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Back in the Saddle

I thought I had unofficially retired from the ag flying business, but then came across a deal too good to miss. Flying a Turbo Brave from an unbelievably smooth 4500×50 foot airstrip with a maximum of 7 miles ferry. Not to mention fields situated amid the Saskatchewan prairies so flat that an anthill is considered a flight hazard.

 

I would also be flying with a newcomer to the ag aviation business. Jeremy had just finished an excellent ag pilot course and would be flying a 235 hp Pawnee, and I was quite interested to learn his perspective on the ag aviation business. His start in the business was a far cry from when I started, where the owners said: “The airplane is around the corner of the hangar. Let me know when you are ready to start work.” No ag course, no ground school, and no experience in ag flying. As you can imagine – and I bet a lot of you can relate to the experience – the learning curve was very steep.

 

I had flown the Turbo Brave for the owners a couple of years before last year’s worst drought in 20 years, which effectively grounded a large portion of ag flying in our central Canadian prairie’s location. The owners were wholly supportive and onside, with a primary focus on flight safety and safety in general. On the ground, in the air, and everywhere in between.

 

I was very interested to find out what questions Jeremy would have as a newcomer to the business. For starters, what size of load do you take? There’s not a short answer to that question as it’s a function of aircraft type and hopper size, temperature, humidity, pilot expertise, length and condition of runway, wind, not to mention the subjective items like size and nature of the infestation, or incoming weather that might put applications on hold.

 

I was also very interested in seeing how much rust I had accumulated after a year out of ag flying. With any farming machine – swather, combine, tractor or aircraft – getting back in the saddle requires a short relearning period to get the reflexes back into good working order. It takes a bit of time at the controls to groove the brain, eyes, hands, and feet into working together in a smooth, well-oiled coordinated effort.

 

Luckily, Jeremy and I had lots of time to prep for the upcoming season. We met at the strip for a first meeting and hit the books on our respective aircraft. It’s incredible how much one can forget even over a short time. Max allowable engine limits, normal operating procedures, emergency procedures, and even the items to check on a walkaround. Where are those darn fuel drains? What are the recommended tire pressures? What are the limits on brake wear? As many pilots have said: “My memory is good, just a little short.”

 

Another reason one goes out before the season is to find out things that need fixing before the action begins. In terms of the Turbo Brave, all was in excellent working order, except for one not-so-small item. The touch screen on the GPS guidance system was not responding at all. I spent a bit of time cleaning the screen, looking through the User’s Guide, and doing everything I thought would cure the problem, but unfortunately, all were dead ends.

 

It was time to bring in the GPS experts who were just a phone call away. I explained the issue and was ready with paper and pen to copy down a long series of steps to cure the problem, but that was not required. It was a simple matter of recalibrating the touchscreen by plugging a mouse into the USB port at the lower back area of the cockpit wall behind the seat, something I had not been aware of. Simple fixes are good.

 

One of Jeremy’s first questions was what maximum load he should take. I went through the items mentioned above but just summarized it by saying, fly with the load you feel comfortable with. That will undoubtedly rise as you gain more experience in type and how the aircraft handles a load under different weather and field conditions. Just don’t be in a rush!

 

Another interesting question Jeremy asked was what type of feedback can you feel in the aircraft controls when flying slow with a max load. It’s not something that is covered thoroughly in the Operating Manual. On some aircraft, you can get a lot of stick ‘chatter’ as you enter slow flight from the turbulent airflow hitting the elevator. I found the Cessna 188 particularly sensitive in this area and really ‘talked to you’ airborne as you entered slow flight. On others, there is more of a heavy buffet before the stall.   The only way to know for sure is to take the aircraft to a safe altitude, practice slow flight, and go through a complete stall sequence with various flap and load settings, both of which Jeremy and I did on checkout day.

 

Also, as though we had requested it, the weather started calm and clear, with almost ideal conditions for ag applications. However, as noon approached, the clouds began to build, and the wind started to pick up. The question naturally arises: “When do you stop flying for weather?” Is there a magic windspeed number when everyone should just shut down? That would certainly make life easier, but unfortunately or otherwise, the answer is it’s a judgment call. Are there neighboring susceptible crops, or is the adjacent field the next on your list? How bad is the insect infestation, and if left another 24 hours without treatment, will the crop be a total loss?

 

I did share with Jeremy a rule I learned from a seasoned pro early in my ag pilot career. Before any flight, ask yourself two questions. Will it be safe, and will it be effective? If the answer to both is not an immediate and emphatic “Yes!”, it’s time to shut down, grab that second cup of coffee, and wait for more optimum conditions.

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