A Nebraska crop-duster has filed a federal complaint alleging that the Wahoo Airport Authority — including a member who is a competing aerial applicator — has created discriminatory regulatory barriers that bar him from using his hometown airport.
Walker Luedtke of Wahoo is asking the Federal Aviation Administration to launch a formal investigation into the airport’s operation to determine if the airport authority is operating the facility in compliance with federal rules.
“They’re trying to protect the airport for their private boys club,’’ said Luedtke, 42. “My intention isn’t to get anyone in trouble. I just want reasonable access for a few days a year.’’
In an answer to the complaint, Chicago attorneys for the airport authority said there is no basis to find the board in violation of federal regulations and asked that the complaint be dismissed.
Jerod Storm, an airport authority board member who also operates a crop-dusting business from the airport, said Luedtke’s complaints have no merit.
“Any time Walker Luedtke wants to follow the Wahoo Airport Authority’s minimum standards, he can come on the airport with his business. That’s been out there since day one,’’ Storm said. “This has been going on for four years, and it’s just harassment of me and the airport authority. And it’s costing Wahoo taxpayers money.’’
The dust-up started when the airport authority refused Luedtke access to the airport as a seasonal commercial aerial application operator in 2012. Aerial applicators — crop-dusters — apply chemicals to field crops to fight pests and disease. Luedtke wanted his pilots to use the airport to land, refuel, load chemical products and fly out again to spray nearby cropland.
Nebraska law allows crop- dusters to temporarily base operations at airports for up to 14 days a year without establishing permanent facilities and chemical containment areas.
Luedtke used the Wahoo airport no more than seven days in 2011 for crop-dusting operations. When he sought permission to return the next year, the airport authority said he would have to meet new minimum standards for flying crop-dusters out of Wahoo. The new standards included building a hangar to house the company’s airplanes and offices, and creating a parking lot and a permanent containment pad to catch possible chemical and fuel leaks or spills. He also would have to sign a 30-year lease.
Luedtke said that the standards were unreasonable and that it would cost about $500,000 to comply. He said the standards were designed to deny him airport access. Federal and state regulations require none of what the airport authority demanded of Luedtke as a seasonal user. He said it was a deliberate act to limit access and competition for the personal benefit of Storm.
Storm said the standards were established to ensure airport safety and operational efficiency in the wake of a boom in aerial spraying that followed higher commodity prices farmers received for their crops. More income meant more farmers had more money to spend on pesticides to boost their crop yields.
“We had several companies that wanted to pull in a semitrailer with their chemicals and pesticides and go to work spraying,’’ Storm said. “But it can’t be a free-for-all. We needed standards for safety and fairness across the board.’’
Luedtke’s 900-plus-page complaint says the airport authority doesn’t require Storm to meet the same minimum standards in his aerial application business.
Storm said he follows the same standards. He recently built a new hangar and rents another from the airport authority.
Luedtke, a lifelong resident of the Wahoo area, isn’t a pilot. His company, formerly Walker Ag Supply and now known as GFG Agriproducts, owns two aircraft. Luedtke scouts fields for farmers and helps them make decisions about whether spraying could benefit their cropland. He has been in business for 15 years, six of them in aerial application, he said.
Luedtke’s crop-dusters currently fly out of airports at Plattsmouth and Nebraska City. He also has permission to use David City and Fremont airports.
“They welcome us,’’ he said. “We pay to use the airports. We provide donations. We buy fuel. The guy at Nebraska City brings us coffee.’’
The airports, however, are too far from Wahoo for Luedtke’s crop-dusters to work the Wahoo area efficiently. David City is 24 miles from the Wahoo airport. Plattsmouth is 35 miles away; Nebraska City, 54 miles; and Fremont, 13 miles.
“We’re flying a million-dollar airplane and it drinks fuel like it’s pouring out of a bucket.’’
Without access to the Wahoo airport, Luedtke’s crop-dusters fly from a short, private airstrip on an area farm.
“We’re going under power lines and over hillsides of cattle with half the (chemical) loads possible than if we could fly off the airport,’’ he said.
Luedtke said he has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue since 2012 by not using the Wahoo airport for crop-dusting flights a few days each summer. Luedtke said he’s not seeking a free ride at Wahoo. He said he paid the airport $2,400 for using the airstrip for a few days in 2011.
In addition to Storm’s business, Brainard, Nebraska-based Frontier Cooperative operates crop-dusting flights from Wahoo. Frontier built a facility meeting the standards a few years ago.
Luedtke said his crop-dusters have not used any area airport for more than seven days a year.
“To ask me to spend $500,000 (to build a permanent base) to fly for a few days out of a year, I couldn’t afford to spend that kind of money,’’ he said.
Storm said Wahoo is a relatively high-traffic airport. Recreational pilots from Fremont, Omaha and Lincoln use the landing strip frequently for training, he said. So do Army National Guard helicopters from Lincoln.
William Foster, owner of Dallas-based Better Airports, said Luedtke is asking only for reasonable access to an airport that has received federal grants to meet the needs of his farming customers. Foster joined Luedtke in filing the complaint.
Final paperwork from both sides in the dispute is expected in the FAA’s hands yet this month. Then the agency begins an investigation that Foster expects to take at least 120 days.