Shooting Straight

Idaho aerial applicators test sprayers in Nevada

Published in the August 2009 Issue Published online: Aug 03, 2009 Tyler J. Baum
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Wind, 5 mph. Direction, southwest.

It was mostly cloudy, but fairly pleasant for a late-April spring morning in Jackpot, Nev. A handful of aerial applicator volunteers work at a station between runways at the Jackpot Municipal Airport at Hayden Field. One has a cordless drill that winds up a string, stretching across a narrow field and between the runways.

In the distance to the north is an incoming yellow airplane. Dominic Andreotti, working with his boss, Dale Thomas, of Thomas Aviation in Gooding, Idaho, makes a comment, saying the plane isn’t coming in low enough. Dominic picks up a radar gun and aims it at the incoming plane.

The plane swoops in and begins spraying a pink dye across the rocky Nevada desert soil. Once the plane is gone, the string is re-set and the data is recorded before the next go-round. The third time around, yellow cards are strategically placed behind the string.

With every pass, Dominic and Dale record wind, wind direction and relative humidity. When everything is set and they’re ready for the plane to swoop in again, a green flag is waved.

Nearly 50 aerial applicators from the Gem State met in Jackpot, Nev., for their annual Idaho Aerial Applicator Association (IAAA) Operation S.A.F.E Pattern Clinic. The IAAA is a non-profit organization that represents the aerial industry in the state. The annual clinic is an opportunity for members to test their spray patterns for accuracy, in preparation for the new season—all for the benefit of their customers, the growers.

Pattern Testing

The IAAA began testing in Gooding with an aerial applicator named Rod Thomas. The clinics have been going strong for more than 10 years in the state. Most clinics have been in Gooding, but recently organizers have started moving the events around to different locations. However, each year the local elementary schools are notified so kids can watch in awe as airplanes swoop surprisingly close.

Each operator pays for the cost of flying over the pattern test equipment. In recent years, however, insurance and chemical companies have stepped up financially so as to keep the IAAA from losing money, paying for meals and hosting.

The water the planes use to spray test is dyed pink. Each plane takes three passes to get an average, spraying across a string that’s strung across the spray field. The third time, cards are put out that record particulates and pattern of spray.

An analyzer will count the droplets across the string. Some spots are heavy enough that they’re still wet minutes later, while others prove to be lighter spotting.

Based on the results, applicators will make necessary adjustments to spraying equipment.

The Idaho Department of Agriculture awards three credits for the flying test and two credits for two hours of classroom, which will go toward the 15 credit hours required for the two-year continuous education period. When 15 credit hours are earned in two years, the professional applicator license is automatically renewed. However, applicators can opt out of continuous education and just take the recertification exam every two years.

Bob Spencer, Agriculture Program Manager for the Idaho Department of Agriculture, says the IDA encourages applicators to participate in continuous education.

“Because of changes in technology and changes in the labels, [aerial applicators] learn more of that kind of stuff than just taking a test every two years.”


Class In Session

According to Bob Spencer, a recent ruling of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals states that spraying at or near water requires an National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit.

Though they don’t yet know the circuit’s interpretation of “near” water, Bob says, “Water that eventually goes back to the Snake River, that’s U.S.”

Unfortunately, one hang-up for Idaho applicators is that the state doesn’t yet have an agency that issues NPDES permits. It varies from state to state; for example, California has a 60-day stay on some mosquito spray.

How the NPDES permitting will affect aerial applicators is still up in the air, no pun intended.

“Stay tuned,” Bob says.

Dr. Dennis Gardisser from Arkansas was the keynote speaker. Dr. Gardisser retired in January from the University of Arkansas as professor and associate department head of the Division of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension Service. He is also currently the president of WRK of Arkansas. Known as the guru of aerial application, Dr. Gardisser had much to say about improving spraying.

To begin his classroom lecture, he stressed the importance of record keeping, especially GPS logs in order for applicators to best defend themselves against potential lawsuits.

“Whatever you say [in court]—unless its written in a log—it didn’t happen,” he says.

He pointed out that aerial applicators are liable for applications on a field “as long as any trace” can be found.

Dr. Gardisser asked attendees what they believed the best height for application. After various answers were given, he said that it varies from case to case.

“Without knowing the particulars, it’s like raising teenagers,” he says.

In some circumstances, application will need to be a little higher, while other times the airplane will need to apply the chemical closer to the ground, but there’s a narrow window. Too low, and the soil is affected too much from the wind coming from the plane.

Gardisser says aerial applicators will need to work with growers. When a grower plants something in a corner of a field where power lines are in the way, applicators will need to point out they can’t protect that part of the field. He taught attendees to never spray in the same direction, how to align spraying versus row and wind direction, and the importance of a little bit of air movement versus no air movement.

From the beginning of the clinic, it was clear these guys weren’t there to merely earn credits. They were there to make their businesses better for their customers.

Before the clinic began, Neil Shupe, current president of the IAAA, said, “We’re really excited to have Dennis on board. Maybe we can improve our patterns.”