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HELI-AG: A Tough Row to Hoe

Posted 9 years 236 days ago ago by Admin

"Damn, ol' man! You trying to tear up my helicopter?" The (mostly) good-natured rebuke fit the near-death experience Robert Garzolini had just narrowly escaped. Misjudging the distance he needed to climb out of the cornfield he was spraying, Garzolini’s helicopter came crashing through the upper canopy of a line of Sycamore trees. Blue skies turned to green foliage for an excruciatingly long few seconds. Taking advantage of the seeming time warp, he immediately stabilized the helicopter, and after checking for any undue vibration or control issues, Garzolini returned to his landing zone to face the next obstacle—his dismayed son who also happened to be his A&P. Fortunately, the only damaged sustained was the loss of several spray nozzles … and the loss of the customer who returned to using ground equipment.

            When it comes to fighting for success in the helicopter industry, Robert Garzolini is intimately familiar. Try whacking a path through a rainforest with a pocketknife and you will begin to see what it is like to penetrate the extremely close-knit and closed-off fixed-wing aerial application industry with a helicopter. It is a dogfight few have the heart to even consider. Nevertheless, with characteristic and unrelenting determination, Robert Garzolini perceived an opportunity, dug into his pocket for that indefatigable knife, and triumphantly established Terre Haute Helicopters as a successful Indiana helicopter agricultural company.

            A few years ago when the economy began to crumble, Garzolini turned to an interest that had intrigued him for years: agricultural spraying—but with rotorcraft. Heralding from farm country, and having always been interested in helicopters, Garzolini began researching the aerial application industry. He soon discovered it was moving from applying heavier gallons per acre to ultra low volume (ULV) quantities of product. He learned that ULV rates are very economical to fly. Rotor downwash, slower airspeed, and precise spray delivery make the helicopter a near perfect platform for ULV spraying. After consulting with local farmers and delving deeper into his investigations, it became overwhelmingly apparent that the utilization of helicopters for aerial application was an open “blue-sky” window.

New Life Flight Path

            Armed with newfound knowledge, Robert Garzolini departed for Kona, Hawaii where he obtained his commercial helicopter rating at Mauna Loa Helicopter.  While completing his training, Garzolini worked nights as a security officer at Kona International Airport, worked as a flight attendant for Northwest Airlines, and while time building for his commercial rating he did time in home construction. It was a rigorous path. Garzolini then bought a Brantly B-2B and began giving rides from the yard of a local convenience store during nights and weekends. When he wasn’t giving B-2B tours, he was flying the contours of nearby cornfields, teaching himself the flying skills necessary to be an effective “ag” pilot.  To build that crucial flight time, Garzolini also flew a season as a tour pilot in the Badlands National park in Bell 47s. Then, perhaps just to spice things up a bit in an already insane flight path to success, he spent an entire winter flying an MD 500 off of a tuna boat in Majuro, Marshal Islands.

            Determination and hard work finally paid off when Garzolini and his wife, Toni, established Terre Haute Helicopter, Inc. in 2008.  Unremitting dedication to safety, quality, precision, and customer service resulted in their company being awarded the 2012 Indiana Small Business Development Center EDGE Award for Economic Development and Growth through Entrepreneurship.  Today, Terre Haute Helicopter is outfitted with a Bell 206 Jet Ranger, a trusty Brantly B-2B, and two Robinson R44 helicopters.  All totaled, they are projected to cover 90,000 acres of aerial application in 2014.

 A Better Application Alternative

            So, what is it about helicopters that make them such wonderful aerial applicator tools? To answer this question it is important to have a general understanding of how agricultural chemicals provide their greatest benefit to crops. Manufacturers’ product application recommendations can vary significantly from how airplanes actually apply them. Most manufacturers recommend a spray height of 10 feet over the crop canopy. Additionally, it has been shown that optimum aircraft application airspeed should not exceed 90 mph. It is extremely difficult for airplanes to maintain a constant 10 feet over the crop canopy, and they also have trouble keeping their airspeed below 140 to 160 mph. A helicopter’s maneuverability and precision allows it to meet all manufacturer recommendations. This also makes for more environmentally friendly application.

