From speed to seeds
By ANDREW MCGINN
Just two years ago, Ryan Stott guided his F-16 Fighting Falcon — more commonly called the Viper by those who’ve earned the right to strap themselves into one — to around 8,000 feet and dropped two GPS-guided, 500-pound bombs on Taliban fighters in northeast Afghanistan.
It was the Jefferson native’s first combat mission as a fighter pilot.
His unit, the Iowa Air National Guard’s Des Moines-based 132nd Fighter Wing, was there providing close air support for the Army units and Marines on the ground below.
“You want to make sure the bombs go where they’re supposed to,” Stott recalled, “because there are good guys down there, too.”
Last week, in a scene that will play out regularly the rest of summer, Stott once again came roaring out of the sky poised to attack.
This time, somewhere around Cooper, he guided his aircraft to only about five feet off the top of his target and released his payload — a shower of fungicide.
When you’re spraying crops back home, it wouldn’t seem that the stakes are nearly as high.
But try answering to a farmer whose nearby organic field or beehives have been hit by friendly fire.
Three years ago, Stott achieved his childhood dream of becoming a fighter pilot, having previously served in the active-duty Air Force as an F-16 crew chief, but he still aspires to one day take over his family’s local aerial application business.
Stott, 32, is in his second season spraying corn and beans for his dad, Jerry Stott, owner of Stott Aerial Spray at the Jefferson Municipal Airport.
“He wanted me to,” Ryan Stott said. “And I wanted to, too.”
There are obvious differences, though, between flying an F-16 (top speed: 1,500 mph) and a canary yellow, prop-driven plane made by a company called Air Tractor (top speed: 130 mph).
“Twenty miles takes nothing in an F-16,” Stott explained. “Twenty miles takes 15 in these.”
To be exact, it only takes two minutes to fly 20 miles in an F-16, he said.
Even still, the flying is no less deft.
The thought of flying anywhere near the wind turbines that tower over area fields might very well send chills down the g-suits of even the most seasoned of Air Force Thunderbird pilots.
But in the cockpit of his lemon-colored AT-301, Stott doesn’t just fly around them — he flies underneath them, too.
“They rough the air up a little bit, so they’ll bounce you around,” he said.
“I’m not going to say I enjoy it,” he added.
Power lines and telephone poles are nothing to scoff at, either.
“I’ve scared myself a couple of times,” Stott confessed. “You do the best job you can, but you can’t get everywhere. There are corners of fields that have wires going across them.”
A 2000 graduate of Jefferson-Scranton High School, Stott comes by it honestly.
“I grew up around it,” he said. “Dad flew. My grandpa flew.”
A spray pilot who grew up spraying wheat and barley in his native Montana, Jerry Stott initially came to Iowa to spray for the Farnhamville Coop.
He ended up managing the Jefferson airport for a time.
For Ryan Stott, there’s no runway in the world that feels more like home than the one at Jefferson’s sleepy airfield.
“I’ve spent my whole life out here,” he said.
Some kids grow up in Russell Park or at the swimming pool.
“I grew up at the airport,” Stott said. “I was all about airplanes. When I was a kid, ‘Top Gun’ was my favorite movie.”
All these years later, Stott finally has a callsign of his own — Thermo.
Loel Larson, who farms 1,600 acres near Cooper, has watched Stott grow from a kid obsessed with planes to one who’s logged 600 hours in the F-16.
“Ryan’s been talking about planes since he was this little,” Larson said, holding out his arm.
Last week, it was Larson’s corn Stott was spraying with fungicide.
“From the air,” Stott said, “the crops around here look really, really good.”
Not all farmers believe in aerial spraying, Larson said. He does so on the advice of his agronomist and the seed company.
“We need bushels to make this work this year,” Larson said. “We have the potential for a fabulous crop.”
That potential for a bountiful harvest was the reason Stott was back in the air just a day after his marriage last week to Sarah Carlson, a 1999 Jefferson-Scranton grad.
“As ag goes, they go,” Larson said.
“If the farmers are having a good year,” Stott added, “we usually have a good year.”
As Larson explained, last year was so dry, he didn’t even consider spraying.
Work this year has been steady, Stott said.
July is the time for fungicide on corn and beans.
In August, they’ll fly what Stott calls “bug runs” on beans, followed later in the month by aerial seeding of cover crops.
In between, Stott will maintain his status as a combat-ready fighter pilot.
A captain in the Air Guard, Stott now serves in the South Dakota Air National Guard after budget cutbacks stripped the Des Moines unit of its F-16s last year.
“I wanted to stay flying,” he said.
Having flown at home and abroad for more than 70 years, pilots with the 132nd in Des Moines will soon have to be content with sitting in a climate-controlled ground station, where they’ll fly unmanned drones remotely.
The “unmanned aerial vehicle” has emerged as the signature weapon in the Global War on Terrorism, and seemingly more and more Guard units are losing their manned aircraft to them.
But for a young pilot who only graduated in 2011 from F-16 training — not to mention a kid reared on “Top Gun” — there’s no interest at all in learning to fly a UAV like the MQ-9 Reaper.
“Flying the F-16 is a lot more fun than sitting in a box,” Stott said.
For the time being, he’s still able to fulfill his need for speed in Sioux Falls with the 114th Fighter Wing.
But, is he the last of a breed?
Whether he’s flying an F-16 or a crop duster, there’s virtually destined to always be a drone on his six from this point on.
While UAVs haven’t yet been cleared to fly in commercial airspace by the Federal Aviation Administration, the drone industry nevertheless sees a bright future for their use in precision agriculture as well.
A 2013 report from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicts that agriculture will emerge as 80 percent of the commercial drone market once the FAA OKs their use, with UAVs being put to use to remotely scan for blight and to more selectively and more safely apply chemicals.
While the fields are presumably much smaller, 90 percent of aerial spraying in Japan is already done by unmanned helicopters.
As that report noted, both the U.S. and Japan are countries that readily adopt new technology.
“Ag is really interested in drones,” Larson said.
So what began in the United States back in 1921 with a modified Curtiss Super Jenny spreading lead arsenate dust to kill bugs — hence the phrase “crop dusting” — could one day be done via remote control.
“Ag culture will run over you if you don’t stay with it,” Larson said. “If you told me I’d see auto-steer in my lifetime, I would’ve said, ‘Yeah, right.’
“Now, that’s all we have.”
Stott can see it happening, “but not anytime soon.”
For now, he’s still got fields to strafe and crops to save.
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