O'Connell: More than just a pilot

LETCHER--For John O'Connell, crop dusting is more than just flying while spraying pesticide on plants. O'Connell, the owner and one of three pilots for MJ Aviation, of Letcher, flying is just one small aspect of crop dusting. "You have to be an a...

John O'Connell flies his Thrush Aircraft plane spraying over a field five miles east of Letcher on Tuesday, October 6, 2015 in Sanborn County. (Matt Gade/Republic)
John O'Connell flies his Thrush Aircraft plane spraying over a field five miles east of Letcher on Tuesday, October 6, 2015 in Sanborn County. (Matt Gade/Republic)

LETCHER-For John O'Connell, crop dusting is more than just flying while spraying pesticide on plants.

O'Connell, the owner and one of three pilots for MJ Aviation, of Letcher, flying is just one small aspect of crop dusting.

"You have to be an agronomist, botanist, chemist, you have to be a weatherman," he said. "You should also be some sort of mechanic with the airplanes."

The Custer, S.D., native who spent five years in the United States Army started crop dusting in Letcher more than 40 years ago.

With more responsibilities than just flying, piloting the aircraft becomes second nature, O'Connell said.


Crop dusters dispense product out the back of their aircraft, so they have to keep a close eye on where that is going, O'Connell said. He must monitor how the product is coming out, how it's being affected by conditions such as wind and the airplane, all while watching for safety hazards.

"That's just product, and then you start getting into obstacles and power lines and towers. As you fly it becomes more second nature. It's still dangerous," he said.

A requirement to be a crop duster includes a commercial pilot's license, but also a license for application pesticide. That requires continuing education and retraining every two years, O'Connell said.

While flying his airplane is considered commercial flying, O'Connell isn't required to have the same type of licensing to operate a passenger plane. There is an advanced specification called an airline transport pilot. O'Connell said it's the level airline pilots need when they become "senior."

"I've got one, but it's something to talk about in the bar. I don't need it," he said.

O'Connell said it's easier to be qualified with Federal Aviation Administration as a pilot than by the South Dakota Department of Agriculture as a licensed applicator.

"We have a lot of people regulating us. Believe it or not, the FAA kind of stays away from us," he said. "They make sure that we're legal healthwise, make sure the airplane is legal to fly. But as far as the application side of it, they get out of it, and the state Department of Agriculture gets involved."

That's essentially under the auspices of the Environmental Protection Agency, O'Connell said.


"The state supposedly runs everything, but they have to meet all the requirements of the Environmental Protection Agency to manage us," he said.

One of the problems O'Connell said, are the limitations created by the EPA and what it requires of the state's Department of Agriculture.

"The people who make the rules have never been out here in this part of the world. They sit in Washington and write the rules. And they don't fit," O'Connell said.

But O'Connell praised the state regulators, and the FAA employees as "good people."

"They've been good to me my whole life," he said.

'Just a couple of years'

After spending five years in the United States Army, flying nearly 1,000 combat missions as a medevac helicopter pilot in Vietnam, O'Connell knew he wanted to keep flying.

So he returned to South Dakota, landing in Letcher in the spring of 1973.


"When I started it, I didn't have anything. I started with nothing. I wanted to go into an area where there wasn't any competition. I didn't think I could handle the competition," he said noting that he has more than 15 competitors in the area now. "I was going to stay here a couple of years and see how it worked. I guess it worked."

When he was starting, O'Connell flew a plane so small he used to land on gravel roads next to the fields he was working. He estimated the plane's cost was $6,500; a new airplane would cost over $1 million.

"The Piper Super Cub was a tiny little airplane. But it worked," he said. "I tell people, the GPS I have today in my airplane cost five times more than the first airplane I sprayed with."

That plane that lasted him a couple of years before it was run over.

"I was working off a road, then an old man who was blind was driving a truck down the road and didn't see the airplane and drove right over me," he said. "That was the end of that airplane."

For O'Connell, mapping a field used to require a lot of attention to the ground and terrain and utilizing simple flags and markers to recognize the boundaries.

An "automatic flag"-which O'Connell described as a tube that had toilet paper glued under a piece of cardboard-would, at the push of a button, drop a marker on the ground visible from the plane.

"You'd learn to count fence posts and power poles; we did that for years," O'Connell said. "But if we wanted to be really super accurate, we hired a kid. My daughter did that."

Then came GPS.

"It was really kind of neat. It was tough in the beginning because we were pushing the technology and the technology wasn't quite there yet," O'Connell said. "Now when they quit you gotta quit, shut down. You can't work without it. For the farmers, it's so much better. The quality of work is unbelievably better."

One thing that will never change is the weather, but how crop dusters stay up to date on the latest changes in weather has changed tremendously.

"Years ago, we were constantly on the phone with the weather service," O'Connell said. "Now I haven't talked to the weather people in three years. In 5 minutes I can check all the weather around here for a 50-mile radius and have a good idea what the winds are going to be."

'Gradually slide out of here'

After flying for more than 40 years, the 72-year-old pilot has cut back on his flight time. In the last two years, O'Connell has transitioned away from being the primary pilot, passing on the responsibilities to Mark Becker in hopes he'll take over the flying when he's ready to retire.

"I used to always launch first like and go out and go like a wild man, now I let him do that and I go behind him. That's OK with me," O'Connell said. "I probably do 60 percent of what he does. If we're not real busy, I'll just have him fly and I won't fly it."

O'Connell met Becker through happenstance. Becker's sister lives in Letcher, and he flew there to visit her. He knew there was a private runway, so he found out who owned it-O'Connell-and gave him a call.

"I gave John a call and asked if it would be OK to land here, and he said sure," Becker said. "That's how we got to know each other. If it wasn't for my sister, I wouldn't be down here."

When he first visited Letcher, flying was already second nature for Becker, but becoming an applicator was definitely a learning curve.

"My first year I flew in North Dakota with a smaller airplane. Then I came down here and John put me in a turbine and I was in over my head," Becker said. "Made it work though."

He said he is still learning, which O'Connell said is normal.

"It takes some time to get in the seat and get comfortable," said O'Connell who has logged more than 25,000 hours of flight time.

While John and Marci, John's wife, haven't set a specific time when they'll retire, it is something they've started planning. They sold ownership of MJ Aviation to Aurora Coop of Aurora, Nebraska.

Mark has taken the role as the primary pilot the last two seasons, with O'Connell dropping his flight time of an average of more than 500 hours down to a couple hundred.

While Marci handles the primary office duties and sales, they are looking for someone who can take over for her, as well.

"The idea is we'll just gradually slide out of here," O'Connell said.

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