Big Budworm Sprayers
Propliner 8 (December 1980)
by Stephen Piercey
Prepared by Michael Prophet & Ruud Leeuw
AS REPORTED IN EARLIER ISSUES, Conifair Aviation was formed in 1978 at St Jean, Quebec, by two French-Canadian businessmen in order to operate former Christler Flying Service 749 Constellation sprayer aircraft on lucrative spraying contracts in Canada on behalf of the Ministere des Terres et Forets (Department of Lands and Forests).
Three 749s, which had already been operated successfully as sprayers for nearly a decade, were delivered to Canada and immediately prepared for the 1979 budworm spraying season. The villainous budworm spread through forests, eating the buds from trees, and unless action is taken, they will destroy millions of dollars worth of valuable forest.
Mel Christler, the founder of Christler Flying Service, speaks so very highly of the Constellation in its "newfound" role. As far as he is concerned, she is the best of all the aerial-spraying platforms. And he should know, having been associated with some form of aerial spraying, or another, for the past 35 years. It is interesting to compare the Connie sprayer with other sprayers, presently flying with a large number of companies across the USA and Canada. A Constellation 749 (or 1049) spraying at a height of 150ft will cover an area 750ft wide, in comparison to a 600ft wide area by the Connie's closest competitors, the DC-4, DC-6 and DC-7. Other aircraft (Douglas B-18 Bolo, B-17 Fortress, PB-4Y Privateer and the DC-3) cover areas from 300ft wide (B-18) to 500ft.
During 9 years with the Connies, Christler used the aircraft for a large number of spraying roles throughout the US and Canada, namely the spraying of grasshoppers, budworm, range caterpillars, fire ants and mosquitoes. At one location in the mid 1970s it was possible to see four of Christler's 749s spraying, in formation. Imagine such a sight!
Stephen Piercey joined the Conifair and Christler team at Riviere du Loup in May during final preparations for the big spray season, which began during the first week of June. At the request of PROPLINER, CAPT JOHN RAY BOULANGER, commander of "Sprayer No2" C-GXKR, has described a day in the life of a budworm sprayer pilot.
THE STILLNESS of the early morning is abruptly shattered by the loud, uneven clatter of the two Constellations' auxiliary power units. A signal that another day on the budworm spray in the remote woodlands of eastern Quebec is about to begin. Making my way across the small ramp at Riviere du Loup, I glance around, checking the sky and weather. The shadowy figures of the ground support team scurry about in the darkness as they perform last-minute tasks. Flashlight beams probe the darkness beneath the two huge 749 Constellations as the flight engineers go through their preflight walk-around. A light breeze blows from the northeast, off the St Lawrence River, leaving no river fog to spoil our chance of flying. Everything points to a "go" situation.
Climbing the ladder to my ship, C-GXKR, I feel the twinge of excitement that comes from flying one of these large aircraft in an operation for which they were never originally intended. The Connies are rated as one of the most successful spray aircraft for this highly specialized operation. With the aid of my flashlight I crawl into the aircraft's tail section, checking cables, and finally, the oil level in the specially fitted APU. Satisfied, I make my way up through the cabin between the two huge chemical tanks and into the cockpit. A flick of the master switch instantly brings the cockpit to life, flooding the various instrument panels with red and white lights and enabling me to locate the power supply switch for the inertial navigation unit (INS). These units are the key to the complex grid navigation that has been specially adapted for spray operations. Using a guidebook containing all the parameters for the grid blocks that are designated for this year's spraying, I select the page or block number 204, our target this morning, and proceed to enter this information into the INS.
Once completed, the align mode is selected and the INS begins its automatic self-alignment procedure. This takes 15 to 20min, and I take the opportunity to have another coffee while it is underway. Back at our little canteen on the airfield base, where the team associated with Conifair is stationed, the other flight crews are drifting in and queueing for breakfast. As usual the conversation is centered on the weather conditions and the probability of flying a mission this morning. Circumstances are such that even if conditions at base are good, they might be quite different out on the "blocks". Two Piper Aztecs (our control/ chase planes for the season) are already airborne, over flying the blocks and checking on surface wind and visibility, factors which will help to decide whether the Connies will take to the air. I brief my crew on details of the upcoming flight on block 204. We discuss the spray load, distance and geographical data on the first flight of the day. The ground crews are already at their stations as pilots and engineers head for their respective aircraft.
Climbing into my seat aboard the Connie, I note that the INS has completed the alignment and switch to the navigation mode. Checks get under way to prepare the Connie for flight, the reading back of the lengthy checklists begins, and we proceed towards the start engines status. Cockpit conversation is suddenly interrupted by the voice of a control pilot, reporting favourable conditions on block 204, and to take on the first load. A flurry of activity begins beneath the aeroplane as the "goopers" rush about in their yellow rubber suits and facemasks, plugging high-pressure hoses into the underside of each aircraft.
