Ag Pilot Andy Stein is Flying Slow and Low.

Andy Stein always loved sea fairing vessels and his childhood dream was to become a Merchant Marine. At the age of 17 he sent an application to the Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship and he was accepted into their program. Andy was so excited and could hardly wait to graduate from high school. During his senior year, he took the initiative to get his physical and dental exams as well as applied for a passport. He completed all the necessary requirements and began making his plans to leave for Piney Point Maryland.

Photo by Andy SteinPhoto by Andy Stein

Then one day his father said something that changed the direction of his life “Son, I need you on the farm to help haul hay.” Growing up on a farm in Modesto, Andy was the only son living at home at the time. He knew the importance of helping his father with the family business.

A few years later, Andy decided to follow in his older brother’s footsteps and pursue a career as an ag pilot. What is an agricultural pilot? They are also referred to as crop dusters and aerial applicators. These pilots fly specially designed planes and helicopters to perform jobs within the farming industry. In 1993, Andy obtained his commercial pilot’s license and began his career in ag aviation. Initially he flew airplanes but in 2003 Andy started to transition to helicopters. He has been strictly flying helicopters since 2014.

Photo by Andy SteinPhoto by Andy Stein

Andy has been working in aerial aviation for the past 26 years and has logged over 19,000 hours of flying time. At the first sign of sunrise, before most of us are enjoying our first cup of coffee, Andy is airborne well on his way to work.

Early Morning SunriseEarly morning sunrise. Photo by Andy Stein

Aerial application is a necessary and vital part of food production.  Airplanes and helicopters are used to apply fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides on various crops where it is too difficult to reach by ground equipment. A helicopter can accomplish three times more work in the field than ground equipment which means less fuel is being used, creating less pollution and reducing the carbon footprint.

Helicopter pilot  Michaud Aviation    Photo by Michael PiperHelicopter pilot Michaud Aviation Photo by Michael Piper

Last May during the heavy California rainstorms, Andy assisted cherry growers using his helicopter to dry the cherries. He did this by flying the helicopter between 2-7 miles an hour above the treetops producing enough air and turbulence to blow the water off the fruit and leaves. If water is not quickly removed from cherries before the sun comes back out, there is a strong possibility the fruit will begin to crack creating irreparable damage.   The use of a helicopter to do this process is very expensive for a grower but it can be the difference between saving or losing his entire crop. 

Photo by Andy SteinPhoto by Andy Stein

Andy is considered a “visual storyteller” because his aerial videos are often shared on the Facebook group called “My Job Depends on Ag” (MJDOA). This group has over 90,000 members representing agribusiness followers throughout the U.S. These videos often illustrate the fertile San Joaquin valley and the diverse crops being grown throughout California. He will point out an almond orchard in bloom, or the beautiful sky from the sunrise reminding us never to take nature for granted.

Being an ag pilot is a dangerous job and can be stressful even for the most experienced pilot. Safety is always the number one priority for Andy. Before he flies into a field, he will scan it for any obstacles in his way. He alleviates his stress during this time by whistling or humming.

Inclement weather can impact visibility and helicopter pilots need good visibility in order to be aware of their surroundings. Arial application requires flying at a low altitude carrying a heavy load and moving in a regular pattern over fields. All of this is done while having to avoid trees, powerlines and fences.

Andy is constantly on the lookout for portable weather towers used by growers in their fields. These towers are anywhere from 2-10 feet above the crop line with a diameter about the size of your thumb. There is no standard marking on these making them undetectable from a helicopter. 

Refueling Andy's helicopter.  Photo by UnknownRefueling Andy’s helicopter. Photo by Unknown

The job of an ag pilot requires a tremendous amount of skill and precision and for this reason training is extensive. They must have a commercial pilot license and an airman medical certificate. The state of California also requires new pilots to start as 2-year apprentice under the direct supervision of a journeyman pilot. Knowledge of flying the aircraft is only a small part of what they need to know. The journeyman pilot supervises and trains the apprentice about the chemical applications, timing and the overall weather conditions needed for their job. Experienced ag pilots are required to renew their license every 2 years in addition to 20 hours of continuing education.