Strawberry Waffles, With a Side of Helicopter Spray

Sunny Sunday mornings in Springtime. 20160403.. Strawberries-Waffles-Cream (source - me, growing up in the 1960s in a comfortable middle class family, the most memorable Spring Sundays included dressing up in our best, sitting through a church service, and coming out to a sunny morning hearing birds chirping, then heading home to have waffles for breakfast. These were special occasions. Sometimes we would even have strawberries on our waffles, but usually only in the last weeks of Spring. They were always local strawberries – Hood and Totem and Shuksan varieties – because fifty years ago we were not into megafarms producing megacrops and shipping them around the world in airplanes. Nor had we engineered less flavorful (more shippable) varieties that produce year-round.

20160403.. helo spraying grapes

(a typical ag spray operation, this one over grapes)

Many of the local crops were organic, raised by small farm families. This kept costs down, too. In stark contrast, today’s model for strawberry farming has become extremely fossil fuel intensive. Part of what makes today’s model for strawberry farming ‘work’ is the use of helicopters to do the spray applications, to protect huge monocropped areas from becoming total losses. Spray residues do typically persist on the strawberries we eat.

Another fossil fuel intensive aspect of today’s model for strawberry farming is ‘globalized’ crop marketing – including loading crops onto cargo planes or into the belly of passenger planes. Fresh produce from Chile thus graces the tables of Minnesota, even in the dead of winter. This is a luxury, in that past generations thrived (and were physically healthier!) without it. And, globalized food is a luxury with substantial environmental costs, that we are all encouraged to ignore.

And then there is the safety aspect of using helicopters to apply spray. Every year in the U.S., there are dozens of crashes involving ag operators, and some are fatal. Most fatal ag accidents are fixed wing, but many are helicopters. Blame gravity. Helicopters fall like a rock if there is an unexpected power loss; if they impact hard, the fuel tanks rupture, spray and ignite (…and the problem persists because FAA has for decades resisted/delayed mandating stronger/safer fuel tank systems, to minimize costs for manufacturers and operators). For safety, a falling helicopter needs to either hit the ground with lots of forward velocity to ‘skid to a stop’, or it needs to be high enough to allow the pilot to dampen the vertical impact speed by performing an autorotation. Thus, for each helicopter design, there is a height-velocity diagram that specifies which combinations of height-above-ground and speed are considered safe. A typical height-velocity diagram, such as this one for the Bell 206, dictates the serious risks of using helicopters in ag operations such as air-drying cherries, slinging Christmas trees, spraying grapes, etc.

Today’s farming relies heavily on helicopter spraying, and FAA continues to make no safety regulations to protect a growing list of fatalities. In fact, in the June-August window of 2015, there were six fatal ag operator crashes, including a Bell 47 helicopter crash while spraying in the Salinas, CA area on 6/20/2015. [NOTE: fatal ag helicopter crashes also occurred on 1/2/2013, 2/18/2013, 12/6/2013, 7/23/2014, 8/10/2014, and 8/12/2014]

(click on image to view 4-minute video about a California farmer who went organic)

(click on image to view 4-minute video about a California farmer who went organic)

At a time when climate change is pressing toward an ice-free Arctic and oceans are rising due to polar ice melt, it makes no sense to continue with ‘globalized’ crop marketing strategies. But, we continue nonetheless, likely because the widespread environmental ‘costs’ of this model are not balanced against the narrow ‘benefits’ that accrue to corporations.

Some people are concerned about this, but they are routinely finding the elected officials who could pass laws to re-balance the field (such as to favor local food production) are nearly all bought up and in-service to the corporate interests.

And so, in 2016, a sunny Sunday morning may include a marketed fast-food McWaffle with frankenberries brought to us by the likes of Monsanto. If we mindfully give no thought to this, we can still smile while we eat, ignoring the obvious: we are killing our one planet, and just the same, we are slowly killing ourselves.Marble on Green

Whistleblower Reveals Wanton Disregard for Safety by Oregon Helicopter Spray Operator

Think of it as a ‘Banana Republic’, except the bananas are tall Douglas Fir trees. This is my home state, Oregon, in 2015. Tom McCall and Ken Kesey are no doubt crying in their graves.

