I have fielded a number of questions as far as the dos & don't of watching an aerial applicator at work. It made me think through my own personal list of things that trigger both jubilation & frustration. After chatting with some more experienced colleagues, I've compiled what I believe is a handy list to ensure proper etiquette around cropdusters, both at work and at rest.
Let us start with THE GOOD:
Observing at an appropriate distance, from an appropriate location
Depending on your geographical location, aerial application can be an oddity or it can be part of daily life. It certainly is an intriguing thing to watch, often referred to by admirers as an aerial ballet or a sky waltz. To watch a spray plane climb and turn and dive into their lines at crop-level can be exciting, inspiring, and even frightening. For this reason, it attracts the attention of the uninitiated and ag-veterans alike. However, there are things you have to keep in mind before attending your own personal airshow.
Agricultural pilots get into the habit of picking out the obstacles in their assigned fields and determining how they will maneuver around them. Please insure you do not become one of these obstacles! If you are driving, please do not pull over on the road on the approach end of the pilot's passes. The ideal standing/parked position is on the side of the field parallel to the pilot's passes, on the upwind side. As we do trim the edges of the field, avoid being on the very edges of the working area to ensure we are able to cover our entire target.
We are conscientious of our spray, and you should be too. I mentioned that the upwind side is the most ideal as it would protect from any potential drift, and remaining in your vehicle with closed windows is also a good option. Though spray technology and the chemical technology is improving by leaps and bounds, we still want to minimize exposure to chemical as much as possible. If you crowd our fields, sometimes we will need to cease spraying until you vacate, which brings me to my next point.
If you spot a spray plane that is circling a field or ceased spraying since your arrival, ask yourself “Could I be the reason that this is happening?” Having recently been working in built-up areas and suburbs, I had a number of curious folks come out and sit on their decks to watch me spray their yards after a few initial passes, causing me to cease operation until they were ushered back inside.
Wave! We can see you!
I love when onlookers wave to me, and I promise you I see most who do. It brings me great joy for adults and children who wave at me, or wave their hats at me. If I am departing an area or have completed my work, I will often wave my wings back!
However, be aware of your body language, it can be misinterpreted. If you stand by your vehicle and wave one arm “hello”, then it it usually pretty easy to guess that you are just being a polite bystander. Based on a recent experience, however, if you run frantically towards me waving both arms, crossing over your head in an X while I spray your property, I will likely misunderstand your enthusiasm for a sign to cease spraying. After speaking to the customer in question, he was just excited and saying hi!
Some of the more modern agricultural aircraft have what we call a "smoker" installed (think of the Snowbird's colorful trails at airshows!). This is particularly handy addition allows the pilots to release a puff or a streak of smoke behind the aircraft to assess the wind direction and speed, to help determine the direction of spray and the compensation to make up for it. Sometimes, when planespotters are present, and especially when waved at, do not be alarmed to see dense puffs of white smoke come from the aircraft, that is simply the pilot saying puff, puff "hello!".
Respectfully asking questions
If you manage to come across us on the ground, and have questions to ask, most of us will be happy to answer. We love gushing about our airplanes, and most are quite passionate about their work. I love when folks swing by to inquire about what we do and how we do it. It gives me the excuse to talk about my job and show off my equipment! If we are currently operating though, please ask about when a better time might be to return. Our windows of opportunity are quite narrow, requiring daylight, nice weather, low winds, the right humidity... if we are ongoing with our spraying, we might come off rude as we tell you we simply don't have time, because we truly don't. If you hope to visit on the ground, please wait until we've been grounded for weather to do so, then we might be able to indulge in conversation. If, however, we just had an exhausting session or few days worth, please respect our decision to slither away for some rest if it is required. We are human too!
It's okay to be scared, uncomfortable, or annoyed
YOU are human too! It is perfectly within your rights to feel upset when woken up at first light by an unexpected aircraft that sounds like it is bearing down on your home. It is also fully understandable to be worried about how your livestock may react to this new thing, or to be scared of the use of unknown chemical near your property. These feelings are all valid!
I promise you that we are not trying to antagonize you or force you to get up on the wrong side of the bed. Sunrise and sunset provide the best meteorological conditions for spraying, not to mention that it reduces the amount of potential bystanders in our working areas, especially if they are public sites such as parks.
In our part of the world, waivers and consent forms are sent to all neighbors that adjoin the property to be sprayed. However, this doesn't mean that the aircraft won't come near your home unexpectedly. I need the space to climb and turn in time to intercept my next pass. It is normal to feel surprised at an unexpected visit, more so from the air. We avoid flying over homes and barns whenever possible, but there are circumstances where it can not be helped.
If you are uncomfortable with the spraying activity around your location, calling the applicator might shed some light on their current operation and what might be expected in the future. The local airport and even police often have information about our ongoing activities. If your concern is with the chemical used, the operator will be able to provide the product in question's label, which has all of the safety information required.
It is okay to wish for a head's up: for example, if you are anticipating spraying in your area as your neighbor has notified you, but wish to keep your animals/livestock inside while it happens, it is a very reasonable request for us to call you prior to the mission in question to ensure you have time to usher the animals away. We do our best to accommodate everyone to make them as comfortable as possible with our operation, within the realm of possibility.
Plane paparazzi: plane-spotting photography
Recently while working in Elmira's county, I saw a small group of folks park their vehicle out of the way, and brought their cameras out where I assumed they would capture my turns. They were textbook aviation admirers and were respectful in their every action, from proper positioning to friendly waves. Turns out we were able to connect via social media, and these wonderful photographers, James Pindera & his son Phoenix shared with me some of the great shots they took of the aircraft! I was elated! As with most photos on social media however, it is always safer to leave your flying photos unidentified unless you have the consent of the pilot.
