On a warm sunny day in June, 2004 Barry Blackstone, owner of Blackstone Aerial Spraying LLC in Superior, Nebraska, arrived at the Air Tractor factory in Olney, Texas to pick up his new Air Tractor AT-502B. It was Barry’s first visit to the factory and the first turbine aircraft for his business. But the occasion was even more special for another reason — it marked Air Tractor’s 2000th aircraft delivery since production began in 1974.
“Folks might remember that back in 1997 we announced the 2000th ‘Snow-designed, Olney-built’ aircraft, which included more than 500 of the Snow S-2 models and early Thrushes,” said Leland Snow, President of Air Tractor, Inc. “But now we’re happy to celebrate the production of 2000 Air Tractors. This milestone represents a lot of work by our employees, and it highlights the customer satisfaction and loyalty we’ve been fortunate to experience over the years,” Snow continued. “Barry Blackstone is typical of many of our customers who start out in our smaller, piston-powered aircraft then move into a larger turbine-engine plane,” he remarked.
Barry Blackstone grew up in Nebraska with a fascination for aircraft of all kinds. His family lived near a local ag operator, so on Saturday mornings Barry ran outside to watch the skies every time he heard the airplane flying. He joined the Air Force in 1989 as a crew chief on the F-111. He started taking flying lessons at the municipal airport in Clovis, New Mexico where he was stationed.
With a goal of being an agricultural pilot, Blackstone took advantage of an “early out” from the Air Force in 1991. He completed his commercial pilot’s license and went back to Nebraska where he went to work for Jim Butler, owner of Butler Air Service. At the time Butler owned two AT-401’s and a Cessna. Blackstone continued to fly for Butler and to learn everything he could about the business. As the years went by, the two began to discuss what would happen to the operation when Jim decided to retire. In 2001 Blackstone bought the business with one AT-401 and an Eagle.
Barry stayed busy and even hired his former boss to fly the 401 for him while he flew the Eagle. Then in February of last year, he purchased a second business in Red Cloud, Nebraska, about 30 miles west of Superior. With the increased customer base, concerns about engine reliability and safety, and seeing the need for increased productivity, Blackstone decided to make the move into a turbine aircraft.
“I started looking for an AT-402A or AT-402B, but after talking to (Air Tractor dealer) Bill Taylor, I decided to trade the AT-401 for a new AT-502B,” commented Blackstone. “We have some long ferries, so I knew I needed the extra hopper capacity and fuel capacity to make those jobs as efficient as possible,” he said.
The small town of Superior is located in the south-central part of Nebraska, near the Kansas border. Blackstone has a relatively long season from March to December with a slow-down in September and October. They start with herbicide on pastures in March, alfalfa in the spring, insecticide and fungicide on corn and soybeans in the summer, then back to pasture work in November and December. The average ferry distance is 35 – 40 miles, with some as long as 50 – 60 miles.
“I flew a job 100 miles away in the 401 a few weeks ago,” remarked Blackstone. “I’m looking forward to having a faster airplane when those jobs come up.”
Barry feels fortunate to have an experienced support staff at both locations. Jan Tordrup manages the office in Superior, after working for Butler Air Service for 18 years. Scott Menke runs the operation in Red Cloud and knows the local growers, having lived there for most of his life.
Barry also realizes that he was lucky to find an established operator back in 1991 who was willing to hire him as an inexperienced pilot. “In the end it worked out well for both of us,” Barry said. “I got my first seat and a lot of training from Jim (Butler), and he was able to sell a successful business intact when he was ready to retire.”
Blackstone plans to keep the Eagle as a back-up aircraft and for training young pilots who might come along. He commented that it is getting hard to find young pilots these days, so he wants to give someone the same chance that he got. One of those pilots might even call him “Dad”. Barry and his wife Karla have two children — a son named Conner who is 20 months old, and a 4 1/2-year old daughter named Madison who already loves airplanes.
“I’m thrilled to be flying a new turbine Air Tractor,” said Barry. “I think it will be an important part in making the business more productive and successful.”