“Again and again, herbicides rained down. The milky chemical mix stained Ivy’s windshield white and turned his phlegm red.”

Here’s the story…

Herbicide spray routinely splashed onto the truck's windshield. (click on image to view article & comments)

Herbicide spray routinely splashed onto the truck’s windshield. (click on image to view article & comments)

A 45-yr-old man answers a Craigslist ad, looking for a truck driver to provide ground support for a helicopter spray operation. He hires on for a contract job in southwest Oregon. He works for Applebee Aviation, who was hired by Seneca Jones Timber Company to do a series of quick aerial missions, spraying vast clearcuts to kill the Spring sprouts that might compete with planted Douglas Fir seedlings. The man drives the chemical tank truck; the helicopter loads up with weed killer spray, again and again. What alarms him is the disregard for health and safety, when the weed killer spray is applied not just to the forest but EVERYWHERE, even onto the work crews and the truck. He needs the money (it was a Craigslist job!), so he vows to work through the short season, but protects himself as best he can, by carefully staying inside the truck. And, he uses his smartphone to document. Then, he blows the whistle, sharing his videos and the details of his experience with an Oregonian Environment reporter, Rob Davis. Davis’ article reveals a long history of unsafe practices by Applebee, as well as a reliable ineffectiveness by the Oregon Department of Forestry(ODF) and the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA). And, through it all, FAA maintains more than an arms-length distance. The same failed agency that takes legal action to stop people from flying 5-pound hobby drones at harmlessly low-altitudes to shoot aerial photos … well, FAA just completely ignores the repeated use of a helicopter to spray people.

This is NOT ‘Our Oregon’ Anymore

In the middle of the nineteenth century, thousands of families uprooted to walk across the Great Plains and a series of mountain ranges and dry basins. They followed the Oregon Trail, dreaming of a land of milk and honey. A place where, if hard work was spent clearing the endless acres of tall, dark forest, a lush farm could take hold, and generations could prosper. They did prosper, but not anymore. Nowadays, prosperity is served out discriminately, funneled through the courts, applying oppressive laws against the many. Laws drafted by lobbyists richly funded by the moneyed few; laws then passed by the elected few, to curry favor with their cronies, the moneyed few who finance their reelection. When Kesey wrote the 1964 Oregon literary classic, ‘Sometimes a Great Notion’, he was documenting the self-sufficient Oregon logging lifestyle. But, at that time, he was also studying the essential American balance between the rights of individuals and the rights of the masses. Fifty years ago that balance was in flux. Now, in 2015, it appears to be ‘game over’. The systemic failures in this story point to the obvious: the democratic ideals underlying this nation are now officially dead. Stolen from the rest of us, by money and by corrupt and self-serving bureaucrats.

See also…

Applebee Aviation, Aerial Spraying and Toxic Exposure
Oregon Aviation Watch – as can be expected from OAW, this is a well-researched and referenced article about Applebee. It includes the history of Applebee accidents (some fatal) and previous environmental failures/penalties. The article also takes a look at the  Oregon legislative politics that obstruct reforms and virtually guarantee future repeat failures and fatalities.

July Was a Bad Month for U.S. Aviation Accidents

In July 2014, there were 34 fatal aviation accidents in the U.S, killing 50 people. This compares to 21 aviation accidents killing 39 people in July 2013.

This pattern is particularly disturbing because, just a few months ago, we were on course for a marked reduction in aviation accidents for the year. In the first quarter, fatal accidents declined from 52 to 33, and fatalities declined from 97 to 58 year-to-year. But since then, the history suggests 2014Q1 was an anomaly, made safe by pilots simply doing a lot less flying.

Fatal Accidents:

The increase in July may be random and not statistically significant, but if the increase indicates a growing problem, what is driving this change?

