Most agricultural aviators see little reason to believe terrorists will use ag planes to attack the United States with biological or chemical weapons or use them as flying bombs.
“But no one expected commercial airliners to be used to crash into the World Trade Center (or the Pentagon),” says Randy Hale, a board member for both the National and Texas Agricultural Aviators associations. He flies out of Robbstown, Texas, near Corpus Christi.
“We and the Federal Aviation Administration think we're OK,” he says, “but we thought that before. We're doing everything we can to cooperate with them and other government agencies. Our local FAA contacts have been exceptionally cooperative.”
He says the national association, with offices in Washington, has worked closely with the FAA to answer questions about aerial applicators and to provide information on pilots.
“We provided license numbers and other information on our pilots so they could crosscheck against suspected terrorists and the hijackers,” he says.
Hale thinks it unlikely that an agricultural airplane will be used successfully in a terrorist attack. “We don't carry enough fuel to make it an effective bomb,” he says. “And spraying a city with any kind of chemical or biological weapon would not be particularly effective. Heat from the city would create dispersal and penetration problems.”
Hale says qualifying to fly agricultural airplanes requires more than a pilot's license. “We also have to qualify for insurance before we can apply pesticides,” he says. “If there is a threat of terrorist activity with a crop duster, it will be from outside the industry in a stolen plane.”
Hale also believes security around airports where crop dusters are based was already pretty tight before the attack and is even more so now.
“Most of us have always been careful about our airplanes,” he says. “We make certain we secure them in the hangars before we leave for the day and do everything we can to prevent anyone from moving or starting them. Pilots who park planes outside hangars are taking out batteries and other essential equipment before they leave them.”
Hale says pilots always exercise caution with agricultural pesticides. “They cost too much not to keep rigid controls on them,” he says. “But we'll watch a little more carefully now. And we get pesticides in sealed drums from the manufacturer so potential for contamination by terrorists is slim.”
Hale encourages agricultural pilots to watch for anyone suspicious around airports. He says the industry is fairly close-knit. “We know everyone in the business around here, and if someone new started hanging around, we'd know it.”
Hale says he and other aerial applicators have no qualms about helping the FAA in any way they can. “We're working with the FAA to keep the community from panicking when they see a plane fly over. And we're just trying to drive on and get back to doing our job,” he says.
Texas aerial applicators lost as many as eight working days as a result of FAA grounding following the World Trade Center attack, but pilots have made up some of the lost time.
“We're running about two or three days behind,” Hale says “and we lost some work because fields dried out and farmers got in with ground equipment to take care of their spray needs. Some pilots in Boll Weevil Eradication zones may have lost more days and some will not catch up because they're that many days closer to a freeze, when applications will be shut down for the season.”
He says the economic impact is hard to determine. “We'll lose money but we already had a bad year in south Texas because of the drought. It's been too dry for farmers to need aerial applicators.”
Hale also hopes the patriotic fervor that's sweeping the nation extends to the way people support the country's basic industries, including agriculture. “When they think about buying American, they need to consider spending maybe $15 for a shirt made in the United States instead of one for $9 made in Pakistan. That's part of patriotism, too.”