The AGRI MAX: an all-in-one ground crew

New Zealand is a strange and beautiful country. We have seen wonderful glimpses of it in numerous films, including The Lord of the Rings. A country only slightly smaller than Italy (and curiously with the same boot shape) but inhabited by just 4.5 million people, of whom 87% are concentrated in the cities. A country that gained independence from Great Britain only in 1947, a country where agriculture and livestock remain traditional sources of income and where butter and wool production are still measured in quintals per hectare. Despite the country’s generally puritan and conservative culture (derived from the first Anglo-Saxon settlers), New Zealand has always been a pioneering country in many ways: for example, it was one of the first to extend the vote to women in 1893, and the first to experiment with “aerial agriculture” in 1906, when farmer John Chaytor used a hot air balloon to sow lupin seeds over his family plot! And it was in New Zealand after the Second World War that the practice of “topdressing” was developed, which involves sowing and fertilising crops from the air. The first experiments were carried out in the United States during the Roaring Twenties, when airplanes and military pilots were employed to spray insecticides onto crops threatened by swarms of caterpillars. New Zealand’s soils are low in phosphate and require periodic spraying of fertilisers to support the growth of forage and crops. Because pastures and plantations are spread over such a vast area, some New Zealand farmers had the idea (between the 1920s and 1930s) of using Tiger Moth biplanes to sow and irrigate their land. After some experiments, the idea was officially adopted by the government’s Public Works Department, using the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s enormous stocks of bombers and transport aircraft left over from the Second World War. This availability of a vast number of low-cost aircraft, sold off by the government, subsequently led to a booming private industry in terms of the production of new specific aircraft models and the hiring of air workers employed in topdressing. To date, over 112 aerial seeding and crop spraying companies operate daily in New Zealand with a fleet of over 230 aircraft of various types. One of them is Southern Aviation, which uses an Agri Max 75.10 as a ground crew for rapid resupply of seed or fertiliser. In this case, Southern Aviation uses a Fletcher FU-24, a light ground-attack aircraft developed in the United States, which has been successfully converted for agricultural use. The agile and powerful FU-24 is able to take off from makeshift runways, carrying a payload of over one tonne up to 350 km away at a speed of 230 km per hour. The takeoffs and landings continue from sunrise to sunset in order to make the most of the available daylight, especially since there are multiple plots that are often miles away from each other. For this reason, fast resupply on each landing is of vital importance: just like in Formula 1, every second counts! After landing, the pilot immediately turns the plane, ready to take off immediately once refuelled. Our Agri Max, equipped with a special quick-release hopper, approaches the aircraft and uses its extending boom to position the hopper over the special loading hatch, located immediately behind the cockpit. Within a few seconds, one tonne of seed or fertiliser is transferred from the hopper to the plane. As if in a choreographed sequence, as soon as the Agri Max has moved a safe distance away, the plane takes off again while the Agri Max fills the hopper for the next load. It seems easy at first glance, but there are established procedures and important safety rules to be observed, such as the distance of the Agri Max from moving surfaces and propellers, or the precision in correctly filling the loading hatch. Undiscovered impact damage, or leaked material that interferes with the controls, could have dangerous consequences both for the pilot and for anyone on the ground. Thanks to its off-road capabilities and towing hook, a further advantage of the Agri Max is that it can operate on the most remote landing fields, single-handedly pulling the trailer with the substances to be sprayed. Not all air companies have an Agri Max equipped with a hopper, but after reading this article, who knows…