This summer, stripe rust has kept a lot of crop dusters in the air. Every one of those crop dusters is licensed to fly but they also have additional training in mixing and handling chemicals and in low-altitude flying. In some states, they have to take special courses in order to fly around power lines.
Yet, despite the extra training required, demand for crop dusting pilots is increasing, as are all sorts of jobs for pilots. And more and more agriculture producers are picking up their private pilots license so they can check out their fields and their herds.
Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Mont., is the only four-year program in a three state area that helps individuals gain a private or commercial pilot's license. They work out of Logan International Airport in Billings and have 100 students in the aviation program.
Although the program is not built around the standards of the Professional Aerial Applicators Support System or PAASS, students completing the Aviation program at Rocky Mountain College may be set up to meet the standards required.
"Some of our graduates are flying as certified crop dusters for their full time job," said Austin Mapston, Assistant Director of Admissions at Rocky Mountain College. Others are flying in Alaska as bush pilots, or have careers as pilots with state agencies.
"The careers for pilots are broad in their application," he said. "They can monitor migratory patterns of herds for Fish, Wildlife and Parks or the Department of Agriculture. They can fly for the U.S. Forestry Department of the Department of the Interior. Their choices are all over the board." Mapston said students come to get a four-year degree along with their private, instrument, commercial and multi-engine flight ratings.
The minimum number of hours to complete a private license through the Rocky Aviation program is 50 flight hours. The college also offers degrees in aviation management for those who are interested in running smaller airports or helping with administrative duties. Graduates are qualified to work at airports of any size, at an airline, or most any aviation company.
A number of students and faculty at Rocky Mountain College have grown up on farms and know the value of aviation to the agriculture industry. While some farmers and ranchers have a private license, Mapston said a pilot cannot spray commercially without being a commercial pilot.
Mapston said the college is able to take someone who has never flown before through their four-year program. They also can help experienced pilots learn new skills. In fact, a student with a bachelor's degree and a private license already can pick up a commercial pilot license in a year.
"We have state-of-the-art simulators and aircraft," he said. The course is led by Dan Hargrove, a military pilot who also flew for AirForce One.
"He has an interesting background in aviation," said Mapston.
Their program is designed to certify pilots in the basics. Classes on meteorology and weather patterns, the environment, professional development, high-tech GPS classes and aviation law are all offered.
The GPS classes help pilots learn to chart exactly where they are so they can specifically and deliberately drop materials for crop dusting, if that is something they choose to pursue.
"We divide our training between tradition equipment, which isn't going anywhere, and what is called the glass cockpit," he said.
New planes are coming equipped with programmable computer screens where the pilot can program in what he or she wants the plane to do, in terms of airspeed, altitude and direction. The program teaches pilots how to program and fly in the computer-based "glass" cockpits but also how to fly with a "traditional needle, altimeter and air speed indicator," he said.
"Most farmers and ranchers use the traditional equipment and we want our pilots to be able to fly those planes as well," said Mapston.
For more information on the Rocky Mountain College Aviation program, contact Mapston at 406-657-1024 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on becoming a certified crop duster go to the National Agriculture Aviation Association Web site at www.agaviation.org; or check out the Association of Montana Aerial Applicators at www.montanaaerialapplicators.org.