Here again, designers took a proven product and upgraded it with more power and a long list of other changes, including a welded steel frame that is powder-coated externally and oiled internally for exceptional corrosion protection. Hughes also directed his engineers to redesign everything forward of the firewall, a change that provides lots of extra space for the pilot’s overnight bags plus avionics and allowed Thrush to remove 250 pounds of ballast required in the 510P model.
The GE H80 engine began life as the Walter 601M, first run in 1967 by Walter Aircraft of the Czech Republic. It delivers 50 more horsepower than the available PT6-34AG in the Thrush 510P, while also burning less fuel. GE gained certification of the H80 in March, and Thrush has been test-flying the 510G ever since as the company awaits the final FAA sign-offs needed to start selling the new model.
I had the chance to visit the Thrush factory in July and came away impressed by the company and its products. Although the factory itself is more than 40 years old, it’s a first-rate operation that I was surprised to find buzzing with activity. Thrush will build more than 50 airplanes this year, the highest production rate since the boom times in the 1970s and huge improvement over recent years, when sales slowed to a trickle.
The Thrush product family has gained footholds in more than 80 countries and is used today for spraying all sorts of crops, from wheat, cotton and peanuts to bananas, rice and just about anything else you can think of. Thrush agplanes are used by some of the biggest names in agriculture, including Del Monte and Dole, and even for drug eradication by the U.S. State Department in South America. (Humphrey knows all about this sort of operation too — flying for the State Department a few years back, he was shot down by a shoulder-fired rocket while spraying a coca field with herbicides in Colombia. He showed me pictures of other agplanes he flew that came home riddled with bullet holes.)
The Big Business of Ag Spraying
For me, one of the biggest surprises after visiting Thrush was learning just how sophisticated the aerial application business has become over the years. The image of the ag pilot as popularized in American movies is of a rough-around-the-edges loner who gets cheap thrills from taking risks. Now, it’s probably true that your average ag pilot isn’t going to be as polished as, say, the crew of a Gulfstream G550 at a Fortune 500 company, but still, he’s probably just as smart — and is almost certainly a better pure stick-and-rudder pilot.
He might even be better paid. New ag pilots fresh out of flight school earn $40,000 to $50,000 a year, but experienced pilots can make more than $100,000 and the top earners can pull in more than $200,000 a year. As is the case with many flying jobs, how much a pilot makes depends on how much he flies. Aerial application generally pays by the acre, with a pilot typically receiving a cut of perhaps 20 percent. So, for example, if a farmer pays $6 an acre for spraying, the pilot’s one-fifth share would be $1.20. An ag pilot’s day can last 12 or 14 hours, and the acreage can quickly pile up.
It’s no wonder that pilots love the turbine Thrush and its 150 mph top working speed. In a business where time really does mean money, being able to get the job done quickly and move on to the next farmer’s fields can make a big difference in an ag pilot’s earning potential.
After we’d finished spraying the peanut fields, Terry and I headed about 25 miles south before cutting into the pattern at a private farm strip where we landed and met up with Rick Lott and his 19-year-old son, Shelton. Rick has been an ag pilot for more than 25 years. His father was an ag pilot before him, and as is the case in a line of work that tends to run in the family, Shelton is learning to fly and hopes to be sitting behind the controls of a Thrush agplane himself one day soon.
Rick allowed me to climb aboard his airplane, a nearly new, single-seat Thrush 510P, which he’s flying while he awaits delivery of a 510G on order. What caught my eye was the Ag-Nav differential GPS system in the cockpit of Rick’s airplane. The technology allows an ag pilot to load a map of the field he’s about to spray into the unit’s memory and then follow commands provided by a light bar on the nose that includes left-right indications similar to those of an ILS. The beauty of the system is that it lets the pilot fly a perfect circuit and ensure that every square inch of cropland has been sprayed with no overlap. After the flight, the pilot can eject the data card and give it to the farmer as a record of what was sprayed.