Ag Plane Crashes Draw FAA Attention
Update: Following publication of this article, the NAAA reported that an agricultural pilot was killed on August 19, bringing the number of fatalities this year to nine. The NTSB earlier announced that it was investigating the crash of an Air Tractor AT-602 that day in Glendora, Mississippi. —Ed.
A series of fatal accidents involving agricultural aircraft in July and August has attracted FAA attention and served as a grim reminder of the dangers of low-level flying during the industry’s busiest season.
As of mid-August, there had been eight fatal accidents involving agricultural aircraft this year, including four during an 11-day period from July 23 to Aug. 2. While alarming, the toll is not unusual: ag aircraft crash at a steady rate during the summer peak season for treating crops with pesticides.
There were 11 fatal accidents involving agricultural aircraft over eight months through August 2021, a year that ended with 12 fatal accidents overall, said National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA) CEO Andrew Moore. While the rate of fatal accidents as of August this year is less than in 2021, the number of total accidents—49—exceeds the 47 total accidents recorded over the same period last year.
“It is the time of the year when we are most active,” noted Moore, who said the NAAA is launching a new safety certification program for crop-dusting pilots, known as aerial applicators. “We won’t be satisfied until there are no fatal accidents—we’re committed to that,” he added.
Moore provided accident statistics for the past several years. The lowest number of fatal accidents in recent years was in 2012—with four total—when drought conditions led to lesser overall flight hours, he said. Ag aircraft were involved in seven fatal accidents in 2019 and 10 in 2020.
Flying in patterns over the fields they are treating, ag airplanes lay down liquid pesticides from 8-12 ft. above a crop to limit off-target drift; they operate somewhat higher—at around 40 ft. above ground level (AGL)—to dispense dry fertilizer and seeds.
On July 26 this year, two ag airplanes—an Air Tractor AT-802 and an Air Tractor AT-802A—collided while working near Portland, Arkansas, and crashed to the ground. The pilot of the AT-802A was killed; the pilot of the AT-802 was extricated from the aircraft by first responders and airlifted to a hospital in Little Rock for treatment of serious injuries. Both aircraft—single-engine turboprops—were operating under Part 137, the FAA regulation governing agricultural aircraft that dispense chemicals from the air.
An NTSB preliminary accident report released on Aug. 18 provides the following narrative: “According to a witness who was familiar with both aircraft and pilots, the AT-802 was transiting the area at low altitude, in a southeasterly direction. The area consisted mainly of mature soybean and cotton fields. Concurrently, the AT-802A was applying chemical to a soybean field in a southerly direction. The pilot of the AT-802A pitched up at the end of his application run and collided with the AT-802. The AT-802A continued to the northeast for about ¼ mile and crashed in a soybean field. The AT-802 began to spin vertically downward and impacted a cotton field underneath the point of collision.”
An examination of the AT-802 revealed impact marks to the leading edge of the left wing and forward wind screen, “consistent with contact with the AT-802A,” the NTSB said.
Both aircraft were equipped with GPS-based guidance systems that come with moving-map displays and forward-mounted light bars that provide the pilot with a visual representation of the position of the aircraft in relation to the swath of field it is spraying. The AT-802A was equipped with the Satloc G4 aerial guidance system; the AT-802 had the AgPilotX. The NTSB is analyzing memory devices from both systems at its Vehicle Recorders Laboratory.
While not atypical compared to previous years, the recent series of fatal accidents involving ag airplanes has attracted the FAA’s attention. On Aug. 15, the NAAA issued a bulletin saying that it had “received direct communications from senior-level managers at the FAA last week inquiring, on behalf of the FAA administrator, about the recent spate of fatal ag aviation accidents and asking how the FAA can help.”
In the bulletin, the association advises pilots to scout all of the fields they plan to treat thoroughly for obstructions including wires. Pilots should conduct ferry flights above 500 ft. AGL and communicate with other ag pilots by radio when working off busy landing strips. During the off season, they should install automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) In systems to display the position of other aircraft operating in their vicinity.
“While we don’t have final reports with causes from the NTSB for any of these accidents, we do know that each of these fatal accidents caused tremendous grief and loss for eight families,” the NAAA states in the bulletin. “[Y]our customer may be demanding you need to treat their field, but they don’t need you as much as your loved ones do. If you aren’t comfortable flying in the current weather conditions or are worried about how many wires are in and around a field, postpone or turn the job down.”
The NAAA will launch a new certification program called the Certified Professional Aerial Applicator Safety Steward (C-PAASS) in 2023. The voluntary program will require ag pilots to participate in educational programs focused on environmental impact and safety to earn a C-PAASS designation.