ELGIN, Minn. — A July 19 crop-dusting helicopter crash in Elgin, Minn., is bringing the safety concerns of the industry to the forefront. Accidents are unfortunately commonplace, said Terry Hamilton of Mower County’s Midwest Ag-Air, LLC, and Monday’s incident is the latest during the crunch of pesticide application season.
“We can practice safety, we can preach safety … yet we are going to have accidents,” Hamilton said.
While crop-dusting is an efficient practice, it can also be dangerous. Crop dusters have to fly close to the ground in order to properly spray crops, and pilots must be vigilant about being aware of their surroundings — the changing terrain and ground obstacles in particular — in order to avoid an accident.
In Monday’s crash, Wabasha County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Jim Warren said it appeared the crop-dusting helicopter got tangled up in power lines while spraying and went down, killing 40-year-old pilot Corey James Adcock. The Federal Aviation Administration, National Transportation Safety Board and Wabasha County Sheriff’s Office are investigating the accident.
A 2014 special report by the NTSB cited pilot exhaustion as one element frequently playing a part in accidents.
“There’s millions of acres that need to be treated in eight to 10 days. Time is of the essence to beat the diseases that we know are coming,” Hamilton said. “So many acres in so little time, and fatigue sets in.”
Hamilton said fatigue often comes as a result of overwhelming pressure to complete the job on time.
“A lot of the accidents that I have witnessed or been a part of, or studied, you can back up and see that it actually started two or three days prior. From just a bad night’s sleep, from a phone call from home or a text message … anything to disrupt a pilot’s mental condition could make them make poor choices,” Hamilton said. “They’re not superhuman.”
Accordingly, the 2014 NTSB report recommended several changes to pilot guidelines for crop-dusters, including developing fatigue management and risk-avoidance strategies.
For his company, Hamilton said he tries to keep his pilots as relaxed as possible before they fly in hopes of removing those pressures that often cause errors and accidents.
But still, crashes happen.
“No one likes to see it happen,” Hamilton said. “But pilots are not infallible people, as we all like to think.”