They make their living at 135 miles per hour, about eight feet off the ground. And, they’ve never been busier.
The pilots and support crews at places such as Benoit Aerial Spraying, in Kankakee, and Zumwalt Aviation, in Sheldon, have been working dusk to dawn for the past two months.
In some cases, they’re just working the fields they routinely spray with fertilizer, weed killer or insecticide. And, in other cases, they’re doing the jobs that farmers on the ground haven’t been able to do amid one of the rainiest summers in Illinois history.
“There are fields out there where they haven’t been able to turn a wheel since June 1,” said David Kurtz, 46. He’s the owner of the Benoit operations and a 26-year veteran in the cockpit. “And there a lot of fields out there where the crops are failing.
He noted that peppers, pumpkins and sweet corn might all be in short supply this fall, but his focus is preserving the crops that haven’t been flooded out.
“We’re working with four planes, flying from about 7 a.m. until 8 p.m.,” he said. “When we come back for fuel and materials, it’s like a NASCAR pit stop. If I’m on the ground for five minutes, I’m getting mad.”
And those kind of days — when pilots eat hurry-up lunches while still strapped into their plane — go on and on. Matt Morin, 30, of Momence, estimated his last day off was eight weeks ago. “I remember because it was my birthday,” the nine-year veteran flyer said during a break in the Benoit offices.
Yes, they actually took a break. The crew was forced to take a day off after Monday night’s rains left their grass runways too wet for takeoffs and landings.
“If someone would have told me that I’d be running a bulldozer on the runways in July, trying to get the water to drain, I would have said you were crazy,” Kurtz said.
Meanwhile, in Sheldon, owner Adam Zumwalt has seen business grow steadily since he took over the business from his father in 2005. The late Joe Zumwalt started the service in the 1970s, Adam said.
“It’s been growing, but it’s a little crazy now,” he said. “Today, every call is a 911 thing. Normally, things would have slowed down for us three weeks ago, but we’re going all day, every day.”
The Zumwalt pilots spray the standard corn, bean and hay fields, but they also do some specific organic spraying and take part in a conservation program that takes them as far as Ohio and Arkansas.
“We do most of our work, though, in a 50-mile range,” he said, noting his pilots also are seeing some alarming flood damage. “It seems worst from like Rensselaer (Ind.) over to Martinton. It depends on when they got the corn in. … If it was tall enough, it survived the rains. But a lot of fields didn’t make it.”
While pilots have noticed the impact of area flooding — on crops and neighborhoods — there is little time for being a spectator in the cockpit. The typical crop duster plane is a one-passenger, high horsepower Thrush Aircraft product, specifically designed for close-up work. This type of plane also is modified for sewing rice paddies, feeding farm-raised shrimp, fighting forest fires and even cleaning up oil spills.
“They’re a little different to fly. The transition for a guy who flew a standard Cessna would be tough,” Morin said. “It’s a pretty big adjustment just flying down with the windmills and power lines.”
“Flying has to be second nature, or this job is too overwhelming,” Kurtz said. “Doing this 12 hours a day, you need an incredible level of attention to survive.”
This business also requires weekly deliveries of aviation fuel, as well as farmer and manufacturer deliveries of a wide range of application materials. Some jobs are one-time flyovers, others — mostly Wichert area vegetables — are weekly disease prevention efforts.
But it makes little difference to the pilots. They might take 11 flights over a single 77-acre project, or they might complete a job in one flight. At the Benoit operation, they return again and again to the home base on Grinnell Road. They get instructions, GPS coordinates, a map and, sometimes, a sandwich.
“They’re doing what some of our farmers can’t do this summer,” said Chad Miller, of the Kankakee County Bureau. “They’re getting the job done without getting stuck in the mud.”