FLORA — From the ground, crop dusters seem like a daring breed — swashbuckling barnstormers perhaps. Flying a matter of inches from the ground, just clearing utility wires, it’s easy to imagine them wild-eyed mavericks who cliff-dive in their spare time.
Well, meet the Holcombs. Easy-going and modest with feet planted firmly on the ground, Rudy, Brad and Carl of Holcomb Aerial Services have more than 50 years of ag aviation experience between them. For them, crop dusting is serious business, but it’s far from a dangerous, thrill-a-second career.
“You do what has to be done to get the job done. But if you go out there and take chances just to be cute, you’re going to get in trouble,” Brad said.
“I feel a whole lot safer flying than I do driving in Jackson. That scares me,” he said with a laugh.
Holcomb Aerial Services was founded by Rudy, father of Brad and Carl, with a partner in 1972. Rudy said he got into ag aviation out of necessity.
“I was farming and saw a need,” Rudy said. “It just was kind of a natural process to get into crop dusting, a combination that worked well. I was just filling a void.”
Both sons’ childhood memories are of hanging out at the hangar. Thus, in 1984, Brad joined his father, who shortly thereafter bought out his partner and became sole proprietor. Carl would join in 1992. Both learned their trade by flying solo, following barrels placed on the ground as guides, with Rudy watching from the ground and giving instructions after they landed.
Today, the Holcombs fly and maintain five aircraft and a helicopter, and, in addition to the main complex on Mississippi 22 west of Flora, also operate a facility at Redwood near Vicksburg. The company dispenses pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers in about a 10-mile radius around each facility. Each plane can hold up to 600 gallons of spray or 4,000 pounds of fertilizer.
Over its history the company has seem a tremendous amount of change. Improvements to the aircraft, particularly in aerodynamics, have made crop dusting much more effective and efficient than when Rudy first taxied out on the runway. Perhaps the biggest aid has been GPS technology, giving pilots a more concise and easy way to see where they have sprayed to save overlap and/or under-spraying.
GPS, along with air conditioned cockpits, has also contributed positively to an issue that is near the Holcombs’ heart — safety.
“Mental and physical fatigue are what gets you in trouble,” Brad said. “GPS and air conditioning takes a lot of the strain out of crop dusting. There’s probably not been a bigger breakthrough in ag aviation than GPS.”
The Holcombs not only want themselves to feel safe, they also want to make the general public feel safe about what they do. Carl recently returned from Washington D.C. where he was one of only 14 ag pilots chosen nationwide for a leadership conference. The aim is to create ambassadors for the industry.
“The idea is to keep people from saying every time they see a plane spraying a field, ‘Oh my gosh, what they’re spraying will kill us’,” Brad said. “A lot of people don’t know that for some of the chemicals we use, the ratio is 10 ounces per acre — that’s all. We’re spraying very small quantities, and we’re very careful.”
The Holcombs were also quick to point out that they go through a bi-annual flight examination, and are required to hold an applicator’s license. And Mississippi is one of the only states in the U.S. that has a regulatory agriculture aviation board that requires annual re-certification.
One change that has not been welcome is the plight of agriculture. Farms are being sold and potential customers lost.
“I just never thought I would see agriculture disappear like it has,” Rudy said.
Fortunately, the Holcombs have found other sources of revenue. One is the boll weevil eradication program. When the program was launched in Mississippi several years ago, Holcomb Aerial bid on four contracts thinking it wouldn’t land any. Instead, the company won all four.
The other is forestry. Whereas the Holcombs used to spend all their time spraying row crops, they now have found a healthy living servicing pine tree farmers. All said forestry applications have been a huge shot in the arm for the company, and have saved it from a huge threat.
As in all ag-related business, predicting the future is hard if not impossible. But through depressed ag prices and soaring fuel costs, the Holcombs keep smiling and remain even-keeled. On the day of this interview, windy conditions weren’t allowing the Holcombs to work.
Leaning back in his chair, Rudy said with a smile, “Oh well, that’s just part of the business.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 364-1016.