Different equipment, same philosophy. That could sum up the work ethic of Grouleff Aviation at San Joaquin, Calif., where Al Grouleff and his son Don continue the business started more than a half-century ago.

Al began flying crop duster aircraft in his native Imperial Valley in 1947, a short while after his discharge from Army Air Corps service as a C-46 transport pilot in the China-Burma-India Theater.

The following year he moved his family to San Joaquin and opened shop with a pair of war-surplus Stearman PT-17 trainers, one fitted for dusting and another for spraying. The planes operated from the same half-mile strip where the business is based today. Al first leased the dirt strip from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and later bought it and made improvements. An infant when the family moved to San Joaquin, Don cut his teeth on a control stick.

Al, who got his fill of farming with horses in his youth, has seen his share of other changes in agriculture. When he came to the western Fresno County community, checking fields for insect counts with sweep nets was just beginning to catch on with progressive growers. Prior to that, much insect control was by guesswork or intuition, and lygus and other pests often got the best of growers.

In those days, at times he was a field checker during the day and did some flying after dark. In the late 1950s ag chemical companies expanded and incorporated field sweeping into their services to growers.

“Our main crops around here at the time,” Al said, “were cotton, seed alfalfa, grain, and some sugar beets. The main herbicide we used was 2,4-D, and for the first few years we probably flew about 100,000 acres a year.”

Built up fleet

In subsequent years, he built up a fleet of 10 Stearmans, covering as much as 350,000 acres a year, but the radial engines wore out and became hard to find and the aging open-cockpit biplanes were eventually replaced with Air Tractor AT-502 turbo-props.

An AT-502, with a span of 56 feet and a 500-gallon spray capacity, can cover 150 acres per hour, or about twice what one of the PT-17s could manage. The last of the Stearmans was in operation until 1973, although Al still keeps one, restored to its original two-seat configuration, for air show appearances.

Today they operate a trio of yellow Air Tractors, still serving farms in a 20-mile radius of their base, mostly cotton and seed alfalfa but also tomatoes and grain crops. Although Al, at age 76, is active in the business, Don and two other pilots do the cockpit work these days. Their busy season stretches from May through defoliation time for cotton in the fall.

Along with the modern aircraft, they have adopted other state-of-the-art equipment. They installed Wag System global positioning system (GPS) gear about five years ago. A bit skeptical at first, they continued to use manual flaggers on the ground as a cross-reference but were soon won over by the high degree of accuracy of the electronic devices.

And the accuracy is more than just getting the rows matched up for the next pass. GPS equipment indicates a plane's true speed on both upwind and downwind courses and adjusts the spray flow automatically for weather conditions.

Another advantage of GPS comes into play when operations have to be stopped when drift of the material is a hazard. The system allows the pilot to return and pick up the exact spot to resume the application.

Along with the positioning gear, the planes have selective shut-off valves for spray booms beneath each wing. This is a critical advantage when completing a final pass along an edge of a field.

“You can shut off the right-hand boom and the propeller blast pulls the material to the left and into the field,” said Don of the equipment installed in 1999.

Research at the University of Texas showed this type of equipment can reduce spray drift by up to 60 percent.

Regardless of the sophistication of their equipment, the Grouleffs agree that keeping a close eye on wind conditions and temperature inversions is still essential to delivering the spray to the target.

Don contends air is still the most cost-effective way to apply ag chemicals. “We can get more acres covered per gallon of fuel and we can do in an hour or two what it takes most ground rigs a day to do. And there's no soil compaction.

“In some cases, you can pay more for a ground application than flying it on. Of course, there are some fields that have obstacles that our aircraft can't get under or around.”

As members of the California Agricultural Aircraft Association, the Grouleffs keep up with the latest developments in their industry. Al has been a director of the association several times since he started the business.

The Grouleffs work with eight to 10 PCAs from various ag chemical companies. Once they have the recommendation and product for a treatment from a PCA, the Al and Don make it their business to know what crops are where, including sensitive crops around the target field.

Know nearby crops

“Particularly at night, if the wrong crop for the material you are applying is down wind from where you are flying, it can be a real problem.” PCAs are supposed to know the surrounding crops, but the Grouleffs stay in close touch with them as a double-check.

The closer the contact with a PCA, the better, Don said. “The fax is a wonderful piece of equipment, but at times there may be a question or maybe something comes to mind in a conversation. It's good to be able to handle that kind of thing face-to-face, right away. You just can't beat the personal contact.”

Perhaps it's ironic that the Grouleffs do some custom applications with their own ground rigs to round out their service. Under the normally dry conditions of the San Joaquin Valley, fields are rarely too wet to enter for an extended period, and Al said that's why ground rigs have become so common in their part of the state. As growers have become increasingly dependent on the ground sprayers, the number of aerial applicators has dwindled to half those in business in the 1950s.

Even so, Al figures emergencies will occur and there'll always be a need for flying on ag chemicals on the large fields of the valley's west side. The spring of 2001 is an example.

During March and April a series of storms prevented growers from getting in on the ground for urgent sprays, so they called for air support.

Pointing out that a single Air Tractor represents an investment of more than $500,000, Al explains, “Our problem is we can't handle a push of orders like that because we can't justify keeping that much expensive equipment year-round. It's good to have the business. That is, until people get cranky, wanting the job done right now.”

Nevertheless, the Grouleffs pride themselves usually being able to take most jobs on 24-hour notice. “Unless there's something like three straight days of wind, we're usually able to get it done. We've always done that, and that's why we are still here after 50 years,” says Don.

e-mail: dan_bryant@intertec.com