HANSEN — After spreading dry fertilizer on potato fields near Murtaugh Lake, Keith Johnson flew his Thrush aircraft west over the Hansen Butte, then disappeared as he circled back to the extinct shield volcano.
Minutes later Johnson’s airplane touched down on an old landing field, then climbed over bumpy terrain to the top of the butte where fellow pilot Marty Brill waited with his plane.
Workers poured dry fertilizer from a truck into the hopper of Brill’s aircraft as Johnson taxied his plane to the remote makeshift filling station surrounded by communication towers.
The two pilots, employed by Crop Jet Aviation, put their heads together to discuss their next flights. After consulting an aerial photo of the area, Johnson would continue to fertilize potatoes near the lake and Brill would move on to fields west of the butte.
Both are experienced pilots. They used to be crop dusters; now they’re called ag aviators.
Gone are the days of the ancient biplanes that swept the tops of crops, gushing fertilizer and pesticides from their wings. Technology has transformed the agricultural aviation industry, Crop Jet owner George Parker told the Times-News.
“The industry has changed even in my time,” Parker said, referring to the technological advances made to equipment. “Turbine engines. GPS systems. Flow control systems to put out an even and specific rate.”
With these advances, the role of the ag aviator has also changed.
Pilots are no longer limited to spraying “wet” applications such as liquid fertilizer and herbicides. By swapping out spray nozzles with a dry disbursement system, the pilots can now spread materials such as dry chemicals, rodenticides and seeds.
A good portion of Crop Jet’s work for reseeding of wildfire rehabilitation projects with the National Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, Parker said.
“Aerial application is used for jobs nothing else can do — where they can’t get the ground rigs on the job site,” he said. “Spreading (crop) diseases is also a problem for ground rigs.”
Parker, a second-generation ag pilot, owns four Thrush aircraft and one helicopter.
“These days I mostly push a pencil,” he said, “but I still fly planes and helicopters.”