After several days of on-again, off-again instructions from the Federal Aviation Administration, Glenn Holloway was back up in the air within minutes of being notified that the latest grounding order for aerial applicators was lifted.
Holloway, who flies for Holloway Air Service in Shaw, Miss., estimates that 30 percent of his business includes the aerial application of cotton defoliants — little of which has been applied in the Mississippi Delta region this fall.
“The effects of a prolonged grounding order would have been disastrous for aerial applicators,” he said. “We rely on the income from cotton defoliation to keep us in business.
“I was about two days behind schedule when they grounded us for the second time in a week. Now, at least, we can get back to the business of flying,” he says.
The only real restriction aerial applicator pilots were given to be able to take flight again is to stay out of controlled air space, which is basically that area in the immediate vicinity of commercial airports.
When the second grounding order came on Sept. 16, Holloway says he was notified by the Mississippi Agricultural Aviation Board to lock up his plane because the FAA had grounded all general aviation, including aerial applicator services, indefinitely.
“We were grounded until further notice with no explanation. As a result, we couldn't afford to do anything but sit around and wait to see when, and if, we'd be allowed back up in the air.”
In the approximately 30 hours that followed, Holloway says, “They didn't tell us anything. I wasn't able to get information out of Washington, D.C. about what was going on, or what we could expect in the near future.”
Holloway estimates that there are 250 registered pilots in Mississippi working at 120 aerial applicator operations.
In recent days, FBI agents have visited several aerial applicators and flight schools asking questions, say applicators Farm Press has spoken with.
“They want to know about any student pilots over the last few years, about security around the planes, about anyone hanging around that shouldn't be,” said Mark Hartz, treasurer of the National Agricultural Aviation Association and an applicator operating outside Stuttgart, Ark.
Prior to the latest flight ban being lifted on Sept. 17, Hartz says the FBI seemed very concerned about airplanes parked outside hangers. Any plane sitting outside, exposed and easily approached, they wanted rendered inoperable.
“That usually meant taking the batteries out,” says Hartz.
Late Monday afternoon, Hartz got the FAA call allowing pilots back into the air. He says there was a difference this time, though.
“It wasn't a sentence they used before like, ‘You're cleared to fly at 11 a.m.’ This time the caller said, ‘You're cleared to fly.’ Period. That leads me to think we'll not be jerked back down so quickly.”
What changed the FAA's mind? Hartz isn't sure, “but a couple of days ago, applicators got together with economists and prepared a report quantifying how much applicators sitting idle could cost. I'm not sure who we got to listen to our concerns, but the right person obviously heard.”
Hartz says the statistical service at the University of Arkansas gathered numbers for cotton, rice and soybeans in the state. Collectively, the potential lost revenue by aerial applicators as well as yield losses equaled $48 million in Arkansas alone.
“If one state stood to lose that much, imagine what the number must have been for the whole Delta, or the whole nation. We don't know exactly which argument got them to listen, but those huge numbers surely played a part.”
In a conference call with the NAAA executive committee on Monday, Hartz says the scope of the problem became obvious.
“Someone brought up the fact that potato farming in the U.S. was facing trouble next year if applicators weren't allowed back into the air. Apparently, late blight is hitting seed potatoes up north and they need spraying. No spraying could mean not enough potatoes to plant next year.”