Pilots apply no fly zone designation -- Spraying crops in wind farms

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Crop dusters working the plains of the Canadian province of Manitoba have sounded the alarm about the safety of flying among wind turbine towers, voting wind farms "no fly" zones. But one pilot has successfully navigated through the province's only wind farm to apply fungicide to a field of winter wheat.

Members of the Manitoba Aerial Applicators Association (MAAA), which represents 93% of the crop dusters in the province, passed their "no fly" vote in the spring, says Matt Bestland, past president of both the MAAA and the Canadian Aerial Applicators Association. He calls the turbines "too ominous" to work around. "I don't know how you could go in there with an airplane doing 155 miles an hour flying ten feet above the ground with a 70-foot wingspan and manage to apply the product on the field in a safe and efficient manner and still have a safe exit strategy in the event an emergency occurred," he says. "We think it is an unsafe practice and we don't see any benefit coming from it. The risk is does not remotely get close to any type of reward thing there."

But James Penner, owner of J&J Air, says the turbines are like any other hazard that crop spraying pilots face during their high speed, low level and heavily laden flights over farmland. "Don't get me wrong. You want to be careful and you want to know if something happens where you're going to go. But these things are so high. And you're looking for safe exits by hydro lines and hydro poles too. It's a big pole in the field. You're not worried about the blades up top if they are stopped."


Penner, based in the south-central Manitoba town of Gretna, sprayed nearly three quarters of a section of farmland near St Leon in June. The section, an area of about 256 hectares, has four Vestas 1.65 MW turbines on it with hub heights of 80 metres and 82 metre rotor s. Another ten turbines are located within 1.6 kilometres of the field that was sprayed.

He says the co-operation of the project owner, Algonquin Power, in shutting down the turbines and turning the blades to provide the best flight path was key. He also takes other precautions to lower the risk. If the weather is exceptionally hot, he will not spray. Hot air has less lift and can drag a half mile turn out to three quarters of a mile.

Penner will use only his most experienced pilots for wind farm work. "If we didn't have a pilot that we felt comfortable with spraying in there, we would never put him in." The configuration of the wind farm is also a factor in the decision. "I mean if there were towers all willy-nilly and it wasn't safe, we wouldn't go in."

Safety first

Transport Canada regulations allow such pilots, in the trade referred to as aerial applicators, to fly as close to structures as required without creating a hazard to persons or property, says spokesperson Andrea Rudniski. Wind turbines are no exception. "It's similar to the way they would fly close to electrical towers or under and over power lines. It just has to be done safely."

Penner's flight has not changed the MAAA's position, says Bestland. Nor, he says, has it eased the concerns of the association's insurance provider. "There is a possibility that insurance would be denied in the event there was an accident. Or even prior to an accident, it possibly may not be granted to you," he says. "It is under discussion."

While individual farmers can weigh the benefits of wind turbine lease payments versus potential restrictions on aerial spraying for themselves, says Bestland, he is concerned about those without turbines on land that borders wind power projects. "What I am worried about is the infringement of other people's rights and their ability to apply aerial application," he says. "If there were appropriate setbacks, that would be a different issue."

The Canadian Wind Energy Association has formed a working group of stakeholders to discuss what the issues are and how they might be managed, says the association's David Timm. Penner's flight, he says, is a good example of what is possible. "It's not as easy as the landowner calling the applicator the day before, asking them to spray their field the next morning. It's going to take some co-ordinated efforts, but I think the landowner will respect that. Wind is another crop for them, and they can't sacrifice one crop for another," he says.

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