What do I mean by that? Let's pretend, theoretically, that you knew I was flying in a certain area and captured photos of my work. Before posting in a public forum “Hey! Ariane Morin was spraying in (or out of) ____ today! Check it out!” Please ask permission before naming the pilot at work. At the risk of sounding paranoid, there are those who are aggressive against spraying activity, and leaving the pilot anonymous may protect them from those looking to target the pilots.
Disrespect is never the answer
Calling in to cuss out an operator for doing their jobs will not resolve anything. There is very little we can do about the hours of the day that offer optimal weather conditions and I promise you that I don't love waking up at 4am to go to work either. If noon was an option, I'd be the first to sign up! Alas, our working hours are not great for anyone, and I am sympathetic of the noise disturbance we cause at unfortunate times of day. We don't stop for weekends, holidays or the wee hours of the morning. If a pest requires treatment and the weather is conducive, we must work, all season long.
Insulting our work, our business, our livelihoods or our intelligence won't make the sun rise later nor will it make my engine quieter.
Asking questions, politely, and seeking to understand what we are doing is perfectly acceptable! I love having friendly debates with my organically-minded friends and they result in broadened perspectives for the both of us. You do not need to agree with what I do to respect that I am doing it.
Do not touch my aircraft without permission and supervision
Spray planes can be million-dollar machines, and their owners and pilots are understandably territorial. However, what you may not know is how sensitive things can be for calibration purposes, or emergency reasons.
The easy answer is that our chariots work hauling chemicals all day. Touching the dispersal system such as the nozzles and booms, may lead to chemical exposure. Not only that, but the orientation of our nozzles affect the rate at which we spray and the size of our droplets, so fiddling with some seemingly simple pieces of metal or plastic may throw off our calibration and leave us in an unfortunate situation.
Folks often want photos on/in the aircraft but it is EXPLICITLY IMPORTANT TO ASK PERMISSION OF THE OPERATOR before climbing onboard an aircraft. If you think it a silly thing to be upset about, there are a number of silly accidents that can lead to big problems.
Example? Well, when I was training in my first spray plane, while attempting to sit in the cockpit I bumped the dump handle with my bum and my entire load dumped on the tarmac. In my case it was a lesson learned at the cost of the time to refill the aircraft with water, but should the aircraft have been loaded with chemical, it could have been the loss of thousands of dollars as well as an environmental nightmare.
Another seemingly stupid situation? If you bump the master switch on and fail to notice it, you could run the aircraft battery dead and make it impossible to start the aircraft without recharging it, a time-consuming endeavor that requires the right tools.
A diligent aircraft mechanic reminded me that, even supervised, it is important to follow instruction when being directed on how to do seemingly simple things. For example, when climbing onboard an aircraft, stay on the black walkway, it is especially critical on fabric covered wings. Don't be fooled by a stellar canvasing job; the fabric can look like aluminum when lacquered and shiny! It is also important on the part of the pilot to remember that the daily hazards, such as various fluids our aircraft requires, that we are used to are things that should be clearly pointed out to the unfamiliar!
Be extremely respectful when admiring equipment on the ground.
Do not assume that I need to “upgrade” my career
The amount of folks that assume that I am time building for a better position are then stunned to find out I've BEEN to the airlines and I've flown a number of other aircraft before is hilarious. Agricultural aviation is a choice, a calling, a lifestyle. Though some pilots have used this field as a stepping-stone in their careers does not mean that it is the standard or the requirement. Spraying is a fast-paced, physically demanding, very precise line of work that isn't for everyone. There is nothing wrong with entering the industry and discovering that it was not a right fit for you (that's something you'll only ever know if you try!) but do not assume that it is only a position for rookies or that the fact that I have come to this point in my career after my airline layoff means that it was a regression. It is a position earned like any other, through blood, sweat, and tears and financial investment in training, and a perfectly viable career choice. Some ag pilots have been flying for over 40 years! Do not insult their careers by implying that Air Canada is the only goal in aviation.
THREATS OF VIOLENCE ARE NEVER OKAY
It is a federal crime to threaten the safety of an aircraft. I have witnessed people calling into operators threatening to fire at working aircraft, and have had friends be aimed at with rifles and others shot at. You are endangering a human life, not just a piece of equipment, because of your current inconvenience. This is something that occurs too often and simply not acceptable under any circumstance. It will not solve the problem and will result immediately in having the authorities called to your home, quickly escalating your current discomfort into a very serious legal problem.
SABOTAGING EQUIPMENT IS A CRIME, NOT A PRANK, OR A STATEMENT
Aircraft being shot at when parked, or burnt down, or with slashed tires are not common, but have happened often enough to require mentioning. Some remote sites will go as far as having overnight security stay with the aircraft due to environmental extremists destroying equipment to prohibit work in certain areas. This is also a crime and will result in investigation with the authorities and subsequent legal action. Just because you disagree does not mean you are exempt from the law.
In conclusion, I hope this little guide may have answered a few questions about the etiquette of maneuvering around cropdusters: pilots and planes alike. If you are a spray pilot or ground rig operator with suggestions for additions to this list, please do not hesitate to contact me. For those who enjoy watching us do what we love, thank you both for respecting our space and indulging our love for flying with your questions and your enthusiasm. For those who dislike our presence in your local skies, I promise we are trying to do our jobs as quickly, safely and as respectfully as possible, and I appreciate your patience!
And one last piece of advice, from the first spray pilot I ever encountered:
"Never, EVER smell the inside of a cropduster's helmet."