In Arkansas: Aviation calibration workshop set

Agricultural aviation pilots can calibrate their equipment and update their knowledge at a series of three, four-day workshops, or fly-ins, in April at West Helena, McGehee and Walnut Ridge, Ark.

The fly-ins will be April 3-7 at Riddell Flying Service at the West Helena, Ark., airport; April 10-14 at the McGehee, Ark., airport; and April 17-21 at the Walnut Ridge, Ark., airport.

The fly-ins will be hosted by the University of Arkansas and the Arkansas Agricultural Aviation Association, according to Dennis Gardisser, professor and associate engineering department head for the UA Cooperative Extension Service.

“Every year, we conduct fly-ins to assist aerial applicators with their accuracy in applying fertilizer, seed and chemical control compounds,” Gardisser said.

Gardisser said ag airplanes are important to Arkansas agriculture. “About 60 percent of rice production costs are for pest control or nutrient management. Most of that is done by airplane,” he said. “They're an excellent tool. Arkansas leads the nation in number of ag airplanes with 416 in the state.”

Ag airplanes are also expensive tools. The typical cost of a specialized ag plane is about $600,000. Some are more than $1 million, according to Gardisser.

Because they spend so much money for their planes and the business is highly competitive, operators are concerned about doing the best possible job in accurately applying chemicals for farmers. They depend on the university to provide them with the training, Gardisser said.

Why is accuracy so important? “We've seen reductions as high as 25 percent in rice yields because of poor distribution of fertilizer,” Gardisser said. This can result in a loss of weed control and cause weeds to develop a resistance to that chemical if they don't get a full dose.

Accuracy is also important because of drift potential. This can occur when herbicide applications drift over to an adjoining crop. One crop may be tolerant to a herbicide being applied, and the adjoining crop could be decimated by small dosages from drift.

Gardisser said pilots pump 500- to 800-gallon loads of chemicals from nozzle boom systems while flying low over crops at 140 miles an hour.

Nozzles must be calibrated accurately for this challenging situation.

“The control of the droplet size is the best thing we have to combat drift,” Gardisser said. “In the workshops, we show applicators how to configure aircrafts so they develop precise droplet sizes.” Droplets that are too fine can drift or evaporate, and droplets that are too large may reduce the coverage.

The engineer said Extension personnel also talk about chemical label changes, safety issues and the latest federal aviation association regulations pertaining to pilots.

Pilots fly during simulated field conditions and spray a harmless tracer mixed with water to determine effectiveness of the pattern. If it's a solid fertilizer or seed is being applied, it's caught in collectors.

“The fertilizer is one of the main issues this year. Since fertilizer has become so expensive, everyone is concerned about getting the most for their money,” Gardisser said. “This team effort by aerial applicators and Extension personnel will help keep Arkansas producers competitive and profitable,” he said.

Lamar James is an Extension communications specialist with the University of Arkansas.

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