Caleb Mason, Upper Limit Aviation graduate and current Agriculture Pilot (or Ag Pilot), recently shared an update regarding his commercial pilot journey – bringing us up to speed about what has transpired since he finished the ULA flight training program less than a year ago.
Ag Pilots fly specially-designed helicopters to apply herbicides, insecticides, seeds and fertilizers on crops, orchards, forests, fields, and swamps. Other applications include counting cattle and inspecting crops.
Caleb Mason is 33 years old, and has accumulated 550 of flight hours by flying for Ag Air, Inc., in Central California. Ag Air, Inc., is a fairly small Agriculture aerial applicator company, flying between 400hrs to 600hrs annually. Caleb shared his impression of his new job with Ag Air, “I love what i do, I love working with the growers and getting to know them and being able to help them continue to farm in the area.”
Caleb started our conversation by saying, “agricultural piloting is an interesting field, and I don’t have a wide spread grasp of the entire industry, but in my particular area, which is the San Joaquin and Stanislaus County, we work predominately with row crops, tomatoes, corn, beans, alfalfa, pumpkins and watermelons. We are also branching out to include walnuts and almonds orchards.”
Caleb stated that he got into Agriculture spraying because he knew the owner of Ag Air, Inc., prior to attending flight school. Caleb had actually started working in the agricultural industry prior to enlisting in the Marine Corps. In addition, during his flight school training in Salt Lake City, Caleb studied for the for the California’s aerial applicator license. Caleb used his network contact and previous work experience to plan out his career path before he earned a single pilot certificate.
While Mason was not flying or studying during flight training he found the time to pick up some work with Ag Air, Inc. as a “loader” (loading chemicals on to the helicopter tanks). It was during that time that Caleb received the training about chemicals, how they interact, their applications. More importantly, Mason learned how to work safely around helicopters.
When Mason left Upper Limit in December of 2014, he earned his commercial and instrument ratings, along with gaining experience with external load flying (300 flight hours). Caleb started full time employment with Ag Air right after he left Salt Lake City.
Due to the fact that Caleb had low flight hours, his boss came up with a training program in order to get the company’s insurance provider to cover him. Caleb stated that “An Ag Pilot from his area earns any where between $30,000 to $80,000 annually, depending upon experience and commission rates”.
“At first, I could only ferry the helicopter to and from the job site. I couldn’t actually work as a crop duster. Next, I was to rinsing loads at the end of each job. At the end of every job we would run clean water through the spray system to rinse out any chemical residue that may damage the crops in the next job. While it seemed frustrating at the time, it helped me get used to taking off with a load, how to effectively perform Ag turns, and how to survey the fields for hazards such as wires, irrigation stand pipes, people in adjacent fields and other crop dusters in the area.”
Eventually, Caleb was ready to fly, “My boss and I would fly together – he would fly a load, and I would fly a load. That way he could double check how far off line I was and if I was able to get good coverage.”
“Before and after jobs we did a lot of training on how to lay a job out, what is the requirement from the farmer? I learned how many gallons per acre are we trying to achieve and the proper material required for each job. I learned all about the difference between coarse droplets and fine droplets and their proper use. I also learned about where to best set up the nurse truck and be efficient through the field.”
“By May I was flying jobs solo with oversight of our senior pilot, who would watch from the ground and then critique the job after we got back. There is a lot that goes into flying Ag applicators.”
During flight school Caleb constructed a smart career plan. Caleb shared his method with us to pass along to current students, as Mason stated, “One of the things that I did to make myself more appealing to my boss was that I also got my A&P (Airframe & Powerplant) while i was going to flight school. So not only do I work as an Ag Pilot but I also do almost all of the maintenance.” Now that was smart!
Because of where Ag Air is located they are able to fly about 9 to 10 months of the year. They spray herbicide to kill weeds and pesticide to kill insects. In addition, Ag Air performs aerial fertilizing, seeding, cherry drying and frost control. Caleb went on to say, “An area we are getting more work from is the organic sector. There are 268 registered chemicals you can spray on organic produce and it is still considered organic. It is big business in California.”
“There are a lot of nice things about Utah. I got big into rock climbing when I was there and was spoiled with being so close to all the fantastic spots that were only minutes away. I also really enjoyed all of the instructors I worked with at ULA. From Matt Tanzer, who was my private pilot instructor, to Chelsea Tugaw, Chad Stevens, Kevin Horn and many more. These people brought forth professionalism, knowledge, and a unique perspective to learning. I feel that ULA did it’s best to streamline the process between the College and the flight school and the VA. In addition, ULA was very helpful when I was looking to move to Salt Lake City when I first got out of the Marine Corps.
Caleb has a job that he loves, working with people he likes, and has a clear vision of his future. We congratulate Caleb on a job well done, and wish him continued success as he advances his pilot career.