then, the FAA issued another grounding order.

It was the latest in a series of on-again, off-again restrictions on ag pilots.

While the major airlines and some general aviation aircraft were cleared to return to the skies on Sept. 13 for the first time since all non-military aircraft were grounded on Sept. 11, aerial applicators were ordered to stop flying shortly after 11 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, the time flying had been expected to resume.

“We got a message that said ‘oops, agricultural applicators weren’t covered,’” said one pilot. “That was it. All of us were ordered to return to the ground.”

Expressing a common theme among applicators, the pilot said he understood the need for enhanced security, but found the order frustrating, nonetheless.

“We’re way behind on spraying,” he said. “We’ve got the boll weevil eradication program to work on, we’ve got rice that needs spraying, we’ve got soybeans with worms, and there are all kinds of cotton fields that need defoliating.

“We need someone with common sense to give us the go-ahead to get back in the air.”

Hartz, who also operates an ag flying service near Stuttgart, Ark., said many pilots were mystified by the conflicting series of orders.

“We don’t believe ag aviation isn’t a threat to anyone,” he noted. “It’s hard to highjack a single-seat aircraft, you know? There have been some concerns that biological terrorism might be one of the reasons we’ve been grounded, but I feel that won’t happen.”

Although FAA officials won’t comment on the orders, there was speculation that U.S. officials were concerned about a second wave of attacks by terrorists, perhaps involving the use of biological weapons. Several media outlets reported that satellite pictures of dead animals in the Afghan desert indicated that militants may have been experimenting with biological agents.

They said that prime suspect Osama bin Laden and his agents tried to buy chemical weapons and nuclear components in the mid-1990s, according to testimony in the embassy bombing trials earlier this year.

Hartz says that while some pilots are frustrated with the orders, the NAAA is cautioning pilots to obey the restrictions. “If anyone is caught flying, that’s an unlawful act. And anyone thinking about staying in the air should keep in mind that any plane flying illegally is subject to being shot down.”

There have been reports of several instances where general aviation aircraft have been escorted out of the sky at the behest of F-16’s. Hartz thinks common sense will prevail. “But if someone is flagrantly violating this order, there will likely be severe penalties. This is nothing to mess with. We’re calling other pilots and getting the word out. There’s a very good network of applicators and it doesn’t take long for the news to get out.”

On the crop side, Hartz says calls to aerial applicators are coming in from cotton farmers wanting their fields defoliated. Cotton – much of it already in bad shape – will quickly get worse, “if we can’t spray defoliants. I have conveyed that to our executive director. It’s time for us to get back to work. We don’t want to appear unpatriotic, but we need to help our growers.”

The NAAA and other agricultural groups were talking to Mid-South congressmen to see if they could get the restrictions lifted.

In recent years, Arkansas farmers have shifted away from aerial application to ground rigs, says Bill Robertson, Arkansas Extension cotton specialist. But this year the crop has gotten taller and more tangled than usual. Many farmers — even those who normally use ground rigs — were planning to use aerial applicators because the cotton is so unruly.

“If we have to go another few days without aerial applicators, it’ll get ugly,” says Robertson. “Farmers may just have to grimace, shut their eyes and just run the ground rigs.”

Will McCarty, Mississippi Extension cotton specialist, says the situation has been similar on his side of the Mississippi River, although the unusual rainfall in late August and early September has complicated matters.

“Before the grounding occurred on Tuesday (Sept. 11), Monday was a good day, and aerial applicators did a lot of work. Then, the remainder of the week we had some of the best weather to defoliate and we couldn’t fly.

“After all the rain in the southern and mid-portion of Mississippi, the cotton has been beaten down and is matted. The ground has been wet over much of the state and ground equipment hasn’t been an option. Not having aerial applicators in the sky is going to put us even more squarely behind the 8-ball in preparing the crop for harvest.”

From the central Delta to Natchez, the ground should be dry enough to get grounds rigs in, says McCarty. But the plants are so matted and wrapped up that ground rigs will damage the crop. And some of the cotton is so badly matted that rigs won’t be able to run.

Another point of expediency: more forecasts for rain. Right now, it doesn’t appear that the state will stay dry for too much longer.

“We need to get the leaves off this cotton as fast as possible to allow sunlight and air penetration. The grounding of aircraft is definitely having a significant impact on our cotton.”

“Every day farmers can’t defoliate means another day later before they can pick,” said John Barnett, Extension cotton specialist with the Louisiana State University AgCenter. “But everyone understands this is a national emergency, and the U.S. government needs to take whatever actions are necessary to protect the American people.”

John Andries with the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry said the no-fly order also will put a glitch in the state’s Boll Weevil Eradication Program.

“It’s going to have a tremendous effect on the program,” said Andries, director of the eradication program. “If this (order) carries on even for a few days, the possibility of a greater number of weevils going into overwintering increases — therefore increasing the number of weevils that will come out next spring.

“We would like to spray. We need to spray. But it’s the federal government’s call. They have to look out for the welfare of the country.”

“We’re supposed to be wide open right now,” said Craig Massey, University of Tennessee area specialist. “I don’t know how you measure the impact. We had a lot of farmers that needed to defoliate by air.”

Massey said west Tennessee’s top crop is heavier this year, primarily because of recent rains. “The stalks are laying over in the middle of the row. When you run over bolls with ground equipment, you’re going to cause some damage. But right now, growers don’t have any choice.”

Massey said that about 30 percent of the state’s cotton crop is defoliated which is about 10-15 percent behind normal. “This coming week (week of Sept. 17) is a big week for defoliation.”

Massey added that stinkbugs are starting to be a problem in soybeans and need to be sprayed, too.

Boll weevil eradication is also being negatively impacted by the ban. Ron Seward, entomologist with the Southeast Boll Weevil Eradication Program, says that no planes have flown in west Tennessee since the FAA stopped aerial applications on the morning of Sept. 11.

Seward said trap counts were at a low level (about .1 weevil per trap) in early September, but had increased to .4 of a weevil by mid-September.

Seward says the higher trap counts are a signal that weevils are feeding and their numbers are increasing. Some fields are at threshold level.

“It’s hard to quantify any negative impact,” he said. “If we can get up and running in a couple of weeks, that will help us. If we’re looking at being shut down for the season, we are definitely going to have higher numbers to look at next spring, depending on what kind of winter kill we have.”

When asked if the program could move to the ground applications, Seward said that the program does not have the manpower or the equipment to replace the 60 airplanes participating in eradication in west Tennessee.

“I haven’t seen a plane fly by (the Delta Center) since they first grounded them,” said Bobby Phipps, Missouri Extension cotton specialist.

The latest ban, initiated on Monday, “is sure going to slow down defoliation. People are going to have to resort to ground rigs. I don’t see where they have an option.”

Boll weevil eradication was to have begun a fall diapause program in the region this fall and the ban could set back a good start, according to Phipps. “It hit at a critical time. We had them under good control and there just weren’t hardly any to be found.”

In fact, Phipps says that program administrators had decided to spray on a trap count rather than make blanket sprays. “A ban right now will allow some of them to go in the woods and over-winter.”

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