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Economic effects of ground stops yet to be seen, aviators say

Ag aviators near Memphis airport allowed to fly again

Aerial application, otherwise known as crop dusting, has long been a part of farming in America, but after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that part of American farming saw a drastic change.

Ideas that harmful biological and chemical agents could be distributed using crop dusting aircraft led to the grounding of pilots around 30 major airports in the country with airspace denoted as “Class B airspace.” This airspace, generally circular in design, extends out to 25 or 30 miles from the major airport, and up to varying heights.

In order to maintain secure control of the airspace around these major airports, an additional definition of airspace, called “Enhanced Class B” (ECB) airspace, was created. The Class B airspace and the airspace directly underlying and overlying the Class B airspace, from the surface up to 18,000 feet was defined as ECB airspace.

Grounding these planes had a devastating effect on many agricultural aviators, including pilots in North Mississippi near the Memphis International Airport, who were not permitted to fly inside the ECB airspace.

On Oct. 15, the ECB-airspace flying restrictions were at last lifted for some, including those in the Memphis Class B-service area.

Bill Freiman, a partner with Delta Dusters Inc., said whether or not he would have work next year became his main concern after restrictions were put in place that prohibited him from flying. Aside from the 300 or 400 acres of defoliation he still has to do, many farmers have already done much of the work that he would have been called on to do.

Some farmers even had custom ground machines do it.

Nevertheless, Freiman is happy to be flying again.

“I feel great,” he said. “Relieved.”

Some things have changed on how aerial application will be done in the future as a result of the terrorist attacks. For example, those flying in the ECB area have to have a transponder squawk VFR code (1200) and have to monitor emergency frequency 121.5 MHz or 243.0. Aircraft without a transponder must obtain a waiver for each flight from the air traffic control facility responsible for the ECB airspace.

Agricultural aviators must also remember to operate in a normal manner, avoid aerobatics, loitering and circling and unpredictable flight paths. Some restrictions are also still being upheld, such as prohibiting aircraft from flying near dams, etc.

Robert Sayle, a farmer with T.P. Howard and Company in Lake Cormorant, five miles west of Walls, said he ran into problems with defoliation and re-growth as a result of the ban on aerial application in Memphis’ ECB airspace.

“That translates to lower cotton grades because of re-growth and poor defoliation,” Sayle said. “We need the airplane and need it desperately.”

While crop duster pilots in North Mississippi are now being allowed to fly in ECB airspace with some restrictions, many people have lost money due to the grounding of their planes.

Pat Kornegay, president of the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA), said there is a movement in Congress to set up some method of compensation, based on the ground stops of agricultural aviators all across the country.

The NAAA is trying to pass a bill that would eliminate the tax on aviation fuel used by agricultural aviators. Already, agricultural aviators are exempt from the tax, but they have to pay the tax up front and then get waivers from growers to get it back at the end of the year. Also, agricultural aviators can only recover the tax on the amount of fuel that they expend while spraying over a farmer’s field.

Growers are exempt from the entire federal excise tax on fuel and farm equipment. Kornegay said agricultural aviators simply want their tax to parallel that of growers.

“We’re just trying to simplify the law,” Kornegay said. “It would create an economic relief to our industry that’s quite significant.”

U.S. Senators Thad Cochran (R-Miss), John Breaux (D-La) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark) have sponsored a bill which is currently in committee that would allow such a tax break for agricultural aviators.

There are still questions, however, as to what other compensation will be provided for agricultural aviators in light of the recent ground stops of those in ECB airspace.

James Callan, executive director of the NAAA, said “There is no specific funding available right now for ag aviators adversely affected by the two ground stops.”

However, he said he and his organization are working with Congress on legislation to help provide some support.

Jerry Webb, president of the Agricultural Aviation Association, board member of the Agricultural Aviation Board and owner of Webb’s Flying Service in Belden, said the economic effects of the ground stops have yet to be seen.

“I was grounded three different times,” Webb said. “The first time was for four or five days, then on a weekend, and had they kept it in effect and completely shut us down after the Sept. 11th, it would have had a terrible impact.”

Wes Allen, executive director of the Mississippi Agricultural Aviation Association, said something should be done on a state-by-state basis to give agricultural aviators some relief.

Chris Sparkman, deputy commissioner for the Department of Agriculture, said that while aerial applicators are a small segment of aviation, they are vital to the farming community.

“A lot of things are happening right now because of public perception,” Sparkman said. “It would be very difficult for anyone to be able to do anything with an agricultural aviator airplane as far as anthrax goes.”

Regardless of the recent ground stops in North Mississippi, Sparkman said there would still more than likely be a large cotton crop in the state overall, although yield may be a little less in some areas.

Contact MBJ staff writer Elizabeth Kirkland at ekirkland@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1042.

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