  • Is it worsening weather? Are we seeing more intense weather phenomena, perhaps related to climate change? Maybe. The North Captiva Island crash on 7/16/2014 appears to have been weather-related. But, on the other hand, this accident would not have happened had the pilot decided to NOT fly so close to (and possible even within) a thunderstorm.
  • Is it related to aviation events? Partially. There were three fatal accidents flying to the EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh (see 7/26/2014, 7/28/2014, & 7/31/2014). There was a midair collision in Idaho, apparently related to a back-country fly-in (see 7/7/2014).
  • Which particular sectors stand out for more accidents? There were three fatal accidents involving agricultural planes (see 7/1/2014, 7/18/2014, and 7/23/2014). Another HEMS multi-fatality happened during dark middle-of-night conditions (see 7/17/2014). But, the one sector that really increased was regular GA recreational flying, including both factory-built and experimental aircraft, typically killing one or two, most of whom were retirement-aged males.
  • Is it related to the economy and the cost of fuel? Possibly. Just like drivers/homeowners with automobiles, when money is tight, repairs are delayed and minor risks ignored until they become larger risks. It is also interesting to note that during the first two quarters of 2014, fatal accidents and total fatalities were substantially below 2013. A simple explanation might be costs are taking a big bite out of flying interest. It costs money to keep a plane ready to fly, so perhaps the pilots are delaying the start of their flying season until the weather warms up, and THEN getting out and flying more intensively. This may put them a bit out of practice.

It seems reasonable to expect that lack of pilot practice might increase accident rates. Not just physical practices like thorough pre-flight inspections, but also the critical mental practice of making the key decision: do I fly or do I wait?

Height-Velocity diagram for Bell 206

Throughout the country, there are many commercial helicopter operators who contract out their services, then employ pilots who are eager to build hours flying the contracted missions. But, these pilots are so eager that they tend not to challenge their boss when they are asked to fly what are clearly unsafe missions. A pair of common examples will follow, but first look at this diagram.

In this graphic example, Bell has published operating parameters for their model Bell 206, a very common helicopter. This ‘Height-Velocity Diagram’ shows which combinations of speed and altitude are considered safe, and which are considered dangerous. Essentially, the hatch-marked portions show that the helicopter needs to be operated low, over ‘smooth, level, firm’ ground, or it can be operated higher with added speed. In general, operating a helicopter at speeds under 40 mph and over 20 feet above the ground is deemed hazardous. Hover operations (with little or no airspeed), even as high as 400+ feet, are to be avoided.

Here in my corner of the country, in the Pacific Northwest, people have died flying small helicopters doing low-altitude contract flying. One typical operation is the slinging of bundles of Christmas trees from the field to staging areas, in the late Fall. The helicopters zip back and forth, rarely going higher than 100-feet altitude. Another typical operation is to ‘air-dry’ cherry trees in early Summer, flying low to blow off the morning dew, so the hand-picking crews can get to work.

As the diagram shows (and this is a typical helicopter diagram), the manufacturers clearly declare that it is unsafe to use their helicopters at altitude/speed combinations as are needed for these two common commercially contracted operations. To emphasize this point, I have added some colored marks:

  • The green dots illustrate operations considered safe: hovering at ten feet or less, and slightly higher only if some speed is added.
  • The blue rectangles illustrate safe operations at 10mph speeds at and below 10 feet AGL. These also illustrate safe operations at a 50mph speed, but only in the altitude range of 10-feet to 43-feet above the flat, firm unobstructed surface.
  • The red squares illustrate the unsafe flight conditions when slinging bundles of Christmas Trees. One square shows a combination of 10mph & 110-feet altitude; the other square shows a combination of 20mph and 65-feet altitude.
  • The orange squares illustrate the unsafe flight conditions when drying cherries with a helicopter. The left square depicts a 10mph & 15-feet altitude combination; the right square depicts a 30mph & 20-feet altitude combination.

Not depicted are the hundreds of sustained hover operations related to powerline construction and maintenance. Helicopters are hired to hover for long periods of time, positioning materials, equipment and personnel, typically at altitudes from just above the powerline to a few hundred feet total elevation. The vast majority of reported (and NTSB-investigated) contract helicopter accidents are for exactly this unsafe scenario.

There have been many fatal accidents investigated by NTSB. Despite this long history, it appears that FAA has done nothing to clamp down on these unsafe commercial helicopter operations. In the meantime, FAA continues to propose fines against airlines (few of which are ever collected), delay the safe development of drone systems, and obstruct the rights of impacted airport neighbors and truth-speaking Whistleblower employees … all while the helicopter death toll goes on.