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Crunching the Numbers

When I got involved in the ag aviation business in the early 80s, first as a mixer/loader and then as a pilot, I remember one ‘old-timer’ who had taken down two powerlines in the first week of a new season. He said it was “all part of the game, and if you don’t like it, that’s your problem.”  Incidentally, that season, he racked up another powerline and severely damaged the mains after hitting a large rock hidden in a half-grown wheat crop, which was unsurprising given his philosophy of flying with the “wheels in the weeds.”

Even though I was an industry greenhorn then, I thought there had to be a better way, and thank goodness, there was and is. Interestingly enough, at the same time, there was a very noticeable change in the guard, from the cavalier attitude towards safety exhibited by a few like the fellow mentioned above to a more studied approach to the tenets of flight safety.

An evolving part of this change has been introducing a formal approach to managing day-to-day risks. The basic concept of risk management (RM) is defined by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) as the identification, analysis, and elimination (and/or mitigation to an acceptable or tolerable level) of hazards, as well as the subsequent risks, that threaten the viability of an organization.

Well, that’s just great! But what on earth does it mean to individuals or small operators? It wasn’t so long ago the term RM would draw a blank stare and a quizzical look. In today’s environment of expensive equipment and soaring input costs, RM has become essential to aerial application operations.

My first formal look at RM was with the Systematic Risk Management program developed by the Canadian Air Force, which is based upon a statistical analysis of a particular situation. For example, if a flight were at night in a new airport with poor visibility and an inexperienced crew at the controls, each element would be assessed a specific numerical value. The trip would be canceled if the combined total was high enough – suggesting it would be beyond safe operating limits. It was just a matter of crunching the numbers.

Many ag operators already have an informal RM program underway, simply by using common sense and experience to avoid situations that might make for a bad day at the office. I would guess that no operator with a large turbine aircraft would allow it to be flown by someone who had just completed an ag aviation course and had no prior ag experience.

The same goes for the many decisions that are part and parcel of daily operations. Are the winds too high for effective applications? Are atmospheric conditions conducive to inversions with the risk of off-target drift? Can I reduce the gallons/acre applied so that more crops can be covered in a given time in the event of a massive insect outbreak? In many cases, it is a judgment call. Still, factors such as a shortage of pesticides, uncooperative weather, or a lineup of anxious farmers at the airstrip gate tend to lead that judgment call down questionable avenues.

Education is a critical part of any RM program. The more we know about all phases of ag applications, the safer and more effective those applications will be. If you haven’t already done so, visit the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA) and the National Agricultural Aviation Research & Education Foundation (NAAREF) websites. You’ll find several excellent programs designed to help operators, large and small, deal effectively with the risks associated with ag work. The FAA’s Risk Management Handbook 2022 is an excellent source of guidance on the topic, covering theory, procedures, and techniques.

At the root of effective RM is the development of sound decision-making skills. Each trip should be based on two questions: will it be safe, and will it be effective? If the answer to both is not an immediate “Yes!” the trip should be postponed until conditions improve. When you’re right, no one remembers. When you’re wrong, no one forgets.

I will leave you with one episode early in my aviation career that didn’t show much savvy regarding risk management and sound decision-making. I was flying a 450 HP AgCat, treating a field of peas with a single powerline at one end. I had calculated the job would take five full loads, and everything was fine and dandy for the first two loads.

It was then the gremlins were out to get me. Drops of oil started to appear on my windscreen due to a failing prop seal, but luckily (or, more correctly, unluckily), in the AgCat, you could open the left window and reach around to wipe the windscreen clear. I should have stopped there, but I just wanted to finish the order, which had been on the books for over a week.

Well, you guessed it, on one of the runs, I completely forgot about the powerline amidst my growing concern over the oil leak and the resultant decreasing forward visibility. At the end of a swath, I pulled up and hit the wire dead center on the prop. Fortunately, the line broke, but not before shearing off the air-driven spray pump. Powerline: 1. Pilot: 0.

Can such accidents in ag aviation be eliminated entirely? You bet! Ensure all ag aircraft stay parked in their hangars for the entire season. But with the extraordinary work being done to make the industry a ‘safety first’ culture, we can chisel away at what can be horrible statistics. Add to that innovative RM programs and new technologies that reduce a pilot’s workload decisions, e.g., flow control, GPS navigation, radar, GPS, and we can certainly give it the old college try in giving it our best collective efforts 24/7.

Safety first, all else a very distant second, and maybe one day, when we’re crunching numbers, the accident total will be zero.





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