AT HOME IN THE AIR
- Story by T.L. Petersen
- Photos by Chris Baxter
The biggest surprise Willie Maxon has encountered in moving his aerial field services to Union County is the welcome.
He can see it from the air as his bright yellow turbo-prop plane zips and zooms over the Grande Ronde Valley.
Maxon left the Tri-Cities of Washington three years ago after selling his aerial spraying business there. He came here because he knew Kemit Knight had stopped spraying with a helicopter, and he'd been contacted about growers here needing his skill.
So he packed his "spare plane," a Pratt and Whitney with a gas turbine engine. It's a better plane than one with a piston engine "for reliability," he says. He started flying from a small parking area not far from the Union County Airport, getting his son to help with details like loading the spraying tanks that sit tucked into the plane nearly in Maxon's lap.
And then there was that welcome.
Maxon started noticing, that first summer, that when he was spraying a field a process that involves bringing the plane down as low as 5 feet above the ground, releasing the spray and then quickly going up to bank and circle back for the next pass above power lines and anything else that might be in the way people along the roads were pulling over to the edge to watch.
He worried a bit that there would soon be complaints, such as those that had become common in the Tri-Cities.
Then he learned local people were just curious. They liked to watch the bright little plane do its work. He credits this area's still-active roots in agriculture and a general knowledge of what it takes to make the land productive.
Watching Maxon fly makes a person recall old photos and video clips of the barnstormers who flew tiny planes around the country decades ago, landing at county fairs with dash and daring, making those early planes do the seemingly impossible.
For Maxon, there doesn't seem to be that historic tie to the past. His motivation was much simpler than that.
"I've wanted to fly ever since I can remember," he says. "Since I was a child, I've wanted to be involved in aviation. I went to high school and college, and I was drafted in 1967."
Stationed along the East Coast, near an airport, Maxon had, before he completed his service, gotten his private pilot's license.
He and a couple of buddies bought a plane. When they finished their hitches, Maxon bought out their shares of the plane and decided to fly it home, across the country. There were days, crossing Wyoming, where the prevailing west-to-east winds made progress nearly impossible. He was once forced to land on a dirt road, far from anywhere, he thought.
But then a pickup appeared with a driver wanting to know if he was OK. He was, and was soon back in the air.
Starting into aerial agriculture spraying, though, requires more than just a love of flying.
Maxon has a commercial pilot's license and is licensed by each state he flies in. Plus, he has an agricultural flying license from the Federal Aviation Administration. He's been flying for 31 years over Northwest fields, 21 years out of the Tri-Cities before coming to Union County.
And that experience is what makes Maxon such a fan of his turbo prop plane.
"You've got to get in quick when the weather's right," he explains.
That means virtually no wind to blow the spray, and weather that will allow him a safe take-off and landing with a full and thus heavy load of spray mix.
It is loading the spray into the plane through a tube from the mix tank that separates the generations of the Maxon family.
Willie Maxon confesses, "I'm from an older generation. I assumed the chemical risk (of not using gloves and masks when loading or flying), and it's never been a problem for me." His son, he says, uses protection devices when working around agricultural chemicals.
Being his own boss for years has put Maxon's business administration college degree to good use. With fuel prices skyrocketing, Maxon has to keep all the expenses of an aerial spraying service balanced with what growers are willing to spend on the needs of their business. It isn't cheap to keep a plane in the air. But then, Maxon can do in less than an hour if the weather cooperates the work it could take a man on a tractor a day or more to do.
In one of the first years Maxon was working the valley floor, he recalls flying outside Summerville, aware that there were clouds building very slowly near the base of Ladd Canyon. And then the storm system started to move right over the Union County Airport.
Maxon headed in. He remembers finding a narrow aerial "alley," and being able to land safely. But it was close, especially with a still heavy load of spray making his plane less than nimble.
"All the emergencies I've had, I've been in a good spot. I've been able to get down safely, either onto a road or in a field," he says, turning the subject quickly away from the risks of his career.
He will make a bit of light humor about the advantages of the Union County Airport. His plane, he explains, has a 750-horsepower engine and can carry a 500-gallon load of agricultural spray. The weight of the payload is huge for a plane that the uneducated see as tiny and apparently flimsy.
For Maxon, the only issue is getting up in the air. In the Grande Ronde Valley, surrounded by mountains, "it's good to have a long runway."
Maxon, operating as Cut-Above Aviation, so far has developed customers who produce mint, grass seed, potatoes and wheat.
How long does he expect to keep flying and offering his services to ground-bound growers?
"I enjoy doing it, so long as I can make a living at it," he says. "I really enjoy this area. It's more ag-oriented. It reminds me of how more people were 35 years ago."
So when you see that bright little plane on a still day buzzing over power lines and fields, wave. Willie's at work.