Safety concerns raised after mid-air plane crash Wednesday

NEWPORT, AR (KAIT) – After two crop-dusting planes collided in Greene County this week, concerns arose about hazards facing the agricultural aviation industry.

Two area pilots say choosing to dust crops comes with certain risks, but they say it's incredibly uncommon for two planes to crash into each other.

"As far as I know, there's not been a mid-air (collision) in Arkansas in approximately 40 years," said Kenneth Grady, a retired ag pilot.

That's why the crash that killed one pilot and sent another to the hospital Wednesday serves as a sobering reminder. Grady flew for 36 years and says mid-air collisions occur so rarely that pilots mostly keep their eyes peeled for immobile objects.

"You're looking for wires," Grady explained.  "You're looking for tall trees, fences, towers."

Grady says the crop-dusting industry has changed, as technology has made planes more reliable. He admits, however, that the occupation should be reserved for people of a certain age.

"This occupation is a young man's occupation," he said. "You need pretty quick reflexes. You need good eyesight and everything, especially today with the airplanes running anywhere from 145 to 155 miles an hour."

"May, June and July in rice country are our peak season," Bubba Bell said. "We work from daylight till dark, Monday through Saturday, and occasionally we work Sundays."

That grueling schedule during this time of year can create fatigue that wears on pilots like Bell, who runs Bell Flying, Inc. in Newport.

"At our operation, we have three pilots and two airplans, so we keep a constant rotation so that one pilot can take a break," Bell explained. "That's not always the case at every operation."

Bell uses scheduling as one safety precaution, but he says all flying services follow strict guidelines to protect pilots, their clients and the public.

"Unfortunately, things do happen, and unfortunately that can happen in any line of work," he said. "But we're very professional, and everybody has the same goals to be safe and do a good job."

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