Aerial application industry flying high!

By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer


Over the past six years there has been a definite upswing in the aerial application industry. There are many reasons for this: Generally good crop prices, larger farm sizes and increasing efficiency in aerial crop-spraying technology; all have some role to play in that calculation. However, according to Shaun Kinniburgh, president of the Canadian Aerial Applicators Association and owner of Kinniburgh Spray Service based in Taber, the use of crop-spraying comes down to one ultimate equation.

“It’s all about return on investment for the farmer,” states Kinniburgh. “They are looking at their ground traffic and asking themselves if the loss is going to be greater than the cost of airplane. So then they will look at the airplane. Another reason is if it’s too wet; so conditions. And then the last factor is efficiency, when they need it done now. And that’s something the airplane can definitely do: It’s fast and can cover a lot of ground during the day.”

Kinniburgh says most of the business in his industry comes from fungicide and insecticide application.

“We spray them all, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, but the majority of our work is in insecticide and fungicide,” confirms Kinniburgh. “Herbicide work is generally done a lot more by the farmers themselves at the early stages of crop growth. As the crop advances, for farmers to try to spray the fungicides or insecticides themselves is generally going to result in more loss due to ground trample. With an airplane, we leave no tracks. And also with the fungicides, another factor is sometimes the farmer might only have a three day window to get that on; you got these so many thousands of acres to do, and you want to get it done quick.”

Kinniburgh is a third generation crop duster. His grandfather started the family business in 1952.

“I grew up on a farm full of airplanes. And I thought every farm had airplanes on them growing up,” he says with a chuckle. “I just have a love for agriculture and aviation. There is a sense of freedom being up there, and this type of flying is the last part of (commercial) aviation that’s left where you are actually flying the airplane. To do what we do you definitely have to know how to fly. I kind of believe we are the kind of pilots other pilots want to be.”

However, what excites Kinniburgh the most is the positive changes he has seen in the industry over his lifetime.

“We (my family) started off on aircraft that were not made for spraying, but were converted. What we are flying now, the Air Tractor 802, was made for this. The technology was all homemade back then. Now it’s being made by people who are experts in this stuff for the spraying industry. And the other advancements in innovation that have come around, GPS, analytical data, etc., it’s just night and day difference to what it was 20 years ago. Everything is now more efficient and has brought up productivity huge over the last 20 years… It keeps me excited about the business even after all these years.”

Kinniburgh says safety and pilot training have also advanced to the point where, matched with the great new technology, it’s no longer about flying by the seat of your pants. In fact, the biggest challenges facing aerial applicators are coming from forces beyond their control.

“Our biggest challenge right now is finding younger pilots interested in doing this for a living,” states Kinniburgh. “Another thing is things are starting to pop up in the air on us from the ground. We are starting to see a lot more towers, windmills, and that sort of thing. With the higher powerlines, there are certain fields we cannot even apply on anymore because of that. And the next thing we are really going to see that’s going to affect us, because they are going to be a safety concern, are the drones. They are everywhere, and the problem is when you are flying you just can’t see them.”

Kinniburgh recalls one recent incident which nearly brought his father’s plane into extreme danger.

“We had one farmer coming to the airport to apologize to my father for flying a drone near him, which my dad almost hit. Dad didn’t even know it was there. Our skies are definitely becoming a little more crowded every year.”

However, despite these challenges, Kinniburgh believes there has never been a better time to be an aerial applicator; this is especially true for those who have a love of both farming and flying.

“If there is any young guy or girl who has an interest in flying, and especially if you have an interest in agriculture, and you want to actually fly airplanes, and not just push buttons and drink coffee— then this is where you want to be. This is the last frontier of aviation where you actually get to fly and feel the airplane.”