The Importance of Ag Pilots to the Mississippi Delta

By Angela Rogalski

All across the Mississippi Delta, and the entire country, for that matter, Ag pilots gear up for their day very early and get into the mindset they need to do their job. It’s an important service they provide, treating and protecting the crops we all need for food and the many other things that the plants’ byproducts produce.

Glenn Holloway III owns G3 Flying in Lambert, Miss. and is a second generation Ag pilot who realizes both the importance and the dangers involved in doing what he loves. His father, Glenn Holloway, Jr., owns Holloway Air in Drew, so he grew up in the aerial application world and is very familiar with every facet of the business.

“My dad started flying lessons in his mid-twenties and worked his way into the business from there,” Holloway says. “And I always liked the agricultural aspect of what my dad did, and the importance of it when it comes to the consumer and the farmer. The flying is just a part of it. And living in the Delta, it’s a good way to make a living. Of course, with the legacy part of the business, aerial application is something that a parent thinks twice about before actually encouraging their child to get into. It’s not as dangerous as it used to be, but there is still an inherent risk in what we do. The flying so low and the fact that anytime you’re in an aircraft of any kind, altitude is your best friend. The higher you are off the ground, the more time you have should an emergency situation arise. And when we’re actually applying the pesticides, we’re about 10 feet from the ground, so that in itself gives you pause. But, being around it all of my life really helped me get into it, and there was a lot I didn’t have to learn when I started, so I do enjoy it.”

Holloway explains how his part of the business works. “Farmers call us and tell us what pesticides they need on which crops. Some acreage, depending on what’s planted, such as rice, will need more than one application, so you make more trips between the actual spraying and fertilizing. Corn can usually give you a couple of trips, and soybeans would be your least sprayed fields. With them, it’s about two or three trips across every acre.”

Holloway adds that while his business and his father’s are separate entities, they do help each other out if needed.

“My dad and I work together quite a bit, so we’re there for each other when we need to b. And that’s an awesome part of it.”

The Mississippi Agricultural Aviation Association has been around since 1954, when it was first founded. Vicki Morgan is executive director of the organization and says that its purpose is to promote the Ag Aviation industry.

“We promote professionalism, high standards and hyper-ethics. We try and get the Ag pilots in Mississippi to be on the same page, so to speak, with each other. And also to band together as a group in order to help affect legislation and laws that have to do with agricultural aviation. We have about 275 active members today, and those numbers are divided into different categories. There are operator members, individuals who actually own their flying service and they can also be pilots. Right now we have about 75 members who are operators. The remaining numbers are defined as associate members, those who are in the industry, but aren’t necessarily pilots, and then we have allied members, who are our vendors, people who provide services and products to the ag aviation industry.”

Morgan adds the benefits of belonging to the MAAA are many, such as the annual convention they host every year.

“And at the convention pilots can receive their recertification credits or their continuing education units; we call it recertification, and they have to do so many hours of that each year for their license, so this enables them to come to the convention and over a two-day period they can get all of their recertification credits. In addition to that, we conduct a safety meeting each year, where we address safety issues. We also update pilots on laws pertaining to agricultural aviation at convention, so we try to be a significant and useful tool for Ag pilots. We also have our website for more information and about how to join.” msaa.com

Before coming onboard with the MAAA six years ago, Morgan says she had no idea of the real importance of Ag pilots to farmers, consumers, and the population in general.

“I have lived in the Delta for 30 years, so of course, I have seen the Ag planes flying many times. And I always found myself thinking how exciting their job must be, but what I didn’t realize was what these pilots really do for all of us. What they do allows farmers to produce far more crops of better quality, in a cost effective manner. It really does contribute to not only what we eat, but the clothes we wear; crop byproducts are just used in so many different ways. And I never realized what it took for them to actually do their jobs. I rode with an ag pilot two years ago and we went 170 miles per hour, 10 feet off the ground. It was something I will never forget. So, their job isn’t an easy one, but it’s vitally important and one that the pilots have a deep passion for.”

Robert Garrett is manager of Flying Tiger Aviation in Bastrop, Louisiana. The company specializes in training aerial applicators. Garret says that in order to be a commercially-rated pilot, whether in Ag aviation or general aviation, you have to receive the same licensing in order to do it. Plus, in the case of Ag pilots, each state has their own license testing entity for working with pesticides and chemicals and in order to disperse economic chemicals from an aircraft, they have to be licensed, which usually consists of a written test.

