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Agricultural pilots work to recruit new generation

Issue Date: July 24, 2019
By Kevin Hecteman
Rick Richter, left, has been flying since 1979 and running his own business since 1983. He’s preparing to hand off the business to his son, Nick, who has 10 years’ experience at the stick.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

For 40 years, Rick Richter has been patrolling the skies over California at low altitude, laying down seed and crop-protection material to help his customers, many of them rice farmers. As he nears retirement, he's fortunate to have a successor available to take over his business—his son, Nick.

Rick Richter set up his own business in Colusa County in 1983, just himself and one plane. From there, he's grown to seven planes, 150 customers, 40,000 acres of rice and five pilots. Only he and Nick are full time.

"Now I'm kind of stepping back, and he's taking more control over what happens out here on a daily basis," said Richter, 67.

Securing the future is an age-old problem. The National Agricultural Aviation Association's recently released Aerial Application Industry Survey puts the average age of agricultural pilots at 47.4 years and operators at 55 years.

NAAA did note that the percentage of operators younger than 40 has reached 15%, vs. 11% seven years ago. The largest percentage of pilots, 25%, is in the 30-39 age category.

Terry Gage, president of the California Agricultural Aircraft Association, said she believes the California age averages are likely higher than the NAAA numbers.

"Many of our operators here in California have been here for decades," Gage said. "These are longstanding businesses. As you know, anybody that tries to work in California knows that California is a very difficult place to start a business."

Richter said he's seen a lot of younger pilots joining the ranks in the past five years. Operators looking for the next generation of pilots don't have to go too far, he added.

"Most of them are local," Richter said. "They're just local farm kids that have been raised on a farm, and they've got some knowledge of farming and a passion for flying. They put it all together, and it really works out to be a pretty good career path for them."

Those getting started will have to work their way from the ground up, running the loading trucks used to resupply aircraft with seed, fertilizer or crop-protection materials between passes over the fields.

"You have to pay your dues—be willing to work a year or two on the ground and then work your way into the airplane," Richter said. "If you can show an owner/operator that you're willing to do that, and sacrifice some time, maybe they'll let you get into an airplane eventually."

That's how he and his son did it—Rick said he started loading in 1976, three years before he started flying.

In Nick's case, it started even sooner.

"I started on the ground in high school," Nick Richter said, something that continued through college. "I probably worked on the ground eight or 10 years before I started flying."

He now has 10 years of seat time under his belt, and said he wants to continue in the business even as he acknowledged he won't get rich doing it.

"It's more of the love of flying and agriculture that keeps the pilots in this career," the younger Richter said.

It also helps if you're an early bird.

"During the busy season, we get out here at roughly a half-hour or so before the sun comes up," he said. "We figure out what the day's going to entail, what jobs each pilot is going to do. We'll go as long as we can see the ground."

Late spring and early summer constitute rice-planting season; aerial-application work will take up most of the rest of the summer. Offseasons are for maintenance work and spending time with family, the Richters said.

Taking over Richter Aviation will be "a big step," Nick said, and he has ideas for expanding and updating the business. The Richters recently acquired a newer plane with a larger capacity, and Nick wants to keep growing.

"A bigger plane is in the future," he said. "That just allows me, the owner, to do more, because I know I'm going to do it the right way. Nobody takes care of something like the person that owns it."

Agricultural pilots need a commercial pilot's license. Operators of aerial-application businesses need to be certified under Federal Aviation Regulations Part 137 and in California, pilots need an applicator's license from the state Department of Pesticide Regulation.

Rick Richter said those who want to fly but didn't get the chance to grow up in a family business should start by calling an operator such as himself and asking what they need to do.

"I never go out and try to seek anybody," he said. "They always come to see me. You just take the resume, and if they keep coming back, if they're persistent, why, you know, sometimes I'll give them a job and see what they've got to offer."

That kind of networking is how most people in California get started, Gage said. There are agricultural-aviation schools in the U.S., mostly in the South, that mainly teach flight skills, she added.

"If you were to walk in right now, if you had your commercial pilot's license, it would be more of an interview on your personality set to see if it was something that would work, and then if there was an operator willing to bring you on," Gage said. "But that's the hard part, right? Because if you start, you're going to start as a mixer-loader. It's very expensive to live in California. And some of these guys, young guys, have families they need to support. So it's a tough industry to break into."

The main thing aspiring pilots need may be something they don't teach in flight school.

"Basically, you just have to have a passion for flying and agriculture, and you'll go a long ways in this business," Rick Richter said. "But the passion is what's needed."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

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




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