Over the past three decades, the landscape of agricultural aviation has undergone a remarkable transformation. From its early days of radial and piston engine airplanes, we now witness the predominance of advanced agricultural aircraft. The shift to more powerful turbine engines has undoubtedly improved performance but has also led to a significant increase in operating costs.
The purchase price, insurance rates, and training expenses have soared and contributed to a shortage of agriculture pilots. As seasoned ag pilots retire, finding suitable replacements has become challenging. The average age of an agricultural pilot falls between 50 and 60 years, with some still flying well into their late 70s. One of the primary reasons for this scarcity is the high cost and limited availability of ag flight training and insurance premiums for low-time ag pilots.
Acknowledging these concerns, the Mississippi Aerial Applicator Association (MAAA), the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA), and farmers nationwide turned to Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi for assistance. After numerous meetings, studies, and strategic analyses, Senator Hyde-Smith commissioned the Commercial Aviation Department at Delta State University to develop a workforce development plan in the Mississippi Delta to address the shortage of ag pilots.
In response to this call, a collaboration was formed between the director of Flight Operations at Delta State University, Brad MacNealy, a Mississippi ag aviation operator and farmer, Ike Brunetti, and a Workforce Development Consultant, Pam Meeks. Together, they formalized an agriculture flight-training plan and presented it to Senator Hyde-Smith for consideration. Their proposal led to passing legislation granting a 2 million dollar grant to establish an Aerial Applicator Pathway for training Ag pilots at Delta State University.
Senator Hyde-Smith emphasized the importance of partnerships with local businesses, schools, and organizations to realize the idea of Agricultural Aviation Training. Mitzi Woods from South Delta Planning and Economic Development (SDPED) took the initiative and sought assistance from Doug Freeze, Workforce Development Director at Mississippi Delta Community College, and Dr. Courtney Taylor at Accelerate Mississippi for State Workforce Training and Funding. Additionally, Delta State University collaborated with Blues Air, Inc. and Advanced Turbine Training, LLC, experts in Aerial Applicator training. MAAA, the Cleveland Airport, and numerous aerial applicator businesses from Mississippi and neighboring states lent their unwavering support to this initiative.
The next step in the process was to identify prospective students interested in becoming Ag Pilots. There were plenty of interested candidates, but the challenge was to find individuals who were genuinely committed to the program and had a strong work ethic. The program required candidates willing to dedicate long hours in challenging conditions to assist in the daily tasks of keeping the aircraft flying. It needed individuals ready to fly low and face hazardous conditions, who saw ag flying as not just a job, but a way of life they were determined to embrace.
The program devised rigorous selection criteria and processes to ensure the best selection of candidates. The selection committee includes Frank Kimmel, Karl Holcomb, Madison Dixon, Ike Brunetti, and Brad MacNealy.
Three entities are involved in flight instruction for the Ag Aircraft Operations Career Pathway Program (AAOCP). These entities include Delta State University, Blues Air, LLC, and Advance Turbine Training, LLC, all located at Cleveland Airport in Cleveland, MS.
Delta State University primarily handles Instrument and Commercial training—Blues Air covers the slack in case of overbooking from college students. Blues Air is responsible for the Aerial Application training, while Advance Turbine Training manages the Dual cockpit 802 turbine transition.
The program aims to train a minimum of 30 students within three years, at a rate of 10 students per year, but they are open to taking on more students if possible. Successful performance during the initial three-year period could lead to additional funding. The federal funding within AAOCP is available to any U.S. citizen with at least a private pilot’s license, and they must have a part 137 operator sponsor. This sponsor acts as a mentor, vouching for the student’s capability to become an ag pilot, although they are not financially obligated.
Interested applicants must submit an application to DSU, and after that, they undergo an in-person interview with the program leads. The AAOCP training starts in October and concludes in May of the following year, with a timeframe of approximately 6-8 months for completion, weather permitting. The ag portion of the training typically commences in January. Mississippi residents may be eligible for additional state grant funding.
The training involves a combination of ground and flight instruction. Blues Air provides the Basic Ag Course, which includes 50 hours of ground training covering safety, equipment, and industry aspects. Flight training involves hands-on experience with various aircraft, such as the Ag Pilot X outfitted 150hp Citabria, Scout, Satloc Bantam 188 Ag Truck, and Cessna 172. Furthermore, Advance Turbine Training manages the Dual Cockpit AirTractor 802 for turbine transition training.
The collaboration between these entities ensures that students receive comprehensive and experienced training to become competent and safe Ag Pilots. Those interested in self-funding their flight training can pay directly to Blues Air for the course. The focus is on equipping students with the skills and knowledge necessary to excel in their careers as agricultural pilots. The program aims to set a new safety, efficiency, and accuracy standard in aerial application training.
For more information, interested individuals can contact the respective entities involved in the AAOCP program:
- Delta State University – AAOCP Grant Program Coordinator: Sheila Millican (Contact: 662-846-4216, Email: Smillican@deltastate.edu)
- Blues Air, LLC – Owner/Operator: Phil Krasner (Contact: 504-722-3399, Email: Phillipkranser@yahoo.com) and Chief of Ag Ops and Training: Rob Van Namen (Contact: 662-822-4151, Email: Robvan502@gmail.com)
- Advance Turbine Training, LLC – Owner: Ike Brunetti (Contact: 662-719-2200, Email: Shelbyairservice2@gmail.com)