May 25, 2024

Amundson retires from high-flying career

Amundson beside his 750 h.p. Air Tractor. A new one costs well over $1 million.

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After nearly 20,000 hours in the air, Elbow Lake’s Buzz Amundson finds himself in “new territory” having retired from the agricultural aviation business. Amundson has been a spray pilot since the mid-1970s. 

Piloting a 750 horsepower airplane, full of chemicals and fuel, at 140 mph, two to six feet above fields ringed with trees, power lines and radio towers is a dangerous job. Seven spray pilots were killed last year, which is about the average. Amundson has had some close calls: he has grazed power lines, crashed on a landing in 2005, when the plane’s brakes when out, and he has hit ducks in the air.

“Its like hitting the wing with a baseball bat,” he said.

But, he says, it’s always safety first and a good spray pilot circles the field before spraying, noting any obstacles, or wetlands with feeding ducks.

He has never had a flying-related incident bad enough were he thought of getting out of the business. But, he said now it is time to retire and let the younger pilots take over. And since his wife Gail has also retired, from the nursing profession, they both are looking forward to getting started on their bucket lists.

For Buzz, that included NASCAR, visiting aviation museums and flying shows and, finally not having to work during the Flekkefest Fly-in, something he seldom has been able to enjoy.

Amundson started flying while at Elbow Lake/Wendell High School. He learned the basics from his dad, a retired military pilot, and took flying lessons from Lowell Ricks at the airport in Elbow Lake, where he flew Piper Cubs and a Piper Pawnee. Amundson took his first solo flight on August 4, 1969… his 16th birthday.

Knowing he wanted to be in the aviation field for a living, Amundson went to the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks for a degree in Aviation Administration. During the summer, he worked for an airplane spraying service in the area and got his commercial license, a necessary step to becoming spray pilot.

Following graduation in 1975, Amundson started flying for Elbow Lake Aviation, mostly spraying local farmers’ fields with insecticide. In 1980, he bought the business and tried to make a go of it for the next ten years. But times were tough in agriculture in the 1980s. There were bank failures, farm foreclosures, and some dry years… which meant grasshoppers, about the only thing farmers hired a spray plane for.

But spraying is expensive, and Elbow Lake Aviation took a hit, so Amundson took a flying job for Air Tractor, of Hillsboro, ND, where he worked for the next 20 years. 

The spaying business was going through big changes, developing more powerful planes, and using them for not only spraying insecticide, but fertilizer, fungicides, and even seed for cover crops.

There were also technical advances. Planes were equipped with GPS so the pilot did not have to rely on a flagman on the ground to tell him were to make the next pass. Chemicals were monitored precisely by computers that set the gallons per acre to be sprayed. Even though chemicals are safer then in the old days, with shorter half-lives, the business requires a lot of safety measures, and the pilots have to be part chemists as well.

With all this technology, and safety features on both the plane’s chemical tanks and the application process itself, crop spraying is much safer for humans, animals and pollinators than ever before.

“Farmers around here are good stewards of the land,” Amundson said.

Amundson has flown the last nine years for Carlson Ag Aviation, back in Grant County. He is a mentor to a number of younger pilots ,who will be taking over this summer. He keeps his license up and plans to get the biannual physical just like always, just in case they get behind at Carlson Ag and need a little help.

Then, it’s on to that bucket list.

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