In late November, I had the privilege of attending my first aviation event focused on agricultural aviation and aerial application, known to fans of the movie “Planes” and most of the public as cropdusting. While I’ve been around aviation and airports nearly all of my adult life, my exposure to agricultural aviation has been limited, and as I learned, my knowledge naïve. And even though my wife grew up in northwest Kansas in a family that farmed and with a dad who owned a spray service, I never had the opportunity to meet him, or learn much about this small aviation niche during my days on the airport side of our industry.
So with that background, I attended a day of the Colorado Aerial Applicators Association’s (CAAA) annual conference in Loveland, where about 150 ag pilots, vendors and their families had convened to talk all things ag. And what did I learn? That ag pilots are some of the most welcoming, passionate, entertaining and knowledgable pilots I’ve met. During the course of my day, I spent time learning about the myriad of challenges faced by ag pilots- stringent rules on materials handling, complex EPA stormwater requirements at airports, continuing agricultural and aviation education demands, and of course, the constant threat posed by structures and obstructions like Meteorlogical Evaluation Towers (METs).
If you’re not familiar with METs, these are small towers used to evaluate wind power generation feasibility at a particular location. METs are small, difficult to see, and often erected quickly with no notice, posing a significant hazard to low level aviation activities such as aerial application, firefighting and emergency medical service (EMS) operations. Because most METs are less than 200’ tall and typically located in rural areas away from airports, they are not usually subject to obstruction review or approval by the Federal Aviation Administration under FAR Part 77. In the Northwest Mountain region, legislation addressing the marking, lighting and reporting of such towers has recently been passed in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Such marking, lighting and reporting of METs significantly improves aviation safety.
Recognizing this, the National Transportation Safety Board weighed in last May, when it released a Safety Recommendation about the towers and how ideally they should be lit, marked and reported. For those not familiar with METs, the Nebraska Aviation Trades Association has comprehensive MET information, along with an excellent five minute video.
Across the country, my fellow AOPA regional managers and I are working with aerial applicators and others to mitigate the impact of (METs) on aviation. In Colorado, through the initaitive of AOPA and the recently established Colorado General Aviation Alliance, discussions about legislation to require the marking and lighting of METs in the state began earlier this year. At the CAAA convention in November, I had the opportunity to participate in a legislative forum led by State Represenative Jerry Sonnenberg, an AOPA member and active GA supporter from Sterling, who has agreed to sponsor a bill in the 2014 Colorado General Session addressing the hazards posed by METs.
I thoroughly enjoyed my day with Colorado’s aerial applicators and learning more about this unique segment of general aviation. I’m looking forward to collaborating with them and others to improve aviation safety in Colorado, and across the Northwest Mountain Region. In fact, myself and AOPA are also already hard at work with our partners in Washington state on similar MET legislation in 2014, so stay tuned.
Oh, and the best part about hanging out with ag pilots? Hands down, I think they have the best flying stories of any pilots I’ve encountered. When was the last time you met a pilot who survived a mallard strike through the windscreen and into his chest at 140 knots while in a climbing turn at 50′ AGL?