An Ag Plane For The Next Generation
As spraying seasons blend from one year to the next, veteran aerial applicators are asking a question that becomes more pressing each year.
Who’s going to take over my operation when I’m ready to retire? With an average of over 25 years of ag flying among them, it’s no secret that a fresh generation of ag pilots is needed. And the hurdles operators and new pilots must overcome are well known, too. Piston aircraft pilots and aerial application owners are looking for a practical and a affordable path into turbine engine aircraft.
Aerial application owners are looking for a practical and an affordable path into turbine engine aircraft.
The Air Tractor AT-504 offers one way to bridge the piston-to-turbine gap, providing the vehicle to begin bringing new pilots into the business in a way where they can learn while they earn their keep.
The AT-504 As A Trainer
Fran de Kock, owner of Battlefords Airspray in Saskatchewan Canada, comes at the new pilot challenge as a flight instructor and aerial applicator. Battlefords Airspray has two AT-504 aircraft. With these two aircraft, Fran has begun a new turbine transition training program. It’s reality training at its very best. The AT-504 aircraft are outfitted as fully operational spray planes. When the 504s aren’t being used for training, they’re part of Fran’s working fleet.
The 504 works at the same speeds, hauling the same loads as the AT-502.
The communication advantage [of side-by-side seating] is the big thing, Fran points out. You can feel the student’s reaction and see their face. When they’re in a situation that’s becoming dangerous, you can be ready to react at the right moment if it’s necessary. It’s also nice to be able to help the student reprogram the GPS, or whatever. You’re right beside him. Engine management… you can put your finger on the gauge and say Hey, watch the torque. Notice what the NG is. You can physically tap the gauge and draw their attention to it.
Side-by-side seating brings the instructor elbow to elbow with the student.
After flying the 504 about 30 hours, I’m as comfortable in it as I am in the AT-502B. I flew all season with 502s, and as advertised, the 504 is an AT-502 with two seats.
Earnin’ While He’s Learnin’
Arizona ag operator Bill Dare is bringing his grandson Jake into his business as a brand new ag pilot, and he believes he’s stacking the odds in his favor with the AT-504. By Bill’s calculations, it makes more sense to start his grandson Jake in the 504 and skip the piston ag plane training phase altogether. “Having trained other pilots, when they first take off you gotta cross your fingers and hope they make it,” Bill says. “But with the 504, you can have an instructor in there until you’re ready to release the new guy. When you put a pencil to everything, add in the safety factor, in my book it’s better to go ahead and buy the 504 than to put Jake into an older piston airplane and worry about the chance of an accident because it’s an old airplane.”
“As far as carrying the load and getting out and doing the work, it does an excellent job. It’s probably the most productive training aircraft I’ve ever seen. And safety-wise, it’s so much better than a tandem seat airplane.”
Randy Hansen is Dare’s primary pilot. When Jake got his commercial license, he and Randy hopped into the AT-504 for turbine engine flight training. “It’s a wonderful flying airplane,” says Hansen. “It reminds me a lot of the 502; there’s very little difference. It’s light on the controls, and even with two side-by-side seats, everything is within easy reach.Â As an instructor, I can see everything that’s going on.”
Man With A Plan
About 5,700 miles south of Bill Dare’s Mohave Valley operation, in Nova Ponte Brazil, Manoel Francisco Fenner de Souza has put his company, Fenner Aviao Agricola Ltda., on a path to an all-turbine aircraft fleet. Two key elements of his plan are his recently delivered AT-504, and a turbine transition training program developed in partnership with Air Tractor dealers DP Aviao and Frost Flying Inc.
“The AT-504 is the hub of our turbine transition training program and a big part of our plans for growth. It is an ideal platform for training pilots in a safe manner.”
Working with an Ipanema 201-A, Brave 300, Cessna AGwagon, and AT-502B, Fenner’s four pilots typically cover about 5,000 hectares (12,300 acres) per week during peak season. Buying the AT-504 boosts his spraying capacity about 30 percent.