Trade Wind Ag Service: 40th Anniversary Story

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El Campo, Texas

For the past four decades, three-generation families of pilots and ag operators have been living remarkable stories that chronicle the history of agricultural aviation and the role Air Tractor played in their business growth.

To mark Air Tractor’s 40th anniversary, we’ve collected stories from Air Tractor operators from across the country. We offer their recollections of the early days in the business, the perspective they bring to today’s industry and what they see the future may have in store for us.

How far back does flying go in your family?
My dad Bert grew up on the family farm in El Dorado Texas. My grandfather was a farmer and he owned a 1947 model Luscombe passenger plane to travel between his two farms; he had one in San Angelo and a farm near Lubbock. Flying back and forth sparked an interest in flying by my Dad.

Dad began working as an ag plane pilot in 1970. Bruton Air Spraying was born in 1976 at in El Dorado, Texas. He started his flying service with a new Cessna AGtruck. In 1977, Bert bought another flying service that came with three Piper Pawnees. Those were the aircraft popular in that area then, the Cessnas and the Pawnees.

I believe it was 1979 that he got his first AT-301, with the short tail. That was a huge improvement in terms of productivity and horsepower. In fact, when he got his first turbine Air Tractor, a 1982 model AT-400, we could do the same work with the 301 and the 400 that we did with the three Pawnees and two AGtrucks.

How did you get into the business?
My dad is also a flight instructor. He got me flying; I soloed at 16. As soon as I could get certified I went right to work. Dad and I did row crops, which primarily consisted of cotton, but also wheat. We’d go 30 to 50 miles from our FBO, maybe. For rangeland work, it was really about 150 miles around San Angelo. Our service area is 120 miles south of Lubbock. It’s a big farming area, the biggest cotton patch in the world. We were located on the south end of that.

It’s always been a family affair. My mother has always done the scheduling, and all the bookkeeping for our operation. As I grew up in the family business, I got to working on the ground and flying as soon as I come of age. I did plenty of loading and plenty of flagging in the days before GPS. I had a unique opportunity with my family in the business. I started in ag planes as soon as I got out of high school in 1986.

The newest pilot in the family is my 16-year-old son, Clayton. My dad is still acting as flight instructor and has him soloed. Clayton is working on his private license, but he’s a little young yet. He’s around here doing whatever chores are to be had. The opportunity to stay in the business is there, but who knows about anybody that age, I guess. But the opportunity is certainly there for him. He seems to be interested in it.

I also have two daughters who fly, but they don’t do application work. They help my wife Patricia with the scheduling and the paperwork and all. They are so important to our business. My middle daughter recently graduated from Baylor University. She got most of her flight training there at college, but my Dad was able to prep her and send her for a check ride. So she just got her pilot check ride out of the way. My oldest daughter has her Masters degree in education and got her private license a good while back. She’s an accomplished pilot, a stay-at-home mom, and she’s helping us at the airport. We’re real proud of her.

When did you strike out on your own?
I moved away from Dad’s place in 1999 to start my own business here along the Gulf coast. Ryan McComb is the other pilot with me here in El Campo. Ryan has been with me since 2003. He and I share the workload; I just couldn’t do it without him.

My current fleet… I have a 2013 model 502B; it’s got about 700 hours on it. My other 502B is a 2010 model; it’s got about 1,800 hours on it.

How did your airplane ownership evolve over the past 38 years?
Dad and I had several radial engine Air Tractor models. The 301 (short tail) and 301A (tall tail) There were at least three or four of those. We never did have the 401, though. I think our last one was an 81 model. We kept it until 1987. We went into turbines in 1987. We had the AT-400 with the -15 engine. Then we went to the 402; it had a little wider wingspan. Our first 502 was a B model, built in 1995. After that we got a 402A with a -10 engine. We’ve been exclusively 502 flyers since then.

The 502B with the -34 engine; that’s my favorite airplane. We haven’t had the 602 or the 802. In my opinion, the 502 is just more versatile. There’s been times when I wished I had a bigger airplane or wished I had a smaller airplane, but in my opinion, that 502B is the most versatile model there is.

There’s been times when I wished I had a bigger airplane or wished I had a smaller airplane, but in my opinion, that 502B is the most versatile model there is.
— Paul Bruton —

What else has changed since you started in the business? How are the challenges different?
I asked my Dad about this and we both agree. It’s split between the politics of agriculture and the obstacles that we’ve always faced, such as wind farms, power lines and towers – and just being more of them. At my Dad’s place, there’s a prolific oil field out there. So that creates some challenges for him. But it seems like we always find some big areas to work…

Then there’s the politics of agriculture. We have some active wind farms and there are some in the planning stages… politics are so tied to that, as far as tax incentives, so who knows where that’s going? There’s a new farm bill this year. Congress is directing all of the monies away from commodity programs and into insurance programs. People are still trying to figure out how that’s going to affect them, and how to farm that way. And then you have the corn/ethanol issue. It puts a lot of uncertainty into the business, but then I look at the past and it always has been that way. In 1983 I was just coming of age and I sure remember that PIK program they had. They reduced the acreage to try to manipulate the cotton market, and it was really devastating for my family, because we had a lot less land to work. And bank interest was like 18% at that time.

