We’ve all seen aerial applicators dance through the sky fertilizing our fields.
These small planes move fast and the pilots in them make quick decisions.
Obstacles in the way make it even harder to fly, and some are virtually invisible.
Garrett Lindell has been flying for 26 years. He and the six spray planes he owns cover a lot of ground.
“It’s about 150 miles north to south and 100 miles east to west,” Lindell said.
Over the years the landscape of that area has changed, especially with the increase of wind energy in the midwest.
The FAA requires the maps and GPS systems he uses get updated every six months.
One thing that isn’t on those maps, meteorological towers. They’re used by wind companies to measure wind speed and other factors before putting up a wind turbine.
Because they’re less than 200 feet tall, the FAA does not require them to be marked or lighted.
“I’ve had pilots that said they’ve come close to them,” Lindell said. “They sprayed a field and never did see the tower until its almost too late.”
The FAA also does not require the companies to tell the pilots.
“They can install them, they go up overnight, he added. “It’s just all of a sudden there they are.”
“I”ve had them sneak up on me and its pretty scary because there literally wasn’t one there two days before,” said Rick Reed.
Reed is the head of the Illinois Agricultural Aviation Association, he’s also the liaison between the wind companies and the pilots.
He says the conversation started in 2008 and developed over the years.
“As a whole they kind of blew us off at the start,” Reed said.
“Wanting locations was actually one of the first things we did,” he aded. “Followed closely by, let’s mark them.”
Reed adds that almost all towers in Illinois are marked in some way. Even when they are marked, they’re still hard to see.
“I’m flying 130 miles an hour and I said, ‘from the time I can see that tower I’m three seconds from hitting it. If I’m looking for it,’” Reed said.
The National Agricultural Aviation Association wants MET towers to be marked with at least seven alternating red and white or aviation and white bands.
Plus, orange balls to mark the guy wires near the top and yellow tubing on the bottom, along with another orange ball so pilots can see how far our the guy wires extend.
We found five towers near the Bishop Hill Wind Farm in Henry County, all were marked in some way.
Only one was marked in the recommended way by the NAAA. The other four were marked on the top third of the tower.
Orange balls were at the top on all four of those towers, only two had them near the ground.
We reached out to Invenergy, the company that owns the Bishop Hill Wind Farm, after several emails and phone calls the company has not responded for a comment.
The FAA declined an on camera interview on this subject but did answer email questions, adding that it supports marking the entire tower.
In 2011 it called for the voluntary marking of METs but that hasn’t been adopted into their advisory circulars, which aren’t legally binding but a standard for the industry.
Lindell and Reed both agree that the marking guidelines need to be adopted into the advisory circulars.
“They say, ‘well you think these things are so damn dangerous, how many people have died?’ You know that’s where it comes from because we have to put our attention to people getting killed,” Reed said. “That’s a strange way to look at it but that’s kind of the attitude you get. They can’t be that dangerous if you’re not hitting them. Well, we’re talented pilots and we’re very good at what we do. So far we’ve been lucky.”
Three ag aviators have been killed by METs since 2003.
“I believe the feds, when I say the feds I mean the FAA, need to get up to speed on this and find out how difficult it is for us,” said Lindell.
While the conversation between pilots and wind companies to mark the towers is good now, all eyes are on the FAA who says they’ll release more later this year.
“We need the companies to understand it’s a minor expense for them to make a major impact on our safety,” Reed said.
The NTSB also supports a nationwide protocol to mark the towers, and creating a nationwide database.
After many phone calls, The American Wind Energy Association did not respond to our requests to comment.
On the Iowa side of the river, The Iowa DOT says they’ve been working with the Iowa AAA and as far as they know each tower is marked in some way.
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