Downsizing is having an impact on agriculture's aerial wing


Issue Date: March 19, 2008
Christine Souza

Ralph Holsclaw, president and owner of Growers Air Service in Woodland, oversaw the restoration of this 1962 Grumman G-164 Ag Cat. The aircraft, which he has since donated, will soon be on display at a branch of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

Driving through the California countryside on a still summer day, you might catch a quick glimpse of a sun-yellow plane dancing above the rice fields then disappearing behind a grouping of trees.

The highly specialized pilots who gracefully maneuver these agricultural aircraft provide an important service to California's $31.4 billion ag economy by efficiently applying seed and fertilizer and controlling pest infestations.

Each year, California's ag pilots log more than 100,000 hours in flight time while maintaining a high level of safety and compliance with regulations. In 1990, the number of licensed pilots was estimated at about 1,200. Today that figure has dropped to about 411, said Terry Gage, president of the California Agricultural Aircraft Association. She attributes part of this reduction to an aging pilot population and a lack of young pilots entering the industry.

"There are pilots interested in becoming ag pilots, but they don't have the background or the skill set," Gage said. "We need pilots with strong piloting skills, but they have to have the ability to develop the applicator skills necessary for our industry. This includes an understanding of agricultural cultural practices, crop identification, meteorological impacts, calibration of spray systems and nozzles and tank mix capabilities."

Over the years, advancements in agricultural aircraft technology and consolidation of many of the smaller agricultural flying service companies have resulted in fewer pilots being recruited.

"As we converted to larger aircraft that go faster and carry more, that created a challenge with the pilot because we had to transition to the turbine engine and that is where the additional skill set is required to handle the quicker aircraft. So through technology, we've created our own challenges," Gage said.

Ralph Holsclaw, president and owner of Growers Air Service in Woodland, said his company used to operate six airplanes with six pilots and flew in the neighborhood of 4,500 to 5,000 hours a year.

"Now, we're essentially doing the same amount of work with three-and-a-half airplanes and we're flying about 3,000 hours a year," Holsclaw said. "We now have higher productivity. We carry twice as much as what we used to carry and instead of going out to the field at 90 mph you go out at 135 mph. So we've just accomplished a lot more."

Agricultural flying service companies are challenged with locating pilots because of the expense of using more modern aircraft and the cost of insurance. It costs less to insure a pilot flying a $75,000 plane with a radial engine than a pilot flying a more modern plane $750,000 plane with a turbine engine, Gage said.

"The problem we have now is people have switched over to these larger, more expensive airplanes and you just can't put a beginning pilot in that type of airplane," Holsclaw said. "If you buy that airplane today, the cost is $750,000."

As today's pilots have become more efficient, there has been, over the years, a downsizing among agricultural flying companies.

"There's been a consolidation in the industry across the entire state," Holsclaw said. "There have been consolidations over the entire state where smaller companies are absorbed by larger companies."

Today's modern agricultural aircraft are highly specialized, sole-purpose machines that use the latest Global Positioning System software for precision applications. Agricultural pilots cover a variety of crops from field crops to grains and some tree crops, with rice being a large part of an applicator's business.

"The reason that the industry has survived throughout the years is because it fulfills a need in agriculture and we can quickly and efficiently make these applications for the growers when pest pressure is high or conditions are too wet," said Gage. "We can get in there quickly and efficiently. On average, a pilot can cover between 800 and 1,000 acres a day."

To commemorate the very first aircraft developed specifically for agricultural aviation, Holsclaw's craftsmen restored to original condition one of his planes that he used for training new pilots: the 1962 Grumman G-164 Ag Cat. Growers Air Service shop foreman Pete Dabaghian and aircraft mechanic Dave Clarke completed the restoration work.

The Ag Cat, Holsclaw said, will be hung by cables next to the Concorde in the business aviation area of the Boeing Aviation Hangar of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia, an extension of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. Originally the Ag Cat was to be displayed at the Heidrick Ag History Center in Woodland, but the local museum did not have enough room for the plane. Holsclaw, through the National Agricultural Aviation Association, donated the aircraft in recognition of all of the work that agricultural aviators have done to help grow the nation's crops.

"I bought the Ag Cat as a used airplane. We flew it about 6,000 hours for rice, corn, sugar beets, alfalfa and wheat, and then it was time to take it out of the air and rebuild it," Holsclaw said. "People don't realize the amount of work that we do with these airplanes. We flew that airplane approximately 6,000 hours. Since that airplane hauled an average of 5,000 pounds an hour of seed, fertilizer and sulfur dust, that's a total of 30 billion tons."

The $40,000 restoration of the Ag Cat began in early 2000 when the plane was dismantled, sandblasted and then painted in the original yellow-gray color scheme. In all, the plane logged nearly 13,000 flight hours.

"We're proud of the aircraft. I'm proud that I nagged Ralph into buying it in the first place back when it was an old beater airplane and he didn't want anything to do with it," Dabaghian said. "We grew to love the airplane. We fixed it up a bit and it was very reliable for us. This aircraft to us has some sentimental value. This airplane took very good care of the people who flew it."

When the Ag Cat arrived at Growers Air Service in the 1994, it was used to train young pilots such as Tim Legrady, now a full-time pilot with the company who has since logged about 8,000 flying hours.

"Knowing that it is an airplane that I flew being featured in the Smithsonian, words can't even describe the feelings I have," said Legrady, who earned about 2,000 flying hours in the vintage plane. "Ever since I was 4 years old, I knew I wanted to be a pilot. After I joined the Air Force, I was sent to Beale Air Force Base by Marysville and started watching those guys out there planting rice and it looked neat to me."

Legrady said he plans to take his family to see the Ag Cat after the restored plane becomes an official part of the museum in late fall.

(Christine Souza is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.