A few hours after stepping off the airplane, two public affairs representatives from the 910th Airlift Wing walk into a brewery on the coast of St. Augustine. It’s a travel day, so they want to check out the U.S.’s oldest city before their work starts tomorrow.
After checking their IDs, from Ohio and Pennsylvania, the bartender asks, “What brings you to Florida?”
“Business,” the first PA specialist replies, “We’re with the Air Force documenting a Department of Defense aerial spray certification course that’s running in tandem with the Florida Mosquito Control Association’s fly-in, just outside of town.”
His response catches the attention of a patron who asks, “Really? Near St. Augustine? I didn’t think we had that many mosquitoes around here.”
“Yes ma’am,” the second specialist answers. “You wouldn’t believe the amount of work behind the scenes of mosquito control…”
Over the next four days, Jan. 10 to 13, the PA specialists will be documenting the Department of Defense Category 11 Pesticide Applicator Training and Certification Course conducted by entomologists assigned to the 910th AW.
Every three years the annual Cat. 11 course, commonly taught in Ohio, is taught in Florida in conjunction with the FMCA’s annual fly-in.
After their chat with the locals and a craft beer, the specialists call it a night. Work starts tomorrow at the Anastasia Mosquito Control District’s headquarters.
Day 1 (DoD Cat. 11)
When the 910th AW performs a pesticide mission, the public might hear the low rumble of a C-130H Hercules aircraft flying nearby around dusk, but that’s about it. The product used to eliminate mosquitos is atomized and dispersed in microscopic droplets. Sometime later, the bugs that would be biting and potentially spreading diseases are dead.
Lt. Col. Mark Breidenbaugh, one of the medical entomologists teaching the course, is aware of the public’s view as he begins his presentation at the course.
“If you do it right, it’s like magic,” says Breidenbaugh. “You don’t see it happening and you don’t smell anything. That’s the concept.”
Filling the seats across from Breidenbaugh are a couple of new students and a few familiar faces back for their three-year recertification.
The students have come from across the DoD’s total force to be certified as ground supervisors of aerial spray operations, monitors of pest control contracts using aerial spray and approvers of DoD aerial spray projects.
They spend the next few hours listening and taking notes to lectures on aerial spray-specific entomology, understanding the patterns of target insects; chemistry, the mix-ratio and proper use of product; meteorology, the study of weather and its effect on dispersal patterns, aerial application and dispersal mathematics; and the public affairs aspect of aerial spray before the first day finally ends.
Tomorrow, they’ll finish up the DoD-specific portion of the course by covering topography, swath mapping—or spray area calculating—and aerial application request procedures, before opening the conference doors and hearing how the civilian side sprays.
Day 2 (FMCA fly-in)
Basically, the only time the DoD aerial spray program mixes with public or private aerial spray is when the DoD contracts them for small area application on or near federal property or when it’s an emergency situation where an afflicted state has exhausted all of its resources and requests the 910th AW’s aerial spray mission for large-area assistance.
So when the doors open, the first FMCA attendees to arrive make a beeline for the 910AW’s lecturers and students.
In the hustle and bustle of the meet and greet, Christopher Lesser, the president of the FMCA, is pulled outside by the PA specialists for an interview and asked what the Air Force attending this course brings to the fly-in.
“We love it!” Lesser replies. “It brings a great deal of excitement to all of us, simply because it’s a whole new type of spraying that you guys bring to the community. We train you a little bit, you guys train us a little bit. And it’s beneficial for all of us.”
The long-standing partnership with the FMCA brings new technology testing data, new experiment data and experienced aerial spray personnel to the DoD students. In exchange, the 910th AW entomologists lead different lectures on the military’s role in aerial spray operations, provide DoD study briefings and give statistics on the 910th AW’s Modular Aerial Spray System and C-130H Hercules aerial spray capabilities.
The DoD’s aerial spray program is primarily a wartime capability; the ultimate goal is to protect U.S. troops from arthropod-borne diseases while abiding by judicious use of product—just enough to get the job done with minimal impact to the environment.
The FMCA’s mission is to promote effective and environmentally safe control of disease-transmitting mosquitoes and other pest insects.
Or as Lesser puts it, “We all have the exact same mission. You guys are doing it on a little bit different level than we are. We’re a little more local, a little more focused, but you guys are a little larger, bigger scale. But we’re all doing the same type of work. And at the end of the day, it’s all about benefiting the public, the public health.”
After the meet and greet dies down, lunch is served in the AMCD hangar where the remainder of the fly-in and Cat. 11 lectures will take place. The few exceptions to this location will be the day three C-130 aerial spray demo and the Cat.11 final exam on day four.
The spray demo will take place at the Northeast Florida Regional Airport.
Day 3 (C-130 Spray Demo)
The C-130 is one of the largest aircraft used for aerial spray. Its flight crew totals nine members on a spray mission: a pilot, copilot, flight engineer, navigator, onboard entomologist, two spray system operators and two loadmasters. Most civilian aerial spraying is done with helicopters, one or two-seat planes or drones capable of aerial application. The size difference of the operations are very apparent when comparing the aircraft.
A soft wind passes under caution tape and through the corralled crowd. Eyes, phones and cameras aim skyward as a soft rumble grows in the distance. Within seconds of its audible calling, a large shadow shoots through the sunny state’s sky, leaving only a streak of water, claimed by no cloud, in its wake.
During the demonstration, the crew passes once without spraying, twice while spraying and once more dry before taking the aircraft in for a landing and taxiing to a stop a hundred or so yards away from the pen. The crowd watches as the propellers spin to a halt and the tail opens, readying for the static display. The 910th AW maintains a MASS that only ever handles water for use in training and demonstrations like this one.
Their capability is the DoD’s only large area fixed-wing aerial spray asset to control disease-carrying insects, pest insects and undesirable vegetation and to disperse oil spills in large bodies of water.
In the civilian sector, the pilot is oftentimes the navigator, spray operator and sometimes even the aircraft mechanic as well. The DoD has a much more solid delineation between roles and subject matter experts.
So the course’s third day fosters much more mechanical and operational discussions as most of the 910th AW aircrew and spray system maintainers had not attended any of the Cat. 11 courses or prior FMCA fly-ins.
“I thought it was super cool getting to see and hear about what other mosquito control they have out here,” said Senior Airman Bryce Cooper, a relatively new spray technician assigned to the 910th Spray Maintenance Flight. “Before today, I’d never seen another mosquito control aircraft.”
Day 4 (Final Exam)
It’s the last day of both the DoD aerial spray course and FMCA fly-in.
The Cat. 11 students will be taking their final exam after the fly-in wraps up, and it’d probably be best if the PA specialists didn’t aim a camera at them while they’re trying to concentrate.
So about an hour away in Jacksonville, the PA specialists wait in line to board their plane, where they share one last mission irrelevant conversation.
“Man, after being here I don’t want to go back home,” remarks the first specialist, as he shuffles around in his bag for his ticket. “I need to find a way to convince my wife to move away from Pennsylvania.”
“I don’t know, Saint Augustine is nice and all, but I can’t handle Florida’s summer heat,” counters the second one, currently glued to his phone trying to think of a unique way to give the public an inside view of the last few days. “Ohio stays moderately temperate, and I wouldn’t want to leave the 910th.”