Crop dusters say safety is top priority - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Crop dusters say safety is top priority

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WAVERLY (KWWL) -

A crop dusting helicopter crashed Tuesday in Floyd County.  It happened around 11:30 a.m. about three miles northeast of Charles City.  The pilot reportedly walked away from the crash, but complained of back pain.  He was taken to a Charles City hospital with unknown injuries.

Accidents like that are unfortunate, especially for those who make a living as crop dusters.  The Department of Transportation estimates that 86 percent of the state's airports support crop dusters, and those airports contribute more than $400 million to the Iowa economy.

Certainly, a crash scene is something no crop dusting company ever wants to be a part of.  But unfortunately, crashes to happen every year, partly because of the extensive use they get during a short time frame.  So continual plane maintenance is critical to running a safe operation.

Tim Newton has been crop dusting for more than a decade.  GPS coordinates chart out a specific course for where his planes head to spray.  And Newton knows his low-flying job does come with its dangers.

"We're operating in a very high risk environmentally.  There's wires, trees, lots of obstacles.  And as a pilot, we do everything we can to minimize the risk.  You look at maps, and you circle the fields to do reconnaissance passes first," said Tim Newton, owner of Newton Flying Service.

And even though there seem to be crashes involving crop dusters every summer, the pilots that get behind the seat of dusters every day say it's not because these planes aren't safe.

"Every operator out here in Iowa, and there are several hundred during the prime spraying season, is flying 14-15 hours a day, every day.  So if you take that into perspective comparing accidents to flight hours, it's really not any worse than typical flying.  It just looks worse because it's condensed into such a short time frame," Newton said.

And despite what you may think, crop dusters are required to follow a strict maintenance schedule.  And pilots have every reason to make sure that those protocol are followed.

"There's a lot at risk here.  The airplanes are expensive.  The crops are expensive.  We're in this to make money.  So we take every precaution to make sure it's as safe as we can be," said Newton.

And the chemicals on board the planes are much safer now than they used to be.  But to avoid exposure, it's still not recommended that you sit outdoors watching the crop dusters go by.  Ultimately, crop dusters only aim to spray crops, thereby providing a benefit to farmers and everyone who ends up eating the products harvested from their fields.

In fact, it's estimated that fungicide application alone can boost a farmer's yield by 10 to 15 bushels an acre.  And with record corn prices this year, that makes crop dusting a practical investment for farmers.

Crop dusters typically have just a three week window to complete their jobs, from the end of July through mid-August.

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