            The benefits of helicopters over fixed-wing aircraft as applicators are numerous. Helicopter’s can maintain proper application height, fly an average of 60-70 mph, and create a rotor downwash that forces chemicals to penetrate today’s much thicker crop canopies. A generation ago corn was planted at 18,000 to 20,000 plants per acre (PPA). Today it is planted at 38,000 to 42,000 PPA. Soybeans were once 35,000 to 40,000 PPA, and now they are grown 120,000 to 150,000 PPA.

Such dramatic PPA increases have made crop canopies considerably denser and more challenging to penetrate. Rotorcraft downwash overcomes this dilemma.  Helicopters can also safely maneuver close to obstacles such as tree lines, buildings, waterways, and wind farms. This maneuverability also enables helicopters to “trim” the field, which allows for fewer over-flies of adjoining properties. Furthermore, only helicopters are capable of flying what it is commonly referred to as “map of the earth,” which is flying the contours of the field as they change. This unique capability allows for accurate chemical delivery.  Helicopters significantly aid in the reduction of product drift, and nearly eliminate off-target chemical delivery, a problem common to airplanes. Exclusion zones are easily avoided, resulting in a much happier public sector.

            In addition to their incredible application capabilities, helicopters often perform “hot loads” (loading the application product with rotors still turning) on-site. Once mixed, herbicides and pesticides have a relatively short shelf life. Therefore, it is advantageous to mix the chemicals in the field as this eliminates loss of product effectiveness. Another benefit of hot loading includes product waste prevention, a problem often encountered when loading the product ahead of time. Hot loading provides the pilot with the ability to calculate exactly how much of the field is left for spraying, and enables him or her to load the precise amount for the remaining acres.

Making Dollars … and Sense

            Terre Haute Helicopter has completed field-testing for influential chemical companies such as Syngenta, Helena, Crop-Max, S&S Chemical, and various growers. Data has been collected and tabulated. The results consistently show that helicopter application yields more crops than application by ground rig or airplane. Rotorcraft application also increases crop protection. Testing indicates that airplanes only achieve actual crop coverage of 65 to 70 percent. However, helicopters achieve around 95 percent efficiency rates. Ground rigs achieve 95 percent efficiency as well; however, they lack the canopy penetration of the droplets achieved by helicopters. They also inevitably inflict damage to the crop by the mere nature of their application process.

            Of course, there is a slight negative side to using helicopters for aerial application. While airplanes cost about $10 per acre to fly, helicopters have an additional $2 per acre application cost. Still, helicopters’ 95 percent efficiency rates and penetration abilities overcome possible concerns.  For example, a typical cornfield will produce an additional 20 to 30 bushels per acre when helicopters are used. With a bushel selling for around $6, the farmer would receive a total net benefit of $120 to $180 per acre at an application cost of merely $2 more. Consequently, the increase in both crop yield and crop protection far outweigh these additional application costs.

Growth Opportunity

            In summary, currently only 20 percent of agricultural products are applied aerially. Although ground rigs are capable of obtaining application efficiency equivalent to helicopters, they lack the penetration capability found in helicopters. Furthermore, damage to crops by ground equipment is unavoidable. Airplanes cannot even begin to compete with helicopter efficiency rates, penetration capabilities, application heights, slower airspeeds, or the inherent ability to fly the varying contours of the fields.

One of the primary inhibitors to helicopter use in the agricultural industry is the mere lack of beneficial information. This article is one small step to correct that deficiency. Agriculture is a wide-open opportunity to grow the helicopter industry.  Similarly, the helicopter industry has an opportunity to aid agriculture in growing more crops.  Together, these two industries can plant the seeds for a flourishing future.

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