Hot and rainy weather provides ideal conditions for fungi to thrive, therefore, helicopter pilots, like Frank Pagel, are working overtime to spray fungicides to prevent crop damage.
“We’ll sit in these things 12, 14 hours a day, and it’s exhausting,” said Pagel, co-owner of Helicopter Services of Illinois in Fisher. “It’s fun flying them … but after the first hour of the season, I’m over it. It’s a job.”
HSI, founded in 2011, has three helicopters carried on a semi-trailer truck, which is followed by a pickup truck with a gooseneck trailer.
“We take off from the top of our semis,” Pagel said. The trucks “can’t keep up with us, so there’s two vehicles per helicopter.”
The three pilots cover approximately 7,000 acres a day, spraying farms from Mattoon to Melvin to Terre Haute, Ind. Fungicides aren’t always applied since it depends on how widespread the fungi are and how resistant crops are to them.
“Some guys are spraying, some are not,” said Lin Warfel, who farms near Tolono. “It does increase yields pretty consistently, but it doesn’t always increase them enough to pay for it.”
“I’m not spraying any right now. I was checking fields this morning and decided since it’s cooler and the humidity was lower, I’m not going to spray,” he added. “That’s partly because the varieties of corn that I have are fairly resistant.”
Growers often work with companies like HSI and FairLifts, which schedules aerial applications of farmland.
“Farmers do reach out directly to us,” Pagel said. “We also go through some co-ops.”
Nearly 87 percent of the aircraft used for crop dusting are planes, according to the National Agricultural Aviation Association, though helicopters, given their ability to access remote, rugged or narrow terrains, are growing increasingly common.
“Planes do as good a job as us overall in most of the fields, but when it comes to these tight, little fields, we can get in the corners,” Pagel said.
“They can fill the chemical right on site and be right there to manage it and watch everything,” he added. “A lot of our customers even provide the product. They bring it to us, so they know what’s in their mix, how it was mixed, and we just applicate it for them.”
Aerial application pilots undergo rigorous training given that their jobs require a bit more than just flying.
“They’re tricky machines. It takes a lot to be a pilot,” Pagel said. “The helicopter has to be almost second nature because now you’re adding farming to the mix. It’s a little more difficult than just flying a helicopter. You’re putting yourself in a very dangerous environment inside the wires, the trees, the buildings.”
Pilots often practice intensely before the start of the season with water rather than fungicide.
“I’ve been doing it for eight years, and I’ll warm up myself with water, just to minimize risk,” he said.
Pilots also survey farmland in search of power lines and other obstacles to avoid these during aerial applications.