“You start at zero and work your way up to it,” Garrett adds. “Ours is a six month program, which has proven success. We’ve had pilots leave here and go immediately to work. Of course, that depends on their own knowledge and ability. And some that come to us already have an agricultural background, so they have some knowledge of chemicals and crops, but they want to put the aviation aspect into it and that’s what we teach.”

Garrett adds that many of their students are from the Mississippi Delta region, but in truth, their program attracts a worldwide clientele.

“We get students who come here from all over the United States and we get a lot of international individuals who come to us for training as well. This is our 19th year in operation and we have recently taken on some major growth changes. We are now associated with Louisiana Delta Community College; we’re a vocational training program through them. Students who come through here have the opportunity to receive 100 percent financial assistance in order to attend and complete our training program, which is significant. There is no other program like this in the world.”

He adds that it’s his personal goal to change the perception many people have about Ag pilots, such as the one in the movie “Independence Day,” where the Ag pilot flies everyway but correctly.

“It’s one of my personal goals to change the public perception of what this job is. It’s not uncommon to see an Ag plane flying in the Mississippi Delta because of the rich farmland we have there. But in other parts of the country, it’s not so common. I’ve been going up to Iowa for the last seven or eight years to help operators up there, and there’s only about two weeks out of the year that you’ll see aerial applicators doing any work there. So, the general public is a bit fearful of them. It’s been a goal of mine to try and educate the public about what we do. We’re not daredevils; we’re trained professionals.”

Pete Jones owns Air Repair, Inc. in Cleveland and in partnership with Kawak Aviation Technologies, has been developing and manufacturing a precision hydraulic application system for dry products such as fertilizers for the last ten years. Jones says that the technology his company and partners are using is singular to Air Repair.

“The system Ag pilots used to disperse fertilizers and other dry products was forever controlled by a hand-operated lever,” Jones says. “What we’ve done is replace that method of opening and closing that gate with a hydraulic cylinder and a hydraulic system, and interfaced it to a GPS system. With this process, you never have to touch the system.”

The Air Repair, Inc. system starts with a robust power pack that is capable of the demands of prescription and constant rate gate movement. The power pack utilizes a pressure switch and accumulator to give instant open and close signals to a gate cylinder with an internal feedback probe or “Smart Cylinder.” Jones says this type of feedback, coupled with the instant hydraulic pressure running through a proportional control valve will allow for constant on the fly gate adjustments. The systems are largely sold in the Delta, but Jones adds that interest is starting to branch out.

“The users of this system, by and large, have been in the Mississippi Delta. However, we have begun to break out of this area and it’s gaining some traction in other parts of the country, the Midwest, California, and all up and down the Mississippi Valley: Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri and other parts of Mississippi. Recently, we sent some systems to South Africa, where they are applying fertilizer to tea crops, and to Australia, which is a big agricultural country too.”

The Missing Man Formation is performed to honor and give an aerial “salute” in memory of a fallen pilot and was used quite often during World War II when a pilot and his plane did not return from battle. Brad Ouzts, along with a group of local Mississippi Delta pilots from Shelby, Clarksdale, Benoit, Shaw and Cleveland, began getting together to do this as a way to honor the deceased. Ouzts is owner/operator of Cleveland Air Service and has been an Ag pilot for 28 years, and says to be a part of this honorable and special tribute to his fellow pilots is something he is very proud of.

“As an Ag pilot myself, this is something that I feel is very important and when we have colleagues or friends who were aerial applicators pass away, this is a way to honor them and their families,” Ouzts says. “I got started when I was asked to participate in one of the services and ever since then, I’ve tried to be available to do it. Sometimes I’m the lead aircraft and sometimes I’m on the side or in the back, it doesn’t matter to me, I’m just honored to be a part of the group. And it is a group effort, we’re all proud to do it. I’m not the head organizer, but I have been involved in the group for a few years, so it’s a very special thing for me and for all of us.”

Ouzts says it’s an emotional time for everyone involved, for him and his fellow pilots, and the deceased pilot’s family and friends.

“It’s a very moving part of the service, because once the family walks out from the tent or covering over the coffin at the cemetery, that’s when we try and time the flyover. No one has a dry eye after that. It’s beautiful and touching and very sincerely done. We generally do it with five aircraft and the person who is in the middle of the formation does the actual exit and we all have our smokers on, except the one in the center. And we smoke before we get to the cemetery, and as soon as we get to the burial site, we cut off and the middle plane pulls up and cuts his smoker on, heading straight up to heaven. It’s very emotional.”