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Published March 01, 2010, 04:53 PM

Ag aviators look up

FARGO, N.D. — Brian Rau says agricultural aviation is fewer operators, bigger equipment.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Brian Rau says agricultural aviation is fewer operators, bigger equipment.

“Kind of like farming,” says Rau, 52, of Medina, N.D., who in December was elected 2010 president of the National Agricultural Aviation Association.

Rau was among the officials attending the Tri-State Agricultural Aviation Association in Fargo, N.D. The event attracted a larger-than-expected 400 participants from North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and surrounding states.

Rau and his wife, Elly, operate Medina Flying Service.

“I fly the airplane and Elly does pretty much everything else,” he’s fond of saying.

One of few

He’s only the third North Dakotan to achieve the NAAA’s top post and one of the few in the region. Earlier national presidents from the tri-state area include Ron Deck of Hillsboro, N.D., in 1990 and Alfred Dahl of Forman, N.D., in 1978. Lynn Carlson of Wendell, Minn., was president in 2001. John O’Connell of Letcher, S.D., was president in 1993.

Besides being a farmer and aerial applicator since 1979, Rau is a former lobbyist for the state association. He’s credited a thorough, knowledgeable style. He had input when the state rewrote pesticide law, and he’s been active in working toward ensuring that the region’s expanding wind energy industry doesn’t put towers so fields can’t be sprayed.

“Next to unnecessarily burdensome regulation, wind tower placement is our biggest issue,” Rau says.

The problem varies by region, but some towers already have been placed so that aerial application is difficult if not impossible.

Nationally, Rau says, there are some 1,600 operators and pilots who are members of the NAAA, hailing from nearly every state. An equal number aren’t in the organization.

Membership is greatest in Arkansas because of the rice industry, seeding, fertilizing are done by air. Texas is large and has big numbers. California has concentration in certain areas. Rau, like agricultural aviators in many areas, help with fire suppression tasks. In Nebraska recently, ag aviators have spread coal ash on frozen rivers to speed the break-up of ice.

Group’s efforts

The NAAA is working to improve stewardship and proper use of resources, Rau says.

One effort is its Professional Aerial Application Support System, which deals with recertification for pesticide application, but also covers human factors and is designed to reduce accidents and off-target applications.

Since PAASS started in 1998, accidents involving aerial applicators have declined by 25 percent.

“It’s about why mistakes are made, and why they’re not made — what are the differences between operations where mistakes are made or not made,” Rau says. An example is that there are ways to safely make a turn. “For example, there are ways you can make a turn real fast, but eventually that can catch up to you and cause an accident.”

Rau’s family got into aviation naturally. His father, Duane, flew 100 combat missions in Korea and returned to the farm where he did some aerial applications for his own farm, starting in the 1970s.

Brian learned to fly from local fixed-base operators and instructors in the Jamestown, N.D., area. After high school, he went on to an agronomy degree from North Dakota State University in Fargo in 1980. He did some ag pilot work and then moved to Davenport, N.D., where for three years he managed a fertilizer plant — and met Elly.

Later, the couple made their home back in Medina, where he became involved in the farm with his father and brothers, Bruce and Neal.

Rau has seen the influence of ag aviation go statewide. Initially, the need was greatest in the Red River Valley. Elsewhere in the state, wheat was the main crop. Eventually, crop spraying expanded into sunflowers, canola, dry beans and corn. Potatoes became Rau’s biggest single crop, and account for half of his applications.

Rau says he enjoys seeing colleagues in the business at annual meetings.

“I’ve been in the business some 31 years, and I always pick up something new every year,” he says.