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Less flying farmers, more need for aerial applicators

As Flying Farmers clubs see falling numbers even as agriculture demands more pilots, women are taking up the challenge

Don Dewar jokingly calls it the $100 hamburger.

Across Manitoba and rural Canada, flying clubs host fly-in breakfasts, lunches and other events to bring people to their airports and communities.

“It’s a social thing, they get together with other pilots and it gives them an excuse to use their airplane, because everyone loves to fly, but it’s not the cheapest hobby to have,” Dewar said.

For Manitoba pilots, the fly-in events held around Manitoba and across Canada are much more than a meal. They’re a chance to get to see friends without spending hours on the highway, hone a valuable skill and keep family close as more and more Canadians choose an urban existence over a rural one.

“If there is an event or something happening in Winnipeg, it’s much easier to fly into the city,” said Richard Wileman, secretary of the Russell Flying Club. “For myself, it’s a one-hour flight versus a four-hour drive, so aviation is critical in that aspect.”

Dewar, a past president of Keystone Agricultural Producers who’s been active with farm organizations for decades, said having the option of flying to meetings helped make a hectic schedule possible.

“When I was involved in KAP, I could leave my house and be downtown Winnipeg in under two hours, so that was important, and that way I could get home in time for dinner too,” said Dewar, who farms just outside of Dauphin. “When I was involved in Keystone, when I was involved in the Barley Association, it allowed me to get to those meetings, because I’m a lot more than an hour’s drive away.”

However, Dennis Schoonbaert cautions that those gains in time can sometimes be lost to other delays, including inclement weather. On what was supposed to be a quick jaunt up to The Pas for a family birthday celebration a few years ago, rough weather kept him grounded for two days.

“The weather turned on us and closed right in, we had to wait… so that is something that happens,” the president of the Shoal Lake Flying Club said.

Ken Pierce, president of the Manitoba Flying Farmers, received his pilot’s licence in 2008. He’d been interested in flying for years, but put aviation on the back burner as he grew his operation.

“I actually wanted to start flying back in 1970, but I’d just started farming and I’d lost $6,000 the first year and I didn’t think the banker would appreciate me borrowing money for a pilot’s licence,” said Pierce, who farms north of Virden.

Now he and his wife Collette fly just about everywhere they can, whether it’s to a Flying Farmers event south of the border, a vacation abroad or to Canada’s West Coast. But even while they are soaring, he knows that the number of folks involved in most flying clubs and organizations is losing altitude.

“Well basically, it’s like every other rural club — grey-hair syndrome is coming in, the population is getting older,” Pierce said.

When it was founded in Oklahoma in 1944, Flying Farmers was an organization open only to producers who flew, recognizing the unique relationship between isolated farmers or ranchers, and aviation. On its website, International Flying Farmers writes that “of all private pilots, Flying Farmers are perhaps the only ones who will tell you their Cessnas and Beechcrafts and Pipers are no different from their combines, tractors, and pickup trucks. After all, airplanes are workhorses too.”

Today the group’s membership is open to all.

“It’s not even all rural, it’s anybody who’s interested,” said Pierce. “You can be interested in farming and not fly, or you can be interested in flying and not farm. We don’t hold anybody to it. As my wife says, it’s for anyone who’s just ‘plane’ nuts.”

Still, the future of such organizations is uncertain.

“I’d like to say, oh yeah, for sure it will pick up, but to be perfectly honest, there’s so many occupations and clubs that are begging for people’s attention now, that our membership has actually dropped down,” he said. “I think there are only 30 members in our club now and except for us they are all people who have been there for 20 or 30 years, so unless, something turns around and we can attract a lot more young people, 10 years from now it’s going to be a very small group of people, but it’s not just the Flying Farmers, it’s flying clubs in general — we are all having the same problem.”

Others agree.

“It’s going to be a struggle, I think, for the next several years to continue the interest in aviation,” said Wileman. “But that being said, I’ve talked to a couple of people who are in the business of aviation and that is one of the industries that commercially, they need more pilots for, so I don’t know what the answer for that is.”

New trends in farming are drawing more people towards aviation, if not flying clubs.

When the Shoal Lake airport was built in 1991, Schoonbaert said there was very little commercial activity on the farm front, unless there was an outbreak of bertha army worm in the area. Today, three aerial applicators use the airport, one of which is based there full time.

“That’s just exploded,” said the retired school principal. “It’s been very wet for the last half-dozen years or so — the one spring there was a lot of seeding of canola that was done by aerial application, just because farmers just couldn’t get on the land.”

Schoonbaert, who also drives combine on area farms, added that a greater interest in desiccation and preventing compaction has increased the demand for aerial applicators as well. Many of those interested in the profession are now turning to the local flight school for training.

“The last two or three years the flight school has been busier than it ever has been in the last 25 years it’s been here,” he said.

And in Manitoba at least, one group of pilots is growing exponentially.

About six per cent of commercial pilots worldwide are women. In Manitoba, 25 per cent of the commercial pilots working for regional air carriers are female.

“It’s signifiant and it’s pretty remarkable,” said Jill Oakes. “And I think we are going to get to 50 per cent women in the industry in the next few years, for sure.”

A geography professor at the University of Manitoba by day, Oakes is a relentless promoter of women in flight through her work with the Manitoba chapter of the 99s — an international organization of female pilots founded by Amelia Earhart in 1929.

Oakes got her pilot’s licence in 1979 and built her first plane from scratch, but she has also studied the impediments women face when considering an aviation career and has worked to introduce as many women as possible to flight.

“That research led me to form a team, together with the 99s, and we started offering free ground school classes and pre-pilot learner licence courses,” she said. The group later acquired a C-FLUG Cessna 150 — donated by Bill Vandenberg — that can be borrowed by women with a private or commercial pilot’s licence for $20 an hour.

“Women are getting their licence through cadets for example… but when they finish they have no plane to fly, and some of them are from families where they simply, truly could not afford to fly otherwise. It’s $150 to $200 an hour, and a person simply can’t do that for very many hours in a year and still pay all their other bills,” she said.

Access to the 99s C-FLUG allows women to get the hours they need to stay current or advance in the industry and is a big part of why so many women in the province end up flying for regional carriers, Oakes said. At least one woman who used the plane went on to become a licensed aerial applicator, she added.

“The local companies are saying, why are we only accessing 50 per cent of our resource? We need pilots, so we want to pick from 100 per cent of the pool, not just half the pool,” Oakes said.

But flying commercially doesn’t leave one much time for hobbies, said Pierce.

“If young people are getting into flying, most people are going the commercial route and they don’t have time for social flying,” he said. “And most of the young women who are getting into it now are getting into it as a career and they’re going for their commercial licences, whereas back when it started a lot of the farm ladies… they flew the same as their husbands did.”

Even so, about 50 per cent of the members of both the Shoal Lake and Russell Flying Clubs are still farmers and there is the hope that as new pilots mature in their careers they will eventually find the time for the organizations that keep rural airports alive.

“I’m not sure what the answer is,” Pierce said. “I love it… some people figure we’re crazy I guess, for the amount of flying we do, but I really love it.”

Dewar said that the love of flying can become contagious, once people are exposed to it.

“It’s a lot more relaxing than sitting in a car and having to stick on this 12-foot strip of pavement,” he said. “They talk about near misses in airplanes when they miss by hundreds of feet. You’re missing a car every day by about three feet on the highway and people think nothing of it. I just find it so relaxing.”

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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