Sitting up front we, feel the thumps as the spray load is pumped aboard, pressure-fed by pumps installed beneath the Connie's cabin floor. A knocking at my window draws attention to the load ticket being held up on a long pole. I sign it, confirming receipt of 2,800 imp gallons of chemical, which we will now proceed to dump on the villain spruce budworm. With all pre-start checks completed, our flight engineer calls 'all clear" and proceeds to start the engines in sequence. As the four huge radials warm up, we carry out the various equipment tests necessary before taxiing from the ramp to the runway.
Satisfied that all the specialized equipment is working correctly I release the brakes and taxi 'XKR into position. Once we are lined up the throttles are advanced to 30in of manifold pressure, bringing the old Connie up on her walking gear. One by one the engines are run and their various instruments scrutinized for any signs of a potential malfunction that could create problems during the flight. Take-off checks completed, maximum power is called for. My hands are resting on the throttles ready to reverse should anything abnormal occur during the take-off run. With a deep rumbling roar the four Wrights strain to put out the 10,000 hp required to get the heavily laden Connie into the air. Following the initial surge the aircraft accelerates steadily, using up pavement at an alarming pace. The co-pilot shouts out 105kt, I exert firm backpressure on the control column and 107,000 pounds of aeroplane smoothly becomes a flying machine. With gear and flaps safely retracted, the Connie is turned towards the rising sun and I check the distance to go to the initial point shown on the control display units of the INS. This morning it is the church steeple in the middle of the sleepy little village of St Medard, nestled in the mountains behind Rimouski, Quebec, on the South shore of the St Lawrence River. Five miles from this point we arm the spray system and descend to 500 ft. The INS is working well, and we pass directly over the church I select the grid mode on the INS and a steep bank to the right takes the Connie on a heading that will intercept the first spray line at a point about two miles outside the block. Half a mile to the block, I begin referring to the course deviation needle, which indicates the distance to the left or right of the line up to 750ft, while in the grid mode. Once lined up, I descend to our normal spray altitude of approximately 150-ft above the trees. The block lines are seven miles long and separated horizontally by 3,000 ft. The alert light on the INS flashes, advising that we are now within the confines of block 204. A flick of a toggle switch actuates the spray system and the chemical begins to spread out behind us in a wide swath from nearly 150 nozzles on the two wing spray bars. With today's load we manage to complete four lines and 2.3 miles of a fifth, before noting the distance, the line number and direction and pulling the aircraft into a climbing turn back towards the base, where we will fill up the tanks for another run. On a good day up to three (and sometimes four) loads can be dropped successfully before the sun rises too high, bringing on the inevitable turbulence that will prevent the spray from reaching the trees in its designated pattern. Ideal spraying conditions are no wind and an overcast sky. On the day in question we managed three loads, and as we headed back to base on the morning's last flight a mood of content spread through the cockpit, removing the tension that builds up when one is concentrating on flying at such a low altitude over the spray run. We dropped a total of 6,000gal, and that is considered a good day's work. The runway at the Riviere du Loup base comes into view five miles ahead, and it's time to slow the Connie to her pattern speed of 120kt. At this early hour there is no other traffic, and I line up with the runway for a straight-in approach. Over the threshold at 100kt, I pull back the throttles and the aircraft settles onto the runway. While taxiing to the ramp the ground crews and mechanics are busy pulling their stands and tools into position, preparing to take custody of the two aircraft. Most regular maintenance is carried out during the day as the flight crew rest. All flying is done during the early morning hours and late in the evenings. We have no major snags to report today, and I am happy that this should allow an easy day for our hard-worked ground crews, for a change!
All the necessary but bothersome paperwork is completed in the operations room, and we enquire about the blocks planned for this evening spraying. Leaving the Constellations in the hands of the maintenance crew, we retire to the canteen for a more leisurely cup of coffee, and to trade the inevitable stories that will always be a part of any pilot's gathering. Most of us will bunk out for a few hours of much-needed rest before lunch. Afternoons are usually free, and are generally spent relaxing, reading, or hanging around the aircraft teasing the mechanic.
Later in the afternoon everyone is on standby, and usually we get one flight per Connie towards the late evening. The aircraft are then serviced in readiness for the following day's operations. This daily routine lasts from six to eight weeks, with the weather being the main villain and slowing things down. We have had periods where the aircraft have not flown for several days owing to unsuitable spraying conditions, and this can be very tiresome. This year's spraying season ended on a good note with a terrific lobster and wine party, as all people involved gathered to celebrate another successfully completed. An early morning ferry flight the next day returned the old Connies to their home base at St. Jean, Quebec, where sadly, they are parked until next spring, when the spraying season again gets underway.
With special thanks to Tony Merton Jones, current editor 'Propliner Magazine'.