By Jackie Nelson
Residents in Moundridge, and across McPherson County, have made note of the number of blue and yellow airplanes bobbing above tree rows throughout the spring and summer.
Bill Garrison, owner of Ag Air Service Inc., has been flying the area’s skies since 1981 and keeping farmers productive since 1994, when he began his career as a crop duster.
Today, Garrison owns three crop dusting planes and has a small staff of pilots who spray primarily wheat, pasture, corn and soybeans.
This year, Garrison’s profession has been getting more attention than usual.
“Especially this year, with everyone being at home because of COVID, they hear a plane fly over, and they have to run out and see what’s going on,” he said.
For residents out watching crop dusters in action, “A lot of people think we’re out there to put on an airshow. We’re there to protect crops from whatever pest we are spraying for. The chemicals we put out are expensive, and we want them to go where we need them to. We’re not there to put on a show or create a nuisance at 7 a.m. We’re trying to get a job done for somebody. If people can put up with us for 20 minutes, we won’t be back for another month or two,” he said.
Garrison said crop dusters are not equipped with many creature comforts, and while pilots wear noise-cancelling flight helmets “the slipstream noise is pretty loud. We can appreciate the fact we disturb people.”
Garrison said while he understands the interest residents have in the low-flying planes, it becomes a challenging situation for pilots as they try to prevent residents from being exposed to the agricultural chemicals they are applying. In addition to the chemical exposure, Garrison said he has heard of more and more calls to the FAA on low-flying planes and noise complaints.
“I think it’s just because more people are at home to notice a plane flying over at 50 feet,” he said.
A typical run for Garrison is a 130-acre quarter-mile section.
“That might take 25 minutes to do, it depends. If you’ve got nice long runs, it’s quicker than short runs with a lot of turns. It takes more time to turn the airplane than to go across the field,” he said.
Over the last quarter-century in the industry, Garrison has seen dramatic improvements.
“GPS guidance has been the biggest improvement. We’re not counting section lines, and we generally have a photo of where we’re supposed to spray, and we double-check that,” said Garrison.
He added, the crop dusting planes have also seen upgrades and are now jet-props, which are quieter than the old-school crop dusting airplanes.
Garrison said he has stayed in the industry simply because “it’s something I’m good at.”
“It’s not like flying an airline with point A and B and people behind you complaining about stuff,” he said. “You go, you do the job and come home with a sense of accomplishment about that.”
Garrison said nearly anyone can acquire a pilot’s license, crop dusting means continuing education with 50 to 100 more hours logged at a handful of specialized flight schools across the country.
“When I first started, planes were $50,000 to $60,000; now they’re hundreds of thousands of dollars, up to a million dollars. People with little experience, it’s hard to break into an industry where there’s only one seat and there’s no way to take someone up with you to get instruction,” he said.
Pilots must learn to recognize weather conditions that make chemical application difficult or inefficient.
“There’s a condition in the evenings where the wind goes calm and the air starts what’s called an inversion – you have a low-level inversion at five to 10 feet and the chemical will lay on top of that and not go down to the ground.”
An inversion is when air temperatures near the ground are higher than the temperature above, due to radiant heat from the ground. This bubble of warmer, rising air, can prevent chemicals from properly settling onto fields.
For Garrison, the perfect day for crop dusting is 70 to 80 degrees and winds under 10 miles per hour.
“During the summertime, we’ll fly for a few hours in the mornings and shut down in the afternoon when it’s hot and windy. We might go out again toward the evening. There are certain hours of the day we can get those conditions. Most of the time, during the summer, we can do some type of work every day for a period of two to three months,” he said.
Garrison and his company cover a wide swath of south central Kansas, ranging from Hutchinson and Nickerson to McPherson, Moundridge and down into Harvey County.
“The most important thing people can know about is is we’re there to help the farmer produce the most amount of food, with the least amount of acres.”