It’s so different now with low interest rates, but we gotta have these monster yields to make a profit. So while the politics changes, it’s always challenging.

It’s different today in that we don’t have the smaller entry level aircraft. One of my first seats was in a 300 Brave, and at that time it was only a few years old. But now, all the smaller airplanes are getting really old.

When I started, I worked with flaggers. I’d already been on the ground a lot doing chores, and today sometimes we don’t even have those chores. Young guys don’t get the chance to be out in the field and do the observation that my generation did.

Now we’ve got GPS so we can be very precise. We need to embrace everything we can do to be more precise, accurate and efficient in our applications. Our workload is more intense due to the technology in our lives. You can get an email, a text or a phone call and business just faster paced than it used to be. It makes our ground crews and office help even more important. Sometimes we only get a narrow window to work, due to the weather or other technologies, the varieties and the chemistries we’re working with. Those things continue to get more challenging.

You have a nephew coming into the business. How did you get him trained?
My nephew, Grant Schwartz has already been at it awhile. I believe he graduated high school in 2006, and just like myself, he went right at it. My Dad taught him how to fly as well. It’s gotta be hard for these new pilots, because when I started I didn’t have to learn the electronics and the GPS. The new guys now have got to learn it all at one time. Bert got him a Cessna AGtruck to start off.

Grant is helping Bert at his operation in Garden City. Grant flew a couple of seasons in an AGtruck to get some experience. We got him a 402B to give him some experience in turbines. He’s done several seasons with us in the 402. Dad has a just bought a new 502 for Grant to fly this year.

When I think about our business today, I don’t know if I’d have room for a smaller airplane in my operation, you know? Everything is big, and that’s different than it was in generations past. And it’s not just with our airplanes, everything on the farm has gotten bigger, too. We got bigger farm equipment. That’s just part of the times we live in, I suppose.

When I started ag work, my Dad flew with me. We had a Super Cub with a Sorensen belly tank on it. And I got my first experience with that Super Cub. It was really little. It carried about 65 gallons. But my Dad was able to sit behind me. We had a pretty good run of grasshoppers back then, and I got a good bit of experience spraying grasshoppers while they were doing the regular crop work. He helped a few other guys get started in that airplane, too. We traded that airplane for the 300 Piper Brave. Then I got my 301, and then a 400. That’s how I progressed. Air Tractor has made a big move with the AT-504. It may be a big thing.

Is there one aircraft that stands out from the others?

When I think of all the airplanes that I’ve flown, the first aircraft that really stands out in my mind is my grandfather’s Luscombe passenger airplane. I can look it up and it is still flying today.

Then I think of my Dad with the AT-400. To me, that airplane really fit him so well, ’cause he was flying the most at that time in his life. And then for me, it would be the 502B. I started my business in El Campo with a ’98 model. The reliability and the versatility of the 502; I just think it’s the best thing out there.

At one time Air Tractor built a plane with a crew seat in it, behind the pilot. Boy, my Dad really loved that airplane. It was a 2000 model, I believe. You could put a crewmember in the back seat to go along to a job site. We might take off and go a hundred miles away and you could take your helper with you. That was a lot of fun.

I don’t really have any complaints with their airplanes. Air Tractor is a wonderful company and Jim Hirsch has done a good job during the transition. I’ve always been able to call and talk to them. They just need to keep doing what they’re doing.

Is there anything that hasn’t changed?
We have to be reliable, we have to have reliable equipment and to be responsive. Those things never change. In fact, they’re just more so. We can’t have excuses for broke-down equipment or can’t get parts, or just can’t get going. We’ve gotta be very reliable and responsive and that hasn’t changed.

The other thing that hasn’t changed is the challenging weather we have. You hear a lot of news about climate change, but it’s always been a challenge to get the right conditions you need for aerial spraying. A lot of times it’s a narrow window, so we’ve gotta be fast, gotta be productive, gotta be responsive.

What’s kept you coming back to Air Tractor for all these years?

When something is really good to me, I really hate to change. Air Tractor’s dealer network has been outstanding to us. Lane Aviation in particular has been very good to us. We get excellent service from them. I’m never having to wait for parts or supplies. And their maintenance shop is also a major factor. I know I won’t be on the ground long if I have any kind of problem. And where my Dad is on the other side of Texas, Lane has still been very responsive to him.

We’re really pleased with Lane Aviation. They have a good qualified and staffed maintenance shop that helps all of us look really good. Between Lane and Air Tractor, I think they’re doing an excellent job for us. I love Air Tractor because they’re based in Texas, and we’re all about Texas.