Ace of Ag: SD aviator operates rare ag pilot school
MADISON, S.D. — For $43,000 of tuition money and six months of your time, Morris Riggin can turn you into a certified aerial ag applicator.
He's taught dozens since starting at age 19.
Riggin, 56, owns Riggin Flight Service of Madison. The school turns out 20 to 30 ag pilots every year. It is one of only four schools of its kind nationwide. Riggin's flying history spans 100 years, with stops in Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Things lifted off with great-uncle Guy Riggin, who grew up with his younger brother William (Morris' grandfather) on a 1,200-head sheep farm near Devils Lake, N.D.
Guy trained to be a World War I fighter pilot and shipped out to Europe just as the Great War ended. As the story goes, Guy used his muster-out pay to buy a train ticket "as far as he could go" from New York City. That turned out to be at Havre, Mont., where he started farming.
"He always wanted an airplane, so as soon as he could afford it he bought an old biplane" for recreation and farm use, Morris says.
Big Sky Guy
While Guy farmed at Havre, William continued to farm at Devils Lake where Morris' father, Wayne, grew up. Guy taught his nephew Wayne how to fly. Wayne solo-flew at age 16 in about 1933 and soon acquired his commercial pilot's license.
When World War II came along, Wayne became a war-time flight instructor, working for a contractor out of Mississippi. After the war, the company looked into a new market — crop dusting.
"They said, 'We don't know anything about it, but would you like to hang around and do it?' That's how Dad started spraying," Morris says.
Wayne established Riggin Flight Service in 1947. He would teach other crop dusters — often ex-military pilots, with ground flaggers.
Before crop dusting became common in the North Dakota, Wayne spent summers crop dusting in Mississippi. He'd come back to Devils Lake in the winter to help care for 1,200 sheep and hunt coyote and fox from the air for bounty money. He sold the sheep in the mid-1950s to concentrate on flying.
In 1959, Wayne's airplane hangar burned, destroying all five of his airplanes. In 1961, Wayne moved the Riggin Flying Service to Milbank, S.D.
Morris was born in 1960, the only son with three sisters. When the family flew home to Devils Lake for family events, Wayne let Morris, 8, steer the plane.
"I was flying before my feet would reach the pedals," Morris recalls. "He said, 'You just follow that compass: Devils Lake is north.' "
Aces of ag
After high school in 1979, Morris took the airplane mechanic course at what is now Lake Area Technical Institute at Watertown, S.D. He sprayed at Watertown, then Milbank, S.D., and in 2003 took a summer stint as a bush pilot in Alaska before returning to work at Aberdeen, S.D.
In 2010, Morris was hired to manage the Madison Municipal Airport, and he could keep his flight school going on the side. Riggin Flight Service has developed a niche for ag pilots as the need has grown. Planes are getting bigger and "insurance companies really insist that pilots have some formal training," he explains.
There are other schools in Georgia, Florida and Louisiana, but nothing this far north.
"We fly in a lot of wind. You need to know when to stop spraying because of the wind and the thunderstorms that moves through up here," he says.
Conversely, ag pilots now increasingly are worrying about calm winds — temperature inversions, which can lead to drift damage.
Things are more complicated today. Now pilots often put five or six chemicals in a load, sometimes mixed in a specific order. Some chemicals require to be decontaminated for several hours before new chemicals can be loaded.
Riggin owns 13 airplanes, but uses three in his ag training school — a two-seat Piper PA-18 Super Cub, made in 1952; a Call Air A-9, a single-seat, made in 1966; and a Cessna 140, built in 1947, for instrument training.
"We don't have any new stuff for the school," Riggin says, grinning.
Ag pilot students must be 18 to get a commercial license. The current crop is from Minnesota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas and Oregon. Students typically live in Madison and fly every day when the weather is fit. The process usually lasts six months.
Students learn in "tail-draggers" — planes with a little wheel in the back versus tricycle gears with a nose wheel up-front. "The center of gravity is behind the pilot so it's actually kind of pushing you," he says.
Heidi Stoeppler, 27, who grew up in California, has been a flight instructor for two years. She grew up in the country near Bakersfield, Calif., and watched crop dusters treating almonds, walnuts and cherries, as well as wheat, corn and vegetables.
"I'd ride my bike out to watch them spraying, and they told me I spent so much time out there, they might as well put me to work," Stoeppler says.
Stoeppler loaded planes for that company, then moved to Montana to load firefighting planes. While in the Black Hills of South Dakota, she became aware of Morris, and he offered her training and an instructor job. She's hoping to do some ag spraying this summer, perhaps in Kansas.
Riggin uses the first 40 to 60 hours to qualify students for a private license. The next 40 hours are for instrument school. Flying by instruments isn't needed for ag piloting, but graduates require flexibility to do things other than ag work.
"Then we put them through the ag school, which is 25 to 30 hours," Morris says. All of this contributes toward 250 hours to receive a commercial pilot's certificate.
Instructors teach how to find the field, then scout the field for obstacles.
"You're looking not only for stuff in the field you could hit, but stuff a mile around — towers, and now there's drones flying all over so we want to keep an eye on those."
A GPS gets the pilot to the right field. Once at the field, the pilot marks an "AB line," essentially telling the GPS where the edge of the field is. The GPS automatically divides the field into whatever the swath width is, and the pilot tells it when to move to a new swath until the end.
Part of the trick is to fly low and watch a 1½0foot-wide GPS light bar, mounted on the cowling, and keep it within 5 feet of either side of the centerline. "That actually takes a fair amount of concentration and skill," Morris acknowledges.
They teach how to "fly low" — 10 feet off the ground — and make specific, safe turns, which is one of the most challenging parts. Turning a loaded plane involves a wide swing.
One of Riggin Flight Service's advantages is that it teaches pilots with the planes loaded with water. Students learn "emergency quick water dumps" as one of the counter-moves to engine failures and emergencies.
Morris says it takes a person with patience and attention to detail to be a pilot — especially the spray pilots. About 90 percent of the students who start the course finish it. Some aren't cut out to fly low or get up at 5 in the morning.
These days, more ag pilots are coming from the city than the rural areas. One student who didn't complete the course asked Riggin the difference between an alfalfa and a corn field.
"It's a lot easier to teach farm kids how to be a spray pilot than a city kid how to be a farmer," he says. "You do need to know a fair amount about the crops to be successful."
One dropout that surprised Riggin was a veteran Army medevac helicopter pilot who had a record of flying helicopters into "hot" war zones.
"I gave him a demo ride. We flew down across the field (one time) and on the way back, he said, 'That's enough of that: I've never been so scared in my life!' He got out the airplane, and that was it."
Riggin has two sons who are pilots, but they are in other businesses at this time. Commodity prices make a big difference in the returns for ag aviation, but that's cyclical. Beginning spray pilots can earn $30,000 a year. Experienced pilots can make $100,000.
"A few years ago when corn was really high priced, we were putting fertilizer on corn, micronutrients," he says. "Corn isn't so high (priced) now. We haven't sprayed any corn in two years."
There are 4,000 spray pilots in the United States — only a handful of women. The average age is 56 — Riggins' age. It will take 200 to 300 new pilots to replace them as they retire, and the industry is not keeping up. Riggin says he's doing all he can to change that. For information, go to " target="_blank">www.rigginflightservice.com.