Cultivating Safe Ag Operations

By Earl F. Weener, PhD

ag operationsWe’re about a month away from summer, and the local farmers’ markets are springing up with all that fresh produce. Nothing like eating fresh strawberries delivered straight from the farm. Soon, I’ll be able to add local cucumbers, peppers, and onions to my salad. In order to bring produce to market, farms often rely on agricultural aviation (ag operations), the use of airplanes and helicopters for dispensing materials such as fertilizers, seeds, and crop protection products that directly affect agriculture and horticulture.

The dangers inherent in agricultural aviation are real. In recent years, ag operations have ranked sixth or seventh among general aviation (GA) sectors in terms of hours flown. However, in terms of total number of annual accidents, the ag operations sector has ranked third, and its 10-year average total accident rate is above the 10-year average total GA accident rate. So when ag operations is your job, you can use all the safety information you can get.

Yesterday, the NTSB released its Special Investigation Report on the Safety of Agricultural Aircraft Operations. For this report, we reviewed 78 accidents in agricultural aviation that happened in 2013, and identified a number of critical safety issues, including fatigue, risk management, inadequate aircraft maintenance, and pilot knowledge and skills tests.

During our investigation of this unique and challenging GA sector, we interviewed ag pilots who were in accidents, providing eye-opening insights in how accidents can occur. For example, one said that his accident could have been prevented “by not attempting to finish a small area to meet perceived customer demand.” Ag pilots and operators also acknowledged that during the peak ag operations season, they often work from sun up to sun down and that the length of their work days and work weeks can be weather-dependent. Factors such as fog, low clouds, wind, and rain can limit flying on one day, increasing the amount of work still left to complete when the weather is favorable. And when conducting those long operations, ag pilots may have to deal with dehydration, hunger, and other factors that can affect concentration, decision-making, and performance.

Meanwhile, ag pilots have to be mindful of the requirements specific to the product that they are applying, considering the height appropriate for the application, restrictions due to nearby sensitive areas, and requirements for buffer zones. When those operations occur at night, it can be particularly problematic. One accident we investigated involved a pilot who was flying at night in a rural area with few ground lights when he focused his attention on a map in an effort to locate the correct field to spray. While focusing on directions, the airplane descended unnoticed and crashed. The pilot stated that the map was of poor quality and he was having difficulty interpreting it.

Yesterday, the NTSB held a meeting with agricultural industry leaders to discuss our report findings. We want to engage all constituencies in spreading the word about our findings and our recommendations to make ag operations safer. In conjunction with this report, we have also issued a safety alert, Preventing Obstacle Collision Accidents in Agricultural Aviation, to address one of the most common types of agricultural aircraft accidents.

According to the National Agricultural Aviation Association, the agricultural aviation industry is made up of small businesses that use aircraft to aid farmers in producing safe, affordable and abundant supply of food, fiber and bio-fuel, in addition to protecting forestry and controlling health-threatening pests. That’s a good mission, one from which we all benefit. The NTSB wants to make sure that those pilots and operators carrying out that mission return safely to their families and friends when their day ends.

Honorable Earl F. WeenerEarl F. Weener, Ph.D., took the oath of office as a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board on June 30, 2010. Dr. Weener is a licensed pilot and flight instructor who has dedicated his entire career to the field of aviation safety.

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