Facts About the Aerial Application Industry
- There are approximately 1,560 aerial application businesses in the United States.
- There are approximately 3,400 total ag pilots in the U.S., including roughly 2,000 hired pilots and 1,400 owner/operator pilots. (Approximately 87 percent of aerial application business owners in the U.S. are also agricultural pilots.)
- NAAA represents more than 1,800 members.
- According to NAAA records, aerial application operations are located in 45 states—all but Connecticut, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Vermont, and West Virginia.
- Aerial applications are conducted in all 50 states.
- Aerial application is often the only, or most economic, method for timely pesticide application. It permits large and often remote areas to be treated rapidly, far faster than any other form of application.
- When wet soil conditions, rolling terrain or dense plant foliage prevent other methods of treating an area, aerial application may be the only remaining method of pest treatment.
- Aerial application is conducive to higher crop yields, as it is non-disruptive to the crop by treating above it and not within it. A study by a crop protection product manufacturer of applications on corn showed aerial application increased yield 8 percent more than ground application.
- Aerial application does not cause soil compaction, hence preventing soil runoff.
- The aerial application of crop protection products results in greater harvest yields of crops. This in turn results in less land being used for agricultural production, preserving important wetland and forest ecosystems important to carbon sequestration and habitat to threatened and endangered species.
Aerial application permits large and often remote areas to be treated rapidly, far faster than any other form of application.
- Based on a 2019 NAAA survey, the agricultural aviation industry treats 127 million acres of cropland aerially each year.
- According to the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture there are 347 million acres of cropland used for crop production in the United States. Taking into account some crops are treated more than once during a season, aerial application treats an estimated 28 percent of this cropland.
- Nearly 100 percent of forest protection applications are made by the agricultural aviation industry.
- In addition to agricultural aviation, the industry provides firefighting and public health application services to combat disease-carrying mosquitoes.
- Based on a 2019 NAAA survey, the five most commonly treated crops among aerial application operators are corn, wheat/barley, soybeans, pastures/rangelands and alfalfa, but aerial applications are used on nearly all crops.
- On average, each aerial application business has 2.3 aircraft, ranging in price from $100,000 to nearly $2 million depending on hopper size, engine type and engine size.
- 84 percent of the aircraft used are fixed-wing; the remaining 16 percent are rotorcraft/ helicopters.
- Of the combined fleet, 81 percent are turbine powered and 19 percent have piston engines.
- Ag aircraft are ruggedly built to handle 30 to 100 takeoffs and landings every day from rough landing strips, and they offer protection and good visibility for the pilot.
- Today’s aircraft utilize sophisticated precision application equipment such as GPS (Global Positioning Systems), GIS (geographical information systems), flow controls, real time meteorological systems and precisely calibrated spray equipment.
- Precision application equipment results in less pesticide product being applied to more acres and can ensure an even more targeted delivery by further mitigating off-target drift. The ability to precisely apply products also results in greater fuel efficiency.
Rotorcraft make up 16 percent of the aerial application industry's fleet.
Training & Safety
- The average hired aerial applicator pilot has 19.4 years of experience in the industry, whereas the average aerial applicator operator has 27.9 years of experience.
- Ag pilots have their commercial pilots’ licenses. They also must be registered as commercial pesticide applicators in the states in which they make applications and must meet the requirements of Federal Aviation Regulations Part 137 which allows for low-level aviation operations.
- NAAA developed the Professional Aerial Applicators’ Support System (PAASS) to provide pilots continuing education about safety, security and drift mitigation. PAASS is attended annually by nearly 2,000 pilots and operators and has resulted in markedly improved safety and environmental stewardship statistics.
- NAAA’s Operation S.A.F.E. (Self-regulating Application & Flight Efficiency) program enables aerial applicators to attend fly-in clinics and have their aircraft professionally analyzed for spray pattern uniformity and droplet size.
- NAAA works with the federal government to invest in researching, developing and testing aerial application technologies to strengthen the safe application of crop protection products by air.
Agricultural Aviation Priority Issues
- Obstacles– From 2009 to 2018, 9 percent of aerial application fatalities were the result of collisions with towers, while collisions with power lines account for an additional 13 percent of the accidents and 12 percent of the reported fatalities in the industry. NAAA is urging the FAA to provide improved guidance on marking obstacles, including expanding tower marking guidance to include all guy wire and free-standing towers more than 50 feet in height.
- Funding– Federal funding for aerial application research must be maintained, as it improves the precision and efficacy of aerial application. In addition, USDA economists have found that every dollar invested in agricultural research has a $20 return to the American economy.
- NPDES Permits– NAAA is lobbying Congress to exempt duplicative, unnecessary and burdensome NPDES pesticide general permits for pesticide applications. The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide & Rodenticide Act requires the safety of pesticides to water before they may be registered for use.
- Taxes and User Fees – The current exemption for agricultural aviation from federal aviation fuel excise taxes must be maintained for ag aviators and they must be exempt from user fees. The majority of agricultural aviation operators do not use public airports; rather they use their own private landing strips and rarely, if ever, use or show up on the nation’s air traffic control system network because they are restricted category aircraft that fly at low altitudes in uncongested airspace.