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Birtle pilot does aerial spraying in warmer climate over winter

When fields are snow covered in Manitoba, Randy Sandstrom is busy spraying in Australia

With aerial spraying being so specialized, it’s not uncommon to have pilots from other countries working on Canadian soil and vice versa.

Among Manitoba’s specialized pilots is Randy Sandstrom of Birtle, who is now home from his fourth year travelling to Australia.

“As aerial application is seasonal, we are able to work during Canada’s winter months overseas,” said Sandstrom, who owns Prairie Dusters with his wife Janet. The company is based out of the Shoal Lake Airport, with satellite bases in Birtle, Russell, Roblin, Gilbert Plains, and Dauphin plus a mobile unit.

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The opportunity to work during the winter months “keeps my skills sharp and allows me to learn from very experienced operators worldwide,” said Sandstrom.

In addition to standard crops like wheat and canola, he’s also had a chance to work with some more exotic plants like cotton and bananas.

When it comes to cotton, Sandstrom said it starts out very delicate and weeds must be controlled to get a good crop, prompting fertilizer application at critical times to ensure the plant remains healthy. Similar to desiccation, cotton must be defoliated and the cotton bolls need to be encouraged to open allowing them to be picked. Once harvested, cotton is put in bales and hauled out for processing.

Since bananas are susceptible to leaf spot, they usually require a treatment every 10 to 14 days. A tree growing over a nine-month span produces a bunch upwards of 75 kilograms before being chopped down, with a new tree suckering out from the roots and starting the process again. Located in the bottom of valleys or low spots at the base of mountainous rainforests, 10- to 30-acre plantations are common.

Spraying conditions can be challenging Down Under, said Sandstrom. “Australia is a country of extremes when it comes to weather, forcing spray companies and pilots to be ready to spray when the conditions are right. That can mean planes being loaded in the dark, airborne at first light, or in extreme cases spraying in the night to take advantage of cooler temperatures, when one talks about the cotton area.”

High terrain coupled with high humidity around 80-plus per cent and temperatures in the 30 C mark add some interesting moments to the day, as well, in the banana region of northern Queensland. Weather is assessed between each load to mitigate the risk of getting caught in thunderstorms, which create dangerous downdrafts and winds, he added.

That’s not to say that Manitoba and other parts of Canada don’t have their own set of dangers for pilots.

Under the guidance of Andrew Critchley of Shoal Lake Aviation, Sandstrom completed his private licence in 2008 and then obtained his commercial licence and then his ag rating in 2009. In 2010 he obtained his instructor rating and worked the winter of 2010 in Winnipeg as a flight instructor.

In 2011, the family-owned and -operated business of Prairie Dusters was born. At this time Sandstrom also completed his Australian Commercial Pilot’s licence, as well as his turbine endorsements and ag ratings.

Prairie Dusters employs several family members. Randy and Janet’s eldest son, Cristian (25), was ground support for a number of years, and their youngest son, Wyatt (18), is currently apprenticing in aircraft mechanics. Janet, who works in the office, and daughters, Janessa (15) and Savana (11), also play vital roles in the company. This year, staff will be approximately 15 people including pilots, ground support and office employees.

“Had Shoal Lake Aviation not been in the area, I wouldn’t have pursued flying as a career,” said Sandstrom. “I’m proud to have been instructed by Andrew, and say I’m among the many pilots trained by this man who have made careers out of flying from float planes to 737s.”

At home or abroad, Randy Sandstrom and Prairie Dusters want to be part of a customer’s or farmer’s program, using the most advanced spray equipment available on the best aircraft ever built for this specialized aerial service.

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