Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, U.S. agricultural pilots say it was entirely appropriate and understandable that all airplanes be grounded. But while pilots for the airliners were allowed back into the air only a few days later, that hasn't been the case with their piloting brethren.
What that means, say Delta aerial applicators, is further jeopardy to jobs, increased suspicion of their profession, and a fear that future regulations will be incredibly burdensome.
Signifying Class B airspace, there is an invisible line circling Memphis and outlying areas. That line, radiating out from central Memphis, sets a boundary up to 30 miles out. Inside the line are towns like Senatobia, Miss., and Earle, Ark. — places with an abundance of row crops.
“This whole situation — which isn't just in Memphis, but is repeated around municipalities across the nation — is very problematic for farmers and pilots,” says Mark Hartz, owner/operator of Grand Prairie Dusters in Almyra, Ark.
“Right now, we're denied access to Class B airspace due to a supposed threat from terrorists. We're working with the NAAA (National Agricultural Aviation Association) and our congressional delegations to try and see if there's some way we can work around that. At some point and time, there's got to be some guidelines approved that will allow applicators back into that area.”
Congressional staffs are certainly aware of the aerial applicators' plight, says Hartz. But there's not a whole lot they can do because “no one seems to know who's in charge. We can't get a clear read on who is most concerned about that airspace. The FBI claims it's the FAA and the FAA claims it's the FBI. We suspect it's the FBI, though.”
Day of terror
One of the first recollections Hartz has is of ag planes flying over the family farm. “I was hooked from then on — I had to do that. It called to me.”
Having answered that call for many years, on Sept. 11, Hartz was spraying fields when a radio message came in saying terrorists had hit New York and Washington, D.C. He finished the job, went back to base and started watching TV. About 10:30 that morning, the sheriff called and said Hartz's operation was grounded.
“That was perfectly reasonable, and we didn't start asking questions about when we could get back into the air until the next day. By Thursday, we were told we could go back to work. That same Thursday, we got one load out before our secretary called and said they'd shut us down again,” says Hartz, who serves as treasurer for the NAAA.
The next day, Hartz and colleagues started work again and were able to stay in the air until Sunday, Sept. 16. Then reports came in about several of the Arab terrorists having approached aerial applicator operations in Minnesota and Florida.
“That threw all the federal law folk into a tizzy, and they shut us down again,” Hartz said. “They've since shifted the majority of attention from us to truckers with hazardous material licenses. But ag pilots are still left twisting in the wind.”
Aerial applicators' jobs are stressful even in the best of times. “There's plenty of external pressures on a normal day that applicators must deal with,” he notes. “This just adds to that burden.
“Personally, it didn't hurt our operation that much,” says Hartz. “We were just lucky. We had some rice fields that needed spraying, but we aren't in the same boat with applicators who were grounded knowing they have boll weevil eradication contracts to fulfill or cotton to be defoliated. Some of those pilots stand to lose $10,000 to $15,000 per day while grounded.
“Many operations are devastated, and in this business, once an opportunity for spraying is lost it isn't coming back,” says Hartz.
Nationwide, 3,400 pilots fly ag planes. In Arkansas alone, the total is about 400.
“That's a lot of families of both pilots and support staff being affected by this,” he says. “Between Texas and Arkansas, we have the largest number of ag pilots in the nation because of the amount of rice being grown. A rice crop requires much more fertilizer, and that's where we come in.”
Pilots in cotton areas may go out and spray 5,000 acres in a day. Spraying for boll weevils, a pilot may spray 300 acres per load. However, a pilot spraying rice may cover 50 acres per load. That's why there are so many more airplanes in rice country, says Hartz.
As a result of their being grounded for a couple of days, Congress has allotted the major airlines a multi-billion dollar bailout. Is there a movement under way to get applicators the same consideration?
It is being looked into, says Hartz, who admits the airline bailout is a bitter pill to swallow. “The airlines have been allowed to begin flying again when the fact is that their planes were the instruments used to terrorize our country. General aviation and ag aviation didn't have a thing to do with those attacks. But we're the ones suffering. We're paying for security mistakes made by the airlines.”
When asked for a profession under the same regulatory microscope, Hartz jokingly says, “People working with nuclear energy. Ag pilots have to keep the state plant board, the EPA, the FAA, and the Department of Environmental Quality happy.”
After the latest terrorist actions, the further restrictions the industry will be placed under will likely come from the FAA.
“As an industry, we're trying to find out what will alleviate the regulators' fears. Hopefully we'll be able to provide them with input that will address their security concerns yet allow us to do our jobs.”
Several weeks ago, at the behest of the FBI, airplanes that had no hangar were disabled in some fashion — props chained, batteries removed, parked between tractors. In the coming months, such actions may not be enough. However, many of the safety proposals being floated are “simply ridiculous and only provide a false sense of security,” says Hartz.
An example: A Florida proposal that pilots be required to call a tracking entity every time they take off, providing his plane number, coordinates for where the plane is going, the chemical being sprayed, how long he'll be in the air and when he'll be returning to base.
“That won't work, and the proposal is clearly a result of hysteria. In Arkansas, we make 50 to 75 loads per day. You think any terrorist with anthrax in the hopper is going to phone it in and admit it?”
Also, Hartz points out that his work is very dependent on weather, wind and a whole host of other factors. Most of the time Hartz doesn't know exactly where he's going with the next load.
“We know where we'd like to go but oftentimes that location isn't available to us. To hamstring us with additional crazy regulations won't work for us, and agriculture will suffer tremendously.”
Hartz says the situation “really hasn't touched farmers too much yet. But when they understand what some of the proposals are, I assure you they won't be happy.”
As an example, Hartz points to this year's test with flying Command onto rice. The test was conducted over a portion of the state and was a minor nuisance in relation to what's being looked at now, says Hartz. The Command test required farmers to declare what fields they wanted Command applied to. They then had to supply GPS coordinates so the fields could be monitored.
“That one little thing caused a lot of hurt feelings and concern because farmers felt it was an intrusion on their way of doing business.”
Imagine the decibel level if every application made on a farm has to go through some bureaucratic tangle, says Hartz. Farmers don't realize what's potentially coming, he says.
“You know, it's very easy for bureaucrats to sit at their desks and pass judgment on us. If someone isn't intimately aware of the day-to-day workings of our industry, they can't know how much their ideas for future regulations will affect the diverse aspects of agriculture collectively. It's easy to say, ‘Just ground the crop dusters.’”
The regulations ag pilots worked under prior to Sept. 11 were “problematic,” but Hartz says his industry understands the current climate. “Everyone wants low cost food and a clean environment. We know that's a balance that needs maintaining. As an industry, we've been very proactive in addressing safety issues. We're aware of our neighbors and we want to be as unobtrusive as possible.”
But in light of recent events, ag pilots have a severe sense of foreboding about “what might be coming down the pipe,” he notes. “This was an awful thing, and it occurred at a bad time for us. But imagine what would have happened if this attack had come in May or June when crop health literally depended on us getting the spraying done.”
While Hartz has no idea what new regulations are coming, one of the first things the FAA brought up was the use of transponders. A transponder is a device employed in airliners and most general aviation airplanes. It sends out a signal that, when interrogated by ground radar, provides a code that a controller has assigned to a specific plane. That means the controller knows the pertinent details of the plane.
The planes that were hijacked had transponders. But as soon as the terrorists took over, they turned the transponders off. So instead of being a clear, distinct signal on a controller's screen, the planes became little blips. They could still be tracked, but without key flight information.
After the attacks, the FAA first said it would allow any ag planes with transponders to get back into the air. Hartz says that hardly helped. “The number of ag planes with a transponder may be 1 percent of the whole fleet.”
How safe are we really? Hartz insists his comments aren't meant to incite anyone. It's obvious he has the utmost respect for his country.
“But it seems like shutting us down was the easiest thing for law enforcement to do to make it seem like they were garnering control. Shutting us down was a highly visible step that had no cost to them whatsoever. National news coverage sensationalized the ag aircraft aspect of this, and we feel besieged.”
Hartz hangars his planes every night.
“Our planes are inside every night. But what do you do? How much security is enough? In a typical hangar, all it would take is a heavy-duty drill to take some siding off the building to gain access.”
But even if they somehow got the planes out on the runway, the tail wheel design of ag aircraft would almost assure that the plane would never get airborne.
“These terrorists were only concerned with flying the planes once they were airborne. They weren't concerned with taking off or landing.”
Agricultural aircraft are normally one-seaters with a tail wheel. Such a design is better when taking off and landing on unpaved airstrips. A tail wheel can handle a lot more abuse. Planes like Cessnas have the third wheel in the front of the plane, which makes them much more docile and easy to control when on the ground. Ag planes, sometimes called tail draggers, require direct intervention by the pilot in order to keep the plane straight on the runway — both taking off and landing.
“Believe me — and this has been mulled over by many ag pilots — unless a terrorist has had a good many hours training in an ag plane, he'd never get off the ground. Someone without specific training couldn't get it done.”