formerly "The View From Up Here"

Formerly titled "The View From Up Here" this column began in the Liberty Gazette June 26, 2007.

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August 10, 2010 M & M Air Service, part 2

The Liberty Gazette
August 10, 2010
Mike: I began last week telling you of my visit with the Mitchell family of M & M Air Service in Beaumont, a very important part of Southeast Texas history, including Liberty County. Crop dusting has changed over the 65 years M & M has been in business.

“When I was a kid, we were happy if all we had to flag was 1,000 acres in a day,” says David Mitchell, vice president and third generation at M & M Air Service. “We got up early, climbed across ditches and fences, flagging our way across muddy rice fields, working late into the evenings. With today’s technology, GPS and electronics, there are no flaggers. It’s safer.”

Better education improves safety, too. Ag pilots receive considerable training and continuing education; a minimum of 20 units in the areas of pesticides and chemical applications every three years. Annual safety meetings and daily briefings are additional requirements, and special courses offered at conventions earn them insurance discounts.

These days pilots load “shape files” of fields directly into the airplane’s onboard computer system. With the ability to exclude an area from spraying, the pilot creates a flight plan. They may fly a race track pattern or parallel rows as they did when flaggers were employed. A data logger tracks the plane’s actual flight, heading and altitude. That information once downloaded, becomes a permanent record of what was actually sprayed.

New technology, says M & M’s Mark Mitchell, brought major changes to crop dusting that many older pilots didn’t exactly embrace. Charles Trickey, according to Mark, flew almost exclusively in Liberty County for 43 years, “but when we started using GPS and data-loggers in 1993, that was it for him. After 30,000-plus hours of aerial application, the system retired him.”

Another long time employee, James Fanette, began his career with M & M cutting the grass, then worked as a flagger, loader, and eventually a pilot. Following that he became their aircraft mechanic and inspector. James retired two weeks ago after 43 years with the company.

M & M now has nine airplanes, various models of Air Tractors, manufactured in Olney, Texas. Three are aerial firefighters in west Texas, two spray fields in southeast Texas, another is fertilizing timber throughout several southern states while others are spraying corn in the Midwest. Among M & M’s customers are the U.S. Department of Interior, Texas Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Bureau of Land Management. They also spray local area counties for mosquitoes after hurricanes and reseed burned areas for the U.S. Forest Service.

On a recent trip through Hartsville, South Carolina, David Mitchell met a pilot who said, “Are you from M & M? You gotta see this.” He opened the hangar doors and David says, “There was one of our old Stearmans, nicely restored.” Another of their Stearmans is still working fields in Sumter, South Carolina. You can see their #21 Stearman, the first airplane in Texas to sow rice by air (April 9, 1946), in the Chambers County Agricultural and Historical Museum in Winnie. Their #34 Stearman was donated to the National Agricultural Aviation Museum in Jackson, Mississippi. The last Stearman M & M owned was used for training until it suffered heavy damage from Hurricane Ike. Now completely restored, their sole Stearman will once again be ready to train another generation of M & M pilots.

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