We call it flying in a black hole — no stars or ground lighting to guide you. You are flying a TP-3, a heavy, lumbering beast of an airplane, and you are just 350 feet above the ground, accelerating toward 150 knots. The cockpit glows an eerie Halloween green. Your captain indicates it’s time, and you reach up on the front of your helmet to snap a pair of green phosphorus night-vision goggles into place. Glancing out the open side window, you twist each NVG tumbler into focus, and black night suddenly reveals itself. You can see hedges, trees and cattle in the fields.
“Check it out!” says your captain. There’s a glowing vertical strip of cell tower jutting into the sky just ahead of you. Maneuvering the airplane around the guide wires, you marvel at how the reflective tape recently added to the structure makes it stand out so much more clearly than the weakly blinking lights on its midsection and tip. A gentle nudge of the controls settles you onto your first line on the Ag-Nav screen. The system’s auto-spray lights blink on, and you go to work killing disease-carrying mosquitos.
As a child, I remember being shaken out of my bed at dawn by the roar of 1,200 hp Pratt & Whitney R-1830 radial engines. They flew at 200 feet, showering my backyard with smoke oil and pesticide, knocking down adult mosquitos.
There were also Bell 47 helicopters and Vietnam-era Hueys, and, if it were cloudy, Lee County Mosquito Control District (LCMCD) would fog with trucks, spewing smoke oil and chemicals. Today mosquito larvae are treated with a hormone that causes adult mosquitos to fail to mature but is inert to humans. It is applied primarily with helicopters. Not all mosquitos hatch at once, so larvaciding may need to happen several times to keep populations in check. If the mosquitos hatch, then the fixed-wing aircraft — TP-3s or Beech King Airs — spray when they are up and flying, usually at night, to kill them.
When not spraying, mosquito pilots transport biologists to remote spots all around the county to collect data for determining when to spray. The department stays in close contact with the county health department and the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which can also tell the bug bombers where to spray and when.
LCMCD hires pilots with a variety of backgrounds and experience levels. Pilots come from airline, military and oil-industry careers. Research-and-development pilot Mike Vigus was a fixed-wing pilot and former Army helicopter mechanic. Rita Maiss, a line pilot for LCMCD, was an army helicopter pilot trained for low-level maneuvers. On the other hand, Jim McKeever, chief pilot for LCMCD, is a retired airline captain. What they all have in common is the precision flying they’ve mastered in both rotor-wing and fixed-wing aircraft. They also have a willingness to learn because there’s a lot you need to know to safely do this type of flying.
“Pilots need to understand the toxicity of the chemicals they carry and exercise exceptional judgment at all times,” Vigus says. That’s the book work.
When it comes to the flying, everyone learns to fly every aircraft type the company has. Helicopter pilots take up airplanes, and airplane pilots fly rotor-wings. Pilots need 100 hours of applicator experience and must pass three written exams to earn an aerial applicator permit (each state has its own requirements, and not all offer reciprocity), but copilots don’t need the permit. That means in-house training is common.
It takes practice to fly so precisely — you look out at the line you are spraying, find an object on the horizon to track with, then look inside at the navigation light bar, scanning in and out as you fly the line. The pilots’ prior flight experiences determine how easy it is to teach them.
“This is extremely high risk, flying so close to Mother Earth without hitting anything. It’s hot, and there are those chemicals,” Maiss says. When she drops hormones to kill larvae, she can be as low as 75 feet above the salt marshes, making steep, sliding turns at the end of each line she tracks on her Ag-Nav spraying system. Constant training keeps the pilots safe.
LCMCD is one of the largest mosquito-control operations in the world, with Bell 407 helicopters, Bell 206 Jetrangers, Army-surplus Hueys, TP-3s, Beech King Air 90s and 200s, and a Piper Cherokee Six. You’ll learn to fly all these craft at low altitude with exceptional precision. That is, if you make the cut.
South Florida is just one of hundreds of locales using aircraft to control disease-carrying mosquitos and other pests. Find out more about aerial application flight training and jobs around the world from agaviation.org or pnwaaa.org/careers.htm.