The Sky Brings The Crops

by Kathryn Brown
Published in Midwest Flyer – June/July 2019 issue

With the retreat of snow and ice, the Midwest’s empty fields come to life, and as they do, so too do the skies above them. Spray pilots look forward to leaning into the growing season and prepare to grace the skies with their aircraft in a display that is as iconic as spring’s first droning insects.

It’s not surprising that many who find themselves manning the occupation of spray pilot, come from strong agricultural backgrounds. James Arnt, 20, of Worthington, Minnesota, grew up knowing he wanted to be a pilot, but was also heavily influenced by his father, who was a spray pilot for 44 years and owned his own business centered around it. Arnt followed and achieved his dream, starting to fly in high school, and soloing when he was 16 in a Civil Air Patrol Cessna 172. It wasn’t until 2017 that Arnt started to actually begin spraying in a Weatherly 620B, and even before he began, he already had a job lined up.

As I spoke with Arnt, his passion for both flying and spraying became apparent. He mentioned how many people start their careers simply loading spray planes before going on to become pilots themselves, and how it is a great way to get to know a company while also learning the important terminology associated with the various chemicals used. Arnt said that he operated mostly in Minnesota and Iowa, although he could always switch airports if he wanted to. He smiled as he added that, “the work can and does fluctuate depending on the weather, so you have to be a little lucky and make money where you can. But it’s an enjoyable occupation nonetheless, and it hardly feels like work most of the time. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

One thing Arnt was sure to mention was the personal satisfaction that went into seeing the crops he had worked come to fruition. As an owner of his own land, he could personally attest to that.

“You go out, and you see these weeds coming up alongside your crop in your fields… and then you get to head up and spray, and you see how much better everything is doing a week or so later. It’s great.”

There is, of course, also the pleasure of working the process from start to finish; from having the seed put into the ground, to watching it grow, to the actual event of the harvest. Arnt has taken part in the entire operation from the time he was a child to the present.

With sights set so high on flying aircraft, it only makes sense that Arnt is also interested in maintaining the aircraft. When asked why he chose Northland Community and Technical College to pursue aviation maintenance technology, he explained that the school has a good reputation, it wasn’t too far from his home, and the cost of tuition was reasonable. Arnt is pushing to get his airframe and powerplant (A&P) certifications more out of necessity, as he would like to be able to work on any aircraft he owns or flies. Regardless, Arnt was quick to tell me that he also enjoys working with his hands and is looking forward to being an aircraft technician in addition to flying as a spray pilot.

Northland Aerospace recently acquired a Grumman Ag Cat that was donated to the college by Aaron Peterson of Advantage Ag Air in 2018, and Arnt was excited to get to work on it. He helped to replace the number one cylinder and did some cosmetic work that was much needed, including patching the wings. He hopes to be able to help balance the propeller before he graduates from the program, although he is waiting until the school’s first year students get a chance to try their hand at repairing some parts of the aircraft first.

Dakota Petersen, 19, of Kenmare, North Dakota, doesn’t have to think twice when asked if being a pilot was a childhood dream of his. He grew up farming and was always very involved in agriculture, and has fond memories of going up in his father’s Cessna 175 from a young age. While he didn’t know much about flying personally, the curiosity was there.

Petersen said that he has worked for the aerial applicator company, Great Plains Aero, since 2015, as a member of the load crew, and that it was this experience that seriously piqued his interest in flying. He was 16 when he first soloed in a Citabria.

“Flying is more than a job…it is something I like to do,” said Petersen when asked how he views flying as a career. “It’s exciting and challenges you with experiences every time you go out. No two days are the same, and technology is always changing, so that’s a big part of it, as well.”

The moment Petersen started working for Great Plains Aero, the company treated him very well, and he liked the business enough to stay with them after he graduated from college.

Petersen considers Northland Community and Technical College a top choice for training to become an aviation maintenance technician, in part due to the large variation in the programs it offers, and also due to the large number of aircraft they have available to learn from. Petersen is on track to graduate in 2020, and chose to pursue his airframe and powerplant certifications so that he could work on his own aircraft. In addition to a Citabria, Petersen owns a Grumman Ag Cat that he recently purchased. He intends to fly the plane when he goes back to work in the aerial application business this summer.

Petersen is no stranger to the work involved in agriculture, and is looking forward to a career involving both aerial application, farming and aircraft maintenance. “There’s a personal satisfaction in the work,” he said. “It’s good to know you’re making a positive difference for the country and for the people who live in it.”

Petersen also got the opportunity to work on the newly acquired Grumman Ag Cat at Northland Aerospace. He patched holes in the wings and worked with a small group of classmates to rig the upper level wings on the biplane. Together with the second-year class and under the guidance of knowledgeable instructors, the aircraft is now in operating condition. It’s just one of a great number of aircraft available to students to work with, although Petersen said that it’s nice to be able to gain experience with one of the aircraft he will likely encounter frequently in his career.

With the growing season here, spray pilots everywhere are gearing up for what will hopefully be a busy and profitable season. It’s a profession that benefits many people in the end, and one that those who participate in it are undoubtedly passionate about.

Many pilots are paid by the acre, and the average operator typically owns two or three aircraft of their own. There are some businesses, however, that maintain fleets that can number in the dozens. With technology marching forward, the business is constantly changing. Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) may soon be a part of many operations, though it’s hard to predict with any certainty just how pervasive they may be in the near future. One thing is for certain, however; the soon-to-be graduates of Northland Community & Technical College will soon be part of the ranks of professionals dedicated to making sure quality crops reach tables all around the country.

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