Aerial sprayer no ‘cowboy pilot’

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Farm Forum

Has anyone watched a tiny plane swoop toward the ground, popping back up at just the last moment? Even more startling is that the plane navigates the same white-knuckle maneuver again and again.

‘Tis the season for the aerial spraying, or crop dusting, of agricultural lands.

The American News caught up with one local sprayer who is in the process of expanding his own company. Ryan Gengerke’s Hard Deck Aviation outfit operates out of the remote landing strip on the east side of the Aberdeen Regional Airport grounds.

Gengerke, who splits his time between Groton and Houston based on spray season, answered the following questions by email earlier this month:

Question: What got you into aerial spraying?

Answer: I have been working aircraft maintenance in Texas for 17 years, but I always had a desire to crop dust. In 2012, with the help of Stoddard Flying in Garrison, N.D., they got me into my first airplane. With my farming and aviation background, aerial application was a perfect fit for me.

Q: What hours do you keep?

A: We spray seven days a week if we have to. We are always fighting rain days or days that are just too windy. Some of the fungicide applications have to be sprayed in a certain window; if we miss that window, the farmer will typically cancel the application.

Q: This is a notably dangerous job. How does that weigh on your mind? Your family’s minds?

A: I’ve been through some accidents, one accident last year that destroyed my aircraft due to an engine failure. It does weigh on my mind some, but every day before starting the airplane, I pray to God and I ask him for protection. My wife, Suzette, and daughter, Riley, are very supportive. They take a lot of the load off of me. I’m sure the danger weighs on their minds, too, but they always support me.

Q: What precautions do you take?

A: Stay away from power lines and trees as much as possible. Give yourself some extra room before you have to dodge those obstructions. Invest in your aircraft and maintain it at all times. Pray a lot.

Q: What makes for good spraying conditions?

A: Typically, a clear day and winds need to be below 15 mph. Sometimes not having enough wind is bad for spraying, too.

Q: What is your season, and where do you spray?

A: Typically, our season starts in April and ends around October. I spray in South Dakota and North Dakota. If an applicator in another state needs help, we can go just about anywhere, but we need to be licensed in that state.

Q: What type of education and training did you need?

A: You need to be a commercial pilot and hold a Class 2 medical. To perform aerial applications, you need to hold an FAA Part 137 Operating Certificate and a State Pesticide Application license.

Q: What do you spray?

A: We spray herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and also spread dry fertilizer.

Q: What type of plane do you fly?

A: I fly an Air Tractor 402B. It has a Pratt and Whitney turboprop engine. The plane is based at the Aberdeen airport.

Q: What type of insurance are you required to carry?

A: Hard Deck Aviation is fully insured. We carry aircraft hull insurance, drift insurance and aircraft premises liability insurance. Drift and hull insurance is not required, but to do this job without insurance would be crazy.

Q: Anything else you would like to add?

A: Yes, in every community, there are usually a few people that think crop dusting pilots are irresponsible “cowboy pilots.” This is the furthest from the truth. We are all professionals and take every precaution to make each application the safest for the pilot in the air and anyone on the ground. Sometimes, the safest way to spray a field you have to fly over someone’s house. It’s all about safety.

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The Ryan Gengerke File

Name: Ryan Gengerke

Family: Wife, Suzette; daughters Riley, 11, and Blakely Elizabeth, 3 months; parents: Norman and Ellen Gengerke of Groton.

Residence: Groton and Houston