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Meet a Rotorcraft Pro - Thurbie Botterill, Lee County Mosquito Control

Posted 6 days ago ago by Admin

What is your current position?

I am chief pilot at the Lee County Mosquito Control District (LCMCD). Our team of pilots operate a fleet of both fixed-wing and helicopters that currently consists of two DC-3TPs, two King Air 200s and six Airbus H-125 helicopters. LCMCD is the largest single-county mosquito control agency in the country and we fly a variety of missions from daytime liquid and granular treatments to nighttime ultra-low volume treatments with the use of NVGs.

Tell me about your first flight or experience with helicopters.

My first flight experience in a helicopter was in Florida at Helicopter Adventures flight school. At that stage, I was so driven to make it as a professional pilot that my focus was not really on the surroundings but focused on what was expected of me. It would have been nice if I could’ve taken it all in more but it was about the individual lessons and making sure I completed it to the standard required. I also was motivated to move along at a similar pace to my peers.

How did you get your start in helicopters?

After making up my mind that I was going to become a helicopter pilot and nothing was going to stand in my way, I bought a couple of magazines at the airport after attending my father’s funeral. I sent a letter to every single helicopter flight school that was in the back of the magazine. When I received the brochures back from the schools, I chose what I felt was the most professional-looking one. It was Helicopter Adventures. This was 1999; I lived in Portugal and had no phone and no internet. I went to a call box, called them up and asked what I needed to do to start. A visa and a plane ticket later I was touching down in Orlando, Florida, and began my private rating.

When and how did you choose to fly or work on helicopters? Or did they choose you?

During a lesson in a fixed-wing, there was a helicopter operator on the other side of the airfield. It really intrigued me, and I believe that was the turning point for my move to helicopters. At that moment in my life I was coaching tennis. I realized that I had to do something else other than chasing a yellow fuzzy ball around a tennis court for the rest of my life. I didn’t know anything about them, but the more I read the more excited I got. I just thought the sound of an autorotation sounded fun (didn’t know what that was), but it was definitely the right move for me in the end.

Where did you get your start flying professionally?

My first job was as a flight instructor with Bijan Air in Ann Arbor, Michigan, flying a Schweizer 269C. After this, I got a job flying a Bell 47 spraying orange groves in Florida for a company called Airwork Enterprises. It was a steep learning curve being in the agriculture business with 350 hours, but it set me up for the future by giving me the spray experience I needed further down the line. It also helped me find my true passion within the helicopter industry. Unfortunately, the owner was selling the business and I had to move on. I did a year with Era Helicopters flying offshore, but I started to miss the environment I had come from. I realized what was important to me, and that was not the type of aircraft I was flying but the type of flying I was doing. An opening for a line pilot came up at the Lee County Mosquito Control District and I got back to doing what I loved to do.

If you were not in the helicopter industry, what else would you see yourself doing?

It would be very hard to imagine doing anything else apart from flying, but it would have to be to continue as a tennis coach. The teaching skills have been a positive transfer to aviation and the psychology behind teaching is the same, breaking a maneuver down and being as technical as you possibly can be has been useful. Just as in sports, you can always be a better pilot and keep learning.

What do you enjoy doing on your days off?

During the heavier spray season in Southwest Florida, which is from mid-May to mid-September, getting scheduled time off is very difficult to come by.  When I have time off, I normally spend time with my family, travel with my son’s soccer team, go to the gym, go boating, and play tennis.

What is your greatest career accomplishment to date?

I would have to say becoming chief pilot of the Lee County Mosquito Control District. My goal has been to develop within the department a feeling of strong teamwork and communication, and this role is probably my most rewarding to date. We have six pilots, all dual-rated and from various military and civilian backgrounds. All bring different knowledge and skills to the table. This, along with a lot of moving parts within the operation that seem to be ever-changing, makes for an exciting challenge. We strive to always increase the efficiency of the program safely, and I would like to say we do this very well.

Have you ever had an “Oh, crap” moment in helicopters? Can you summarize what happened?

I am pretty sure in the spray business you might have one of those every season. Although it may not have been as close as you thought, maybe a power line in the corner of your eye after hours of low-level work; there is a lot happening and you sometimes identify an obstacle later than you would prefer.

One incident that stands out was when I first started my spray career in a Bell 47. My boss was keen for me to be finished with a particular job. I was spraying herbicide in the ditches for some orange groves in Florida. I was fully loaded and heavy, and the wind had just started to pick up. I was almost done with the job and was aware my spray window was closing on me with the wind picking up. The ditch had a bend in it with tall trees, so I had to increase my altitude and then make a turn downwind. My pull-up on the collective combined with being heavy and slow put the rotor rpm towards the bottom of the green. This was still acceptable at this stage. As I made the turn downwind to stay over the ditch the rotor rpm decayed even more and I realized I was in trouble. I shut off the spray, dumped the load, and tried to milk the collective but the rpm was not recoverable. The only option was to cushion the landing. I managed to align the helicopter with the direction of the trees and turn into the wind. I found an opening back towards the bend for the bubble of the helicopter to fit and the tail to go in between the trees. To be honest, I was extremely lucky that this opening presented itself.

The blade was damaged from the blade hitting the orange trees and the spray boom split in half. The lesson learned is that nothing was worth the rush to make up a few more minutes. I should have either called it a day due to the wind or adjusted the order of the spray passes to not put myself in that position.

If you could give only one piece of advice to a new helicopter pilot, what would it be?

It sounds simple, but in this line of work I always tell the new pilots, “Whatever you do, don’t hit anything!”

What do you think is the greatest current challenge for the helicopter industry?

I would say compensation and schedules compared to the airline industry. The helicopter industry has to draw new pilots, and it is getting harder to do with so many new recruits going the fixed-wing route. It is heading in the right direction, but our field always seems to be playing catch up.




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