Area residents who look to the skies may have noticed some low-flying planes making the rounds above Bourbon County.
The planes residents might be seeing are spray planes that regularly take care of farmers’ lands and fields by spraying to control pests and noxious weeds when farmers and ranchers aren’t able to do so. The pilots make use of Fort Scott Municipal Airport and airports in other communities when doing their jobs.
Kenny Howard, airport manager, and Aaron Phillips, a spray plane pilot, said they have heard concerns from some Bourbon County residents about planes flying at a low altitude and the loudness of the plane engines.
“Some people are wondering why planes are flying so low, and they’re really loud and making a lot of noise,” Howard said.
Phillips, who pilots an AT 301 Air Tractor, said not much can be done about the noise as the planes typically use higher 600-horsepower motors. He said the spray plane pilots are required to be registered to use pesticides in Kansas. Once registered, pilots can legally buy, sell and use pesticides. The model Phillips flies carries a chemical hopper between the engine firewall and the cockpit.
“You have to take a test to use restricted-use pesticides,” Phillips said.
He said the planes are also monitored and regulated by the state, which views reports on areas covered as well as chemicals used.
“We’re state monitored as far as where, when and how chemicals are used,” he said. “We have to know the types of chemicals and what hurts what.”
Regarding the altitudes of the planes, Phillips said spray planes fly at least 500 feet above the ground but are allowed to fly below the minimum altitude if needed.
“In a populated area like Fort Scott, you need at least 1,000 feet,” he said. “We observe the minimum altitude but we’re allowed to go below to do the job.”
The planes sometimes do fly near residences and populated areas. Phillips said because of his knowledge of the area, he will sometimes skirt houses whenever possible.
Phillips said his job entails flying across Bourbon County and other nearby counties, including Allen County in Kansas and Vernon County in Missouri. He typically flies one plane in and out of the Fort Scott airport.
The planes take care of land for farmers when the farmers can’t do the work themselves or when there is “something that requires a lot of spray work,” he said.
“Sometimes they use a plane because they have no choice,” Phillips said.
Phillips said farmers and ranchers sometimes do their own spraying to control infestation. Situations where spray planes are needed would be during wet weather and when farmers don’t want to hurt their crops with ground vehicles.
“In wet weather, farmers can’t get in with their ground rigs … they call planes to do the work,” Howard said.
Howard and Phillips said there are economic benefits when spray planes are used as the airport makes money through fuel sales and the spray plane pilots make money for their services.
“Farmers can benefit, too, because they’re not smashing their crops with their ground rigs,” Howard said. “It’s good for both businesses and it’s a necessity farmers need to protect crops.”
“The planes can also cover more ground,” Phillips said.
Pests that pilots work to control include Army worms, which Phillips said “can destroy a lot of ground,” weevils and several other types of worm species. Pilots also use fungicides and herbicides for control of noxious weeds, he said.
Phillips said there are certain weather conditions needed to fly their planes and apply the chemicals.
“You have to be able to see. Wind and fog are factors to worry about,” he said.
Howard said currently, seven spray planes fly in and out of the airport for regular operations.
He said there are different ways spray plane pilots can be used. Producers can contact the spray plane operator or the farmer contacts an agricultural co-op and the co-op contacts the pilot. Howard said farmers also call him to ask about the availability of spray plane pilots.
Howard said local law enforcement agencies have also received some calls from residents regarding the spray planes. He said about 80 percent of the concerns deal with safety issues, such as planes flying near cell phone towers. Phillips said he is familiar with the area through frequent flying. He knows the location of the towers and other obstacles and does his best to avoid them, although sometimes minor accidents occur, such as a plane grazing a cell tower.
So far in 2015, about 1,500 planes have been used at the Fort Scott airport. Last year, the airport saw traffic of about 700-800 planes.
Howard said there were “easily” 50 takeoffs and landings each day during the spring when spray planes are flying.
“It’s been a busy season,” he said. “And the more activity at the airport, the more chances for opportunities for FAA and KDOT funding for projects.”
Howard said the busiest times of the year for spray planes are spring and fall. The spray planes complete their operations during the daytime hours.
“It would be devastating to the community if these planes aren’t